Rosalita smiled as she imagined shoving Adele’s face into the burning hot stove.
Instead she slammed another load of dishes into the automated washer, muttering a string of curses. As usual, she was additionally angry she couldn’t use Spanish to hide what she said.
“Stupid robot translator. And stupid whore,” she muttered, aping a ridiculous face and voice. “You were a science student, what do you know? I’ve been a cook for five years.” She stopped the voice. “Stupid bitch. As if cooking isn’t just chemistry. You’ll burn the barbacoa while you smoke outside with your other stupid….”
“Rosa!” Lexi, Rosa’s best friend in Sanctuary, leaned over the counter. “You’re too loud. Someone will hear you.”
“Good. I hope they do,” Rosa said—rather petulantly, knowing it would be very bad. Then she stood up and wiped a few strands of hair back under her hair net.
“Deep breaths,” Lexi said. “Get that Latin temper under control, girl.”
“That’s not even a thing,” Rosa practically spit. “Fucking gringos. She’s just an idiot and she’s ruining two dishes at the same time, how am I supposed to feel?”
Lexi just smiled like she knew something Rosa didn’t. But she was good people and smart and usually right, so Rosa took some deep breaths instead of yanking her by the hair.
“Eat this.” Lexi spooned a bite full of the beef into her mouth.
“Not bad. Needs more lime,” Rosa muttered, and Lexi smiled.
“I knew you’d know. Just take a minute. Then come help me fix Adele’s crap like usual, and we’ll eat lunch and complain about her at our table.”
Rosa breathed, washed her hands, then went to prep vegetables. So far life in the post-tutorial apocalypse was mostly about cooking and cleaning. She’d been the first in her family to go to university, all the way to the University of Guadalajara. She’d studied countless hours in high school to get the best grades, to earn a scholarship. She studied physics and chemistry for two years, putting off boyfriends, hobbies, a life.
All so she didn’t have to spend her life cooking and cleaning like her mother and grandmother.
Now here she was. Cleaning up after a bunch of mostly spoiled brats. But at least she had Lexi.
Deep breaths, she told herself, you can do this. Just chop chop chop, and breathe, very relaxing, not Adele’s fingers at all, just carrots, and cucumbers, and…
Then she heard a bunch of shrieking in the lunchroom. She was concerned for a moment but soon recognized excitement and drama and not terror. She rolled her eyes and went back to the barbacoa to add lime and more chiles. What was with white women and hating chiles? Did they all just hate flavor?
“Rosa!” Lexi burst into the empty kitchen. She spoke so fast her words ran together. “Um, there’s some new player visiting and he’s got like a wolf? And he’s from a huge settlement that might take us in, and he’s tier 1 and a player killer but I guess Carl said that’s OK? And he’s ripped and young!”
“Deep breaths,” Rosa said with a cheeky smile, and Lexi put her hands on the counter and laughed, but still looked excited.
“He’s coming here. And he’s hungry. You’ve gotta finish fixing that before Adele comes in or he’s going to think we’re all idiots.”
Rosa felt her hands sweat a little. She checked the sweet bread, which was finished—then the horchata, which she’d already fixed and left to cool. Just the beef, then, which only needed a minute.
Finally she looked in the mirror. My God.
She was dirty and disheveled, wearing sweatpants and a stained t-shirt, the hair net of course topping it all off.
“Oh who cares,” she muttered. Whoever this guy was he was in a town full of women ready to throw themselves at the first piece of meat they saw. Rosa wouldn’t be one of them.
Of course if she was one of them, she’d bloody well win.
But she didn’t know anything about him and didn’t care. Except she did. Because… damnit why did she have to be so competitive?
Adele finally returned. Hurray…
“We have a customer!” the only slightly older girl practically sang, the stink of her cigarettes hitting Rosa instantly. “Er, guest? Whatever. Hey!” She stared daggers. “What are you doing next to my cooking?”
“Just lowering the heat,” Rosa said. “Since you were gone so long.”
