Garth carefully opened his eyes and found himself standing in the medieval equivalent of a bright conference room, with bright magic lamps studded along the walls and a thick, weathered oval table in the center.
Around the room were no less than a dozen humans of various nationalities, races and genders. Primarily male, older, and with an unsavory look. What does that say about me? Garth’s Intelligence was already breaking down the common denominators behind the scene even as he struggled to get his bearings. Older, more experienced, aggressive?
Garth was an oddball in that respect, though.
Garth only saw two women, one of whom was Leanne, strangely enough. The other was a rather lean redheaded woman, about thirty-five, with minor burn scars on her hands, that looked like she’d gotten them welding. She had a tough, dried leather look to her.
There was an enormous Mexican fellow in plaid, a Japanese guy missing a finger, Garth’s brother Jim, a skinny biker dude with no hair and tattoos all the way up to his scalp, a bearish looking man who would have looked perfect on the cover of a lumberjack calendar…
One thing everyone seemed to have in common was an alpha, overachiever, cream-of the-crop type body or mentality. ‘cept Garth.
Wilson bit Garth’s ear.
“Ow, shit! I told you to stop doing that!” he shouted, turning his attention to his familiar. Wilson was pointing at Jim. The six-foot-five, brown-haired, square jawed toothpaste model was watching Garth like he might grow horns and a pointy tail. To be fair, they were all watching him like that. There was no recognition in Jim’s eyes, but that was probably on account of Garth’s new skin and hair.
“Yeah, I see him. We’ll deal with it later.” Garth said, looking around the room. The biggest problem Garth could see was that his party wasn’t here, leaving him basically just a guy with a few amusing parlor tricks, and no real method of defending himself to speak of. There was a door at the other side of the room, and Garth considered making a dash for it, but he had a ton of unknowns between him and freedom.
Plus, something told him these weren’t the kind of people you wanted to show weakness in front of.
That was it, Garth thought. These people remind me of Harold. Why were he, Jim and Leanne here, then? There was a little more to this particular setup that he couldn’t make heads or tails of without more info.
Without warning, the massive oak double doors at the end of the room swung open, and a grizzled shinta strode in. The normally thin frame of the blue alien was packed with muscle and covered in a dull plated metal that looked a bit like aluminum.
Note to self, Find out if Aluminum became Mythril.
“Good morning.” The shinta veteran said.
Not where I came from. Where Garth had come from it had been almost midnight, and he was high and tired so Garth doubted he was going to be able to follow a word of whatever came next.
“I am General Kenra. You’re all probably wondering the exact reason you were brought here. I know the Inner Spheres Draft letters can be a little... brief, so I’ll try to fill you in. Please, have a seat.”
Garth shrugged and reached toward the closest chair when Leanne walked around the table and planted herself at the head, propping her feet up on the scuffed wood, at the center of attention.
“That’s one way to do it.” Garth muttered as he sat. Gotta make a scene if you wanna be the kingpin. The skinhead whose seat had been stolen clamped his hand down on Leanne’s shoulder.
“Get out of my seat, jailbait.”
Leanne motioned for the big guy to lean closer, and she whispered something in his ear. Garth couldn’t tell what she said, but he could make out the glint of light from a blade in her palm, pressed against the man’s inner thigh. The tattooed fellow straightened, glancing down at the knife to his crotch, frowned in a menacing way that suggested violence, then shrugged and backed away, taking the next seat over.
Apparently he didn’t think bleeding to death from the groin was worth making a point.
Looks like Leanne’s doing well for herself, I guess, Garth thought as he glanced around the room. It shouldn’t really matter, but it rankled a bit that he wasn’t the coolest guy in the room, despite having purple skin and a sharp tailored outfit. The big bearded lumberjack who sat down next to Garth must have weighed three hundred and fifty pounds, and was hovering somewhere about six-eight. The skinhead had glowing eