Mason and the other players marched all day and half the night without stopping. Without the civilians to slow them down, the superior overall physical strength and endurance of the players had them covering far more ground. They also weren't afraid of being found by enemies, so they used flashlights when the light diminished.
Finally they made a fire and ate a large supper of town supplies and a few squirrels and something like grouse they'd caught en route. Then they set a watch rotation and settled into their sleeping bags. It was only a few hours to the open ground, and a few more to the fortress.
Mason shared with Rebecca, but out of respect for the others and with the knowledge of what they'd soon face, they just held each other and tried to sleep.
"I'm glad I'm with you tomorrow," Rebecca whispered, cuddling into his arms.
"I wouldn't have it otherwise," Mason said, doing his best not to let the feel of her amazing body get him going.
It took a good hour of thinking about bloody scabs and the worst smells he could think of, but eventually he managed to sleep without giving up and banging Rebecca's brains out.
He went mercifully without dreams, awaking just before the dawn to a soft, cold drizzle, and Streak's low growling complaints.
"I'm up," Mason groaned, "I'm up."
He found a few decent sized scraps of grouse, and gave his wolf a good scratch and pet as he fed him. He inspected the tattoos covering his arms and part-way to his chest, still not used to seeing them on his skin. But knowing how they camouflaged him, and strengthened his flesh, he certainly had no complaints.
He wondered briefly how he was supposed to help Blake and anyone else get a 'prestige class' like he and Carl had found in the giant worm’s lair. Could he just take the others down to the same vault with Violet's help? He sincerely doubted it.
It seemed like one of those kinds of dungeons that closed up behind you, never to be entered again. So that must mean there were other ways, other 'secrets' to find. Of course if the dungeons were anywhere near as dangerous as the worm's lair, how could he even bring someone he loved?
So far he'd been lucky, he knew. This new world was so damn dangerous. All it would take was a moment of bad luck or inattention, and a player like Rebecca or Blake...
He shook his head and tried to put the thought away. Just as he put away the thoughts of Gaia's Seed and 'immortality'.
"Coffee?" Rebecca pulled a hidden thermos from her bag and wiggled her eyebrows. Mason smiled.
"That's why I love you."
She failed miserably to cover the smile, and Mason supposed that was the second time he’d said it. God damnit, he thought, wishing he had the guile and natural know-how of dealing with women his brother had…rather than just, say whatever he was thinking in the moment. He felt himself flushing slightly despite the cool rain.
“I love you too,” she said quietly before he had a chance to back out of it.
"Alright then." Mason fought the stab of lust that shot down his body, grabbing the thermos. "Can I have my coffee now?"
"Yeah." Rebecca just kept grinning and Mason had to fight his own. He supposed if not now, then when? They could both die today. In that rocky plain or in the fortress after. He sighed and looked out beyond the trees, no desire at all to go and do this.
He wanted to run. He wanted to take the people he loved, and run, that was the truth. He supposed that's how he'd always felt. In all his end of the world, doomsday scenarios, it was always a kind of escape.
He planned for bunkers or mountain cabins, bug-out bags and hermit life. But was that the ending he really wanted all along? To escape civilization? To run away from everything and everyone?
"Where'd you go?"
He blinked and saw Rebecca watching his eyes.
"Or did you just really like that coffee?"
"I definitely do.” He laughed a little. “Just thinking about the orcs." He frowned and took Rebecca's hand. "Don't try and take on too much, alright? If your shield's getting low, you get the fuck out of there and don't be a hero. Promise me."
"Alright, handsome." Becky squeezed his hand. "I promise. I like you worrying about me, so I won't tell you not to. But I'll be alright. We all will. Just ask Blake."
Mason snorted, glancing at his brother still sound asleep, not a care in the world. "Blake could get a Titanic survivor to fly on the Hindenburg. You just watch out for yourself first, understood? If this all goes bad, we get the fuck out."
"Ow." Rebecca tugged at his hand and Mason instantly let go.
