Turned out, there was no other way into the tower. Mason climbed every wall, opened every gate, and tried every set of double doors as well as the main gate. Each one resulted in the same message.
[Error. Tower is locked with a temporary event. Please check again in 24 hours.]
"What did it say when you were inside?" he asked again when he reached Carl, Annie, and Alex. "What did it say exactly?"
Annie broke down into tears. Alex glanced at Carl, who took a deep breath. "It said the dungeon was going to ‘Mortal Foe Mode’ with some orc king. And it said…” here he hesitated, then shrugged. “It said it’d be locked until all the players or this king was dead. Then it gave us fifteen bloody seconds to get out. And maybe we should have just stayed but we ran. I didn’t think we were the right group for some orc king, Mason, we had to get out. You’ve gotta agree with that.”
‘But it’s Blake,’ Mason almost shouted. How could you all make it when he didn’t?
“Why didn’t he get out?”
Carl shrugged. “He ran too slow. Then at the end…he threw Annie with his power. He got her out.”
Mason just stared and blinked. That made no sense. It was Blake, for God's sake. Since when did he not look out for himself first and always? Playing the hero? For some girl he barely knew?
Finally he clenched his teeth, thinking there was only one answer, and it annoyed the piss out of him: hubris. Pure, unadulterated arrogance—the belief that somehow he'd figure it all out and come out stronger. A complete lack of reasonable, practical fear. The damned fool.
Mason stood staring at the tower, more impotent rage swirling in his gut.
"Mason?" Rebecca's voice. Calm and gentle. "We got wounded. Alex did what he could, but Garet and Tommaso can't stay here. We’ve gotta go back to Nassau. Back to the infirmary."
"Go then." Mason said instantly. He turned to the others. "All of you. Go back. I'll stay here and try the dungeon in 24 hours."
"Mason." Rebecca's tone wavered a little. "You can't help him right now. But you can help us. We need you. The settlement needs you. We can come back and try again together."
Mason growled, his rage desperately looking for something. Anything. But when he turned on Rebecca and looked in her big, green eyes, he felt the acid dry up on his tongue. He just stood there letting the heat cool. He had to be rational.
"We don't know when the dungeon will open again," he said calmly now. "Maybe it’s death, like he said. Maybe it’s not. Maybe there’s a secret way we haven’t found. I'll leave Violet at the doors. But we should cycle a player once a day at least to check. If there's orcs outside they can just...turn back."
Rebecca smiled and nodded.
"But for all we know it'll only be hours." Mason said, gut twisting. "We can’t trust this system to do what it says. You can all head out now. I'll wait a few hours then catch up."
Rebecca opened her mouth to speak but Mason interrupted.
"Only a few hours. I promise. If the orcs come back out, I'll run."
Rebecca finally nodded, then kissed him on the cheek. He wanted her to say 'he'll be alright', but she didn't, and he knew why. It was very possible he wouldn't.
The players gathered and helped Garet and Tommaso, both of whom had suffered a spear wound or two by the looks of it. With a last, somewhat shameful look from Carl, and concerned look from Rebecca, the players began their trek back to Nassau.
Streak glanced between them and Mason and sat panting in the afternoon heat. "You'll stay with me, won't you boy," Mason knelt and ran his hands through the wolf's fur, fighting the despair. "Just a few hours," he said.
Then, a few hours later: "Maybe just until nightfall."
* * *
Blake fled down and down into the darkness of the tower's underground. These orcs, it seemed, lived more beneath the earth than above it. The cut stone corridors, forges, barracks, and the dreadful sewer, became a massive warrens of burrower life.
Then the tunnels opened up into a giant, underground cavern filled with orcs. Blake practically fled in panic until he remembered his Veil power. A few orcs dressed mostly in rags passed by him without a sound or noticing him in the slightest.
He walked into the chaos that resembled some kind of open market. Here there were torches and lanterns blazing enough to light the place even to Blake's eyes. Cloths of many colors hung from different stalls, above doorways, and smaller versions on some orcs’s clothes. The creatures here came in a wide array of shapes, sizes, and even hues of green. In fact their color ranged anywhere from a lightish green to something more like dark brown or black, though the warriors above had seemed much more consistent.
Very few of these orcs looked like warriors. There were women and children, too, and Blake was rather shocked to see the women were damn near like humans, just with green skin, pointy ears and fangs.
Mostly what he needed was somewhere safe to meditate and regain his mana. Fortunately his Veil took very little to maintain, but it would reduce his passive regen even further. With no obvious plan yet, he walked slowly, inspecting the orcs as they went about their business.
A few of the stalls tried to sell him mushrooms or meat, animal hide or metal tools. He shook his head brusquely or ignored them as he imagined an orc might do.
It was all terribly fascinating, and he desperately wished he had the mana to start inspecting minds. But he supposed he should focus on the murderous orc king event created entirely to destroy him.
He didn't imagine there was any orc 'inns' around. And in any case he had no money or anything to trade, and likely shouldn't use one anyway. Would his pursuers check every house, every corridor, every nook and cranny until they found someone who didn't belong? Or was the king just waiting for him to attack? He had no idea.
So he walked along the tent city, looking for somewhere like an alley to rest and maybe eat and drink some of his meager supplies. Then he heard the commotion from the hall he'd come from.
He turned to look with everyone else as a crowd of warriors began filling the cave.
"Make way for the king!" they shouted. "King of all orcs!"
Blake felt his gut slosh with ice. He turned and moved in the opposite direction with as little obvious running as possible. Curious orcs flew past him, his eyes no longer comprehending his surroundings. He knew only he must get away.
Finally he found actual orc dwellings. Some were carved out of the stone walls, others more like tiny houses made from wood or maybe mud. Blake had no idea if he had enough mana to Mind Control his way into one and convince a family to hide him. But he didn’t see much else for choice.
But which house to choose?
He could hear the orc warriors coming, and almost certainly the king behind. He heard angry shouting and violence as they probably searched everywhere for Blake. He closed his eyes, turned in a circle, then walked straight at the random house.
It was a cut-stone version that led into the cave wall, and he walked straight through the entrance as if he belonged. He could smell something cooking inside one passage, so he turned down a different one. It opened into a narrow hall, then into several rooms all covered by curtains.
He couldn't hear anything and could hardly see in the dim light, so he picked one at random and stepped through.
Then he stopped and matched stares with a young orc woman sitting on a pile of furs. She was looking through some kind of orb in her lap that seemed to show the cave outside, the warriors and the giant king.
Blake looked from the orb to the girl, no idea what to say.
"I saw you," she said first, hands seemingly frozen on the orb. "You're running from the king, aren't you."
Blake activated Mental Influence, sending as much trust as he possibly could with what little mana he had left in his gem. He nodded.
"Good," said the orc, rising from her furs to reveal a lithe, beautiful body covered only in furs that belonged in a Conan story. "Then you're my ally." She stuck out her hand. "There's a secret passage. Come with me if you want to live."
Wrong movie, Blake thought, wishing he had someone to share his amusement with. Then he smiled politely and took the girl's hand.