“Yes. Well.” Adele took on her offended face. “There was a lot going on outside.” She came and checked the various dishes, giving Rosa a suspicions glare. “Don’t just stand there, get some things plated. He’s a giant. He’ll probably eat the whole kitchen.”
Rosa glanced behind Adele’s back to roll her eyes to her friend. “Come on, Lexi, help me take it all out.”
* * *
Mason did his best to avoid the eyes crawling over his skin. Blake, he knew, would be in heaven. He’d smile and wink at every woman who glanced his way, moving from table to table introducing himself with just the right amount of interest and detachment. Mason, frankly, hated the attention.
He just wanted to sit on his ass and eat in peace while he watched the room. Unfortunately he practically hummed with danger, was the only available man, apparently had glowing green eyes—oh, and he was being followed by a wolf.
“You might have to wait out here, buddy.” Mason put a hand on Streak’s head just outside the hall. The animal was licking its lips and practically vibrating at the smell inside, and Mason winced at leaving him. He turned to the group of girls smoking just outside.
“It alright if I bring the wolf? He’s tame. There won’t be any trouble.”
A severe looking woman, maybe her in her late 20s, looked between Mason and the wolf with unpleasant eyes. She smiled like it didn’t come natural.
“I’m so sorry. It’d scare everyone. And it’s…I mean we eat there, so I don’t think it’s a good idea to bring any animals.”
She gave him a scrunched up smile, like it was stupid that he’d asked and he was now being educated. And he wondered briefly what would happen if he told Streak to eat a civilian.
It wouldn’t be him, after all. And he didn’t strictly control the wolf. Anyway, it wasn’t a serious thought, but he was suddenly curious. Knowing the system, it would find a way to shit on him.
He knelt and sighed, activating Speak with Nature.
[Wait out here. I’ll bring you some food in a few minutes.]
Streak whined and kept on licking his lips, sitting in a very temporary, ‘I assume a few minutes is literally this right next second’ kind of way.
Mason smiled without enthusiasm at the resident Karen, and walked inside.
It looked like they had a kind of buffet set up, with an aisle at the far end of the building with various plates on a warmer. He didn’t see much food but started walking to it when a nearby girl rose up from her seat and got in his way.
“Hi! Can we get you something? You can take a seat wherever. I think the kitchen has Mexican today. But, they can probably make whatever you want. I’m Lexi, by the way.”
“Uh, hi.” The short brunette was pretty and seemed nice, but her energy and enthusiasm practically clobbered him. “Silvie sent me. I just need something to eat. Whatever you’ve got is fine.”
“OK, sure!” Lexi practically jumped into the air. “I’ll go tell them. My name is Lexi. Oh I guess I said that already!”
Then she was off and running before he said “Nice to meet you,” and he looked around the lunchroom with no idea where to sit. He picked the closest table with no one there.
In less than a minute, he’d never missed having a phone or a book so much in his life. All around the room female eyes wandered before their owners hunched together and whispered. He tried staring at the table or a window, then decided just to pull up his profile.
Nothing much had changed there either. He was considering going over all the details of his titles when Karen the smoker walked by him with that same fake smile. She put her hand on his table, like suddenly she was his friend.
“I'll go take care of the food for you.”
He supposed he should have told her someone was already on it, but really didn't want to talk to her more than a second longer than necessary. So he just said nothing and waited.
Other girls came into the cafeteria in twos and threes, avoiding him but peeking like school girls, which he supposed they largely were. A lot of them were attractive, and he supposed normal men would kill for the attention. Mostly he thought about Rebecca and Haley naked.
But his private fantasy was interrupted by his increasingly sensitive hearing—first some feminine shrieking, then arguing in the back of the hall.
Finally a dark skinned Mexican girl came out of the kitchen. She looked like she’d just come from the gym, the curves of her hips testing the very limits of the fabric. And potentially physics.
