Chapter 118: The testing
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The combined civilians of Nassau and Sanctuary voted for war. ‘They’d kill us too, wouldn’t they?’ seemed the prevailing attitude, and with something like apologetic and resigned agreement, they made their opinions clear. Mason rolled his eyes at the 'grand announcement'.

He still preferred just to run, but in his heart he knew it wasn't practical. He supposed when he thought 'run' what he truly meant was only taking those he loved the most, not a combined town full of people. But now when he thought about leaving the many folk whose names he knew, and the folk loved by those he loved, he began to admit: he wouldn't leave them, either.

So war it was. On the second day the entire collection of players met in the open courtyard to discuss their abilities, and plan their strategy. There were only a few Mason didn't know, or hadn’t seen in action, but he hadn’t seen most of them for very long.

Alex, Garet, Tommaso and the mostly silent Jason were all original players with Nassau and had fought when Mason killed the old chief. Alex and Garet he’d fought with and mostly liked and understood. Jason seemed much like Garet—just a larger polearm wielder instead of a reasonably-sized spear. But Mason had put an arrow in the man’s side when they first met, and they hadn’t exactly become friends since. Tommaso he hadn’t fought and honestly had no idea what sort of class he was.

Annie—the tiny, axe-wielding, red-head—seemed mostly (and somewhat surprisingly) a physical brawler. Phuong was somewhere between a melee killer and crowd-controller. Seul-ki was Seul-ki. And the only completely new person was a Spaniard named Mateo who’d come with a large group and carried a thin blade and…some kind of stick.

With Mason and Blake and Rebecca, it made for fourteen players in all. Very tiny for a military force, and certainly compared to their orc enemy, but then they weren’t simple soldiers. They were more like bloody superheroes. And according to Blake, it wasn’t going to be a straight ‘fight to the death’ in any case.

"This is a game, remember,” he’d explained when they all met to discuss ‘strategy’. “It’s not a World War Two style fight to the death. These creatures live in ‘towers’ that I’m willing to bet are actually dungeons."

"Wait." Mason had put a hand to his face. "You're telling me it's not actually like...a city, or a fortress, it's...a bunch of great trees? Portals to some other place? And that's the only way to stop them?"

Blake nodded, and Mason cursed.

"Great. Just great. So we have to split up. And we can't help each other."

Blake shrugged. "Maybe. Maybe not. We might be able to go in and out, or they might lead to the same place. Or maybe we only have to do one. But first things first. We actually have to get to the tower portals, and they'll be defended."

"Good." Mason had looked at the others. "I think we should stay outside as long as possible. Kill as many of the bastards as we can until they're hiding in their portals. Then we finish them one by one."

The other players nodded and smiled, but Blake blew some air.

"You’re not listening. There might very well be a never ending supply of orcs. I saw an awful lot in their minds, living beneath the earth. It might be better to sneak in. Hope we aren't noticed."

"I don’t believe that,” Mason said. “That it would just…generate more forever.” He’d said it, though he had his doubts. God only knew what this alien thing would do. But he shook his head either way. “We can’t just all go inside. We have to come out eventually and I’d rather have people out holding the ground. And maybe they attack our settlement when we're all inside."

"Fair enough." Blake had finally agreed.

But now they were all out in the center of Nassau in the most open space they could find. Every player waited with their weapons and armor or whatever gear or outfits they wanted to fight in. Civilians watched with curious stares from houses and streets.

“Today is testing day,” Blake stepped before them all and grinned. “We’ll need to form groups soon and we need to know everyone’s strengths and weaknesses. I know you’re all different levels and that’s fine. Mason has set up a little test for you, then we’ll talk about groups.” He clapped his hands. “If you’re all ready. Mason?”

Mason was voluntold to be in charge of ‘testing’. So he had come out in the middle of the night and set up an obstacle course, some target dummies made of straw, and finally a bunch of crappy wooden weapons at the end. Every player would have to go through, take out a dummy, then do their best to hurt him in a little ‘duel’.

He cleared his throat, pulled the first name from a hat, and winced.


The country girl went red as she stepped up to the obstacle course. It involved something like a 100 meter dash, getting passed some barrels and other barriers, destroying several targets (or protecting them from Mason, for the support types), then fighting him (with him using wooden swords) to show off their powers until they gave up.

Rebecca didn’t waste any time. She ran full tilt, amazing body on display in a clearly Haley-loaned gym outfit, through the race and barriers then covering the dummies in bubbles as Mason launched a few arrows. Then she dropped down to the open space opposite him and grinned.

"Well, this is silly," he said. "There's no way you can..."

Rebecca growled and charged.

Then Mason was parrying her disc as she swung it at full strength at his head. Her 'personal' bubble twisted and moved around her, and Mason began a loud series of smacking strikes against her that sizzled with arcane energy.

“Alright, farm girl, if that’s how it’s going to be.” He swung his swords in a circle and cracked his neck.

“That’s how it’s gonna be,” she laughed, then re-formed her shield and tried to whack him with it.

He went nearly full out after that, smashing with Predator’s Strike until his wooden sword exploded and flew everywhere. Then he summoned his Claws and made sure to strike somewhere it wouldn’t hurt Rebecca if he broke through. It still took a bloody minute.