"Sorry." He took it again and kissed it. "I still forget my strength sometimes."
"You'll make it up to me." Rebecca winked then stood up and stretched. "Alright ya lazy mongrels," she shouted in an especially thick dose of her adorable accent. "Daylight's wastin'." She gave Phuong a gentle kick on the ground. "That goes for old men and foreigner's too."
"Ungh." Phuong sat up and scowled. "We're all foreigners now, Miss Rebecca. And you'd best be careful who you call old. Do I smell coffee?"
Rebecca laughed and poured him a cup, then was soon mobbed by waking players until her thermos was empty. "Alright that's it!" she finally shouted. "Greedy dogs. That's the last of it, now let's go I'm wet and restless."
Mason met her eyes and grinned and she rolled her eyes. Then the group packed their sleeping bags and huddled for a communal series of nods and back pats, otherwise silent about the fighting they knew was ahead. Then Mason led them out of the trees.
* * *
Mason turned and glared at his brother after the fourth time he'd asked.
"Still no. I don't see distance much better than you, Blake, so just keep your attention on the horizon and stop..."
"There." Carl gestured at a sort of mid-way spot between the fortress and Sanctuary's walls. "Hard to tell how big. But there's some kind of camp."
Mason followed the older man's eyes and nodded. "Alright. As far as I'm concerned, that's target one unless we start to find a whole army of orcs out here. Let's creep ahead. I'd rather not let them run and warn the others."
"Some of us...aren't very stealthy," Blake said. "Should we send anyone ahead?"
"Alright," Mason breathed. "Carl and I will loop around towards the towers. Approach them, then kill them. Anyone else a stealthy type?"
"Me? Sort of?" Tommaso cleared his throat and shrugged. "But maybe it's best if I stick with the group."
"OK. Ready, Carl?"
He nodded, then Mason activated Speak with Nature and touched the ground.
[Violet. Follow me. We're going to attack those orcs. Be ready to strike.]
He knew she'd understand and obey, so he left it at that and advanced, hunched forward so he could touch the ground occasionally and camouflage as he moved. Carl wouldn't be able to move nearly so quickly, so he kept himself to a walk, but he literally already couldn’t see the man.
Together (probably), they moved from rock to rock, high grass to the occasional dip in the terrain, eyes always roaming for new threats.
It seemed strange to Mason there wouldn't be more orcs in the field. If it was truly the tower orcs that had 'spied' on them and knew they were coming, wouldn't they send out a variety of patrols?
The orcs they'd fought in the forest weren't stupid. They were disciplined, trained warriors, clearly part of an organized army or culture of war. These weren't power-mad players who'd never seen violence before the robo-apocalypse.
So either it wasn't truly them who'd been watching Mason and the others approach. Or it was, and this was all some kind of performance, some kind of trap. But he looked at the camp and saw maybe fifteen orcs, with three of the strange lizard-bird mounts.
They were close enough to the settlement and the fortress to run and warn either, probably scouts or messengers of some kind. It was a perfectly reasonable military scout camp. So why couldn't Mason shake the feeling of a trap?
Because you're paranoid, he heard Blake's voice in his head. Yes, Blake, I'm paranoid, but that doesn't make me wrong.
He sighed and searched for Carl, who eventually appeared in some tall grass with a wink, picking at his teeth with a stalk.
"We going?" he whispered, and Mason nodded.
"Riders first. That's our only job. Once they're down, we can help with the others."
"Sure." Carl muttered. "Guy with the bow tells the guy with the knife to kill the cavalry. Worked great last time. I'll just leap on their backs Zorro style. No problem."
"Are you done?" Mason hissed back, and the older man pursed his lips like he was considering.
"Good because as soon as they notice Blake, we should be ready to...shit."
Two of the orcs pointed out at the plain, in the general direction of Blake and the other players. They shouted back at the rest, and the orcs were up and armed in a split second.
Mason lifted his bow, and ran.