Her thick, black hair made her hairnet look like a yamaka, and she blew at several stray strands. She turned her dark eyes on Mason and stopped walking, and they both stared, the girl with her hands full of plates. Mason realized his breath literally caught in his throat.
Then energy-filled Lexi jabbed the black haired beauty with an elbow, and she came back to life. Together they crossed the room, smiling politely when they reached his table.
"Here you are, sir," said the Mexican beauty, her accent sexy as hell. "This is called barbacoa—spicy beef with lime—with rice and refried beans.” She set it down and when the scent hit Mason he had to swallow a mouthful of drool.
“I’m from Texas, ma’am,” he said. “I know my Mexican food. And it smells incredible.”
The ‘waitress’ smiled and set down plates and cutlery and a couple other dishes, leaning over him as she tried to set it all down. Her Catholic cross and her cleavage took turns dangling in his face, and he couldn’t tell if it was on purpose or if she was just oblivious.
She looked a little embarrassed, but not at all timid.
"Can we get you anything else?"
“No, thank you ma’am,” he said, feeling like he was back home.
He went to eat, then she turned and walked back towards the kitchen, and he froze solid with the spoon halfway to his mouth. Her ass was as ridiculous as her hips. Perky and bubbled seemed inadequate words.
Mason blinked and cleared his throat, suddenly remembering he was being inspected and obviously busted. He took a very deliberate bite, then blinked as the taste hit his tongue.
Maybe it was all the times he’d nearly died, or a few days eating nothing but rations—but it was the best Mexican dish he'd tasted in his life. For several, glorious seconds, he just chewed, and disappeared.
More shrieking and arguing from the kitchen broke the moment.
"I am not feeding an animal my gourmet cooking!" Apocalypse Karen’s voice was unmistakable.
"First of all, you still aren't.” So was the sexy Mexican girl’s. “You made a lousy batch of garbage, and I barely managed to save it because thank God you were gone so long. And second, this is a cafeteria, and he's our guest, and his animal is hungry. So I'm going to give him this beef, and there's nothing you can do about it. OK? OK."
Mexican girl and Karen come out walking in lock step, Karen red faced and looking ready to complain to someone's manager. Mason did his best to hide his grin as the women approached his table.
"Mister? I can hear your dog outside there, is this OK for him?" She showed the beef, and Debbie/Karen stared with crazy eyes, struck silent for the moment.
"You'll be his friend for life." Mason said. "You sure you want that responsibility?"
The girl rewarded him with a wide smile, which was infectious and just as beautiful as her. For a moment Mason couldn't help but smile right back. Then (continuing to ignore Karen), the girl walked outside and knelt in front of Streak (yet again displaying that ridiculous, eye capturing bottom), offering the plate, and giving Streak a fearless pat and scratch.
Since good manners and gratitude weren't really the way of hungry wolves, Streak ceremoniously buried his face into the meat.
"This is my kitchen," Debbie was saying outside. "I'm going to Silvie and telling her I don't want you anywhere near it from now on!"
"Don't bother," the girl said, pulling off her apron and net, that thick, glorious black hair falling around her shoulders. "You, puta, can go fuck yourself, and your stupid fucking little kitchen. I quit."
Mason snorted a gulp of water.
Lexi, standing near his table, covered her mouth with her hands. "That's Rosa," she said with a giggle. "She's the best."
Yes, Mason agreed, looking at the stunned Karen with a grin, then the gorgeous girl as she walked away. Yes I expect she is.
* * *
Feeling full and rather content, Mason gave Carl and Silvie a good forty minutes. Then he walked back to the gate with Streak, both of them stuffed and leaning sleepily against the stone wall.
"I know," he said as the wolf whimpered. "I ate too much too." It looked at him sidewise, as if it understood his words yet the concept was completely foreign. Finally a red-faced Carl was crossing the street, covered in knives and various bags like he was that midget guy from the Tolkien movie, going on some grand adventure.
"You're late," Mason said without tone. Carl cleared his throat.