Then Rebecca’s face scrunched up with concentration, her cute freckles and pink skin glowing as she roared in frustration. Then her shield flickered and popped.

"OK,” she said, panting, “you're too damn fast. But if it weren’t for all these folks around I could have made a pretty unpleasant boom!"

Mason winked and resisted staring at Becky’s heaving chest before he reached for his hat of names.



* * *


So the afternoon of ‘testing’ went. Mason could soon see the citizens getting more and more into the display, what looked like betting with desirable snack food, though he had no idea on what.

Garet shredded the dummies with a sweeping attack from semi-translucent spears in about a second. But then Mason took him apart, deflecting and getting inside his spear thrusts before ringing a good sword smack off his chest.

"Shit. Should have saved it," Garet mumbled as he walked away.

Mason was a bit excited when Phuong got called. He went through the obstacle course at reasonable speed, slicing the fresh dummies with ease before unsummoning his own blade and lifting a wooden sword like mason. Then he bowed, and grinned.

“Ready when you are, Master Mason.”

“Looking forward to it.” Mason grinned, then came forward with a testing swing.

Phuong suddenly moved like a man half his age, leaping back before cutting a pattern in the air before Mason had time to charge. The swirling blue trail launched in an instant, and out of curiosity as much as surprise, Mason didn’t even try to move.


[First Blood title activated: player stun resisted.]


Mason felt like he'd slammed his head into a wall, then stood next to the speakers at a heavy metal concert. He was blinking and trying to regain his balance as Phuong came leaping with sword raised.

But he could still move, and deflected it as he stepped away. The old man’s ever-present grin dropped with a scowl, and he came on slicing and parrying until Mason finally cracked a sword off his bald scalp.

"Are you alright?" he came forward but Phuong just shook his head and re-gained his grin.

"Just fine, young man. Thank you for the…vigorous duel."

Mason matched the grin and gave as much bow as he could without feeling silly. Then the testing went on.

Tommaso, as it turned out, was something like an adaptable rogue. He could transform his weapons, and even throw one in the air to fight apart from him for a minute. But he was still very low level and Mason put him down quickly.

The Spaniard, Mateo, was something like a duelist. Mason was reminded of the man he’d fought and killed before Sebastian—incredible speed and accuracy with a pin-point strike. But he too was just too low level, and Mason’s much higher stats ended things instantly.

Carl rolled his eyes when called. He warped across pretty much the whole obstacle course, then summoned a clone or two and gave up as soon as Mason went at him. “I’m too old and too pretty,” he declared, then bowed to the girls from Sanctuary and walked off flipping the bird to Mason.

It was all very amusing, but Mason knew the man was terrifying if he needed to be. Unfortunately he would almost certainly need to be on a different team than Mason to help balance the strength.

Finally it was new girl Annie's turn. She seemed reluctant to do it at all, but after a few words with Blake she ran and went through the obstacles like a nervous kid, right until she got to Mason. Then she looked up at him with eyes that didn’t belong on a young woman, and little hairs on his neck went up. She lifted her metal axe and screamed as she ran at him.

"Blake!" Mason shouted instantly, backing away as he leapt around the dueling space trying not to become firewood.

Blake was yelling something about happy places and calming down, but the young woman kept screaming and trying to rip Mason's head off. She was incredibly strong and fast considering her stature, and Mason damn near summoned his Claws.

But then Blake came forward with eyes blazing light, and Annie stopped dead in her tracks. Her face slackened and one eye started to twitch. Then she put down her axe and walked away.

Many people—both civilian and players—exchanged concerned looks. Whether they were concerned about Annie or what Blake had done to her, Mason wasn’t quite sure. But it wasn’t great either way.

"Well." Mason tossed away his wooden swords and wiped a little sweat. "Thank you everyone for your efforts. I think we'll call that a day."

Blake blinked and smiled, calling across the courtyard like nothing unusual had happened.

"Thank you everyone, we'll pick teams tomorrow. That will be all. Thank you."

When Mason and Blake were on their own in the courtyard, he looked around and whispered.

"I thought she was cute a few minutes ago.” He felt a little pain and noticed a small line of blood from where Annie's axe had touched his side. Blake glanced at it and winced.

"Tigers are cute until they tear out your guts. But don’t worry, I'll get her under control."

Mason gave his brother a meaningful stare, not sure how else he could explain the average person's terror of Blake's mind control powers.

"Is it worth it? You want her beside you when it's life or death? In that bloody orc dungeon?"

"She’s killed more orcs than anyone else, brother." Blake said, then frowned as he seemed lost in thought. "But yes. She'll be with me. And you won't be, by the way. We're going to need to split up."

Mason blinked but didn’t argue, thinking that was a terrible idea. There was little point in fighting until things were getting official.

"We'll pick tomorrow," he said, turning back to the hall and his girls.

"There's a kind of party at the Eatery tonight, as Hank calls it," Blake called. "Attendance mandatory! Bring Haley and Rebecca! Supper starts in a few minutes!"

Mason waved a hand, thinking again how little things had changed, even in the damn apocalypse. Here he was getting ready to fight another bully who meant them harm, and being summoned by Blake to some damn party. "I should have built a bunker," he muttered, walking back towards his room.

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