"Shall we? I've brought some supplies for us both. If you don't mind carrying a little."
"Just give me that." Mason lifted the heavy bag like it was nothing, tossing a strap over his shoulder. "Try and keep up, yeah? I'll start fast and see how you do."
Fortunately for Carl, Mason felt a little like throwing up, and kept his speed to a minimum.
They left Sanctuary with a blissfully minimum of goodbyes or fuss, and were out on rocky hills in a few minutes.
"You had a good rest?" Mason asked once they’d got into a rythym.
Carl grinned. "She damn near killed me. Phase 2 is real."
Mason chuckled, not bothering to say ‘it hasn’t even started yet’. Instead he put all his will into fighting sweaty, naked images of his girls from cycling through his brain.
"I heard you met Rosa,” Carl said with a hard to read tone.
"Do you people share some kind of hive mind?" Mason glanced at him with narrowed eyes.
"Word moves fast,” Carl laughed. “She's something special, that one. I call her Lucie, for luciernaga. Means firefly in Spanish. Wait did that translate and mean I said it twice? I still don’t get how this all works."
Mason smiled. He spoke a fair amount of Spanish so he actually heard the correct word as opposed to the translation most of the time. "Seems like she could handle herself alright."
"Saved a lot of the girls in the tutorial. Not a lot of math geeks in the group, but I guess she is. Half the problems were related to physics. Smart. Beautiful. Doesn't even know what a catch she is."
Mason shook his head. “I’ve got enough problems.”
“I thought you were the problem solver.” Carl winked.
Mason wasn’t sure what to say to that, and they jogged for awhile in comfortable silence.
It still felt slightly strange to be out of the endless trees, but also rather good. Mason savored the ability to actually see. He didn’t much like seeing that looming, black fortress on the horizon, of course, silent and imposing across a barren stretch of rock. But different at this point was a good thing.
But all natural terrain just felt right to him now. He could feel the ground, hear the different angles and temperatures of wind, the growing life around him. It was hard to explain, yet still true.
A little while later his ears perked at a familiar sound, and he looked to the sky to find crows circling not far in the distance. Even a hunter of the old world knew crows meant death.
“That way,” Mason said, and ignored Carl’s questioning behind.
He ran them at a quarter speed or so, until Streak hunched and flattened his ears as he growled. Mason dropped his bags, and held out a hand for quiet.
“What is it?” Carl whispered.
“I’m not sure. Maybe a worm. But something feels…off.” Then Mason’s Claw was in his hand. He felt a terrible danger here and knew the lair was close. And there wasn’t any trees to climb. He tried and failed to decide what to do.
“You might want to go back, Carl. I don’t know what’s coming and I can’t protect you from these things.”
“Ain’t doing that kid,” Carl said bravely. “And I still don’t see anything.”
“It’s here,” Mason said, absolutely sure now at the vibrations he felt in the earth. “Be ready for anything.”
He took light steps forward, listening and feeling at every new spot. Streak was growling and looking back and forth, then he started barking.
That was different.
Mason activated his Trapmaking and tossed them in a triangle around their position. But it didn’t make him feel any safer.
The ground started to shake.
“There!” Carl said. “I feel something!”
Mason felt more than something. It was like a damn earthquake was slowly picking up speed.
It was time to run.
He turned to go back, his senses moving out ahead of him beneath the ground, painting a terrible picture of pointlessness.
“Too late,” he muttered, feeling like an animal trapped in a snare.
All around them, the ground cracked and broke. A sinkhole the size of a downtown building opened like a gaping maw, dark and deep and impossible.
Text floated in the darkness before Mason’s eyes.
[Now entering hidden dungeon: The Great Devourer’s lair.]
The fall felt oddly familiar. Unlike the start of all this madness and the tutorial, this time meant death for good, but he’d always treated it that way.
Mason bent his knees, held his bow and Claw to his chest, and fell in silence. Carl screamed the whole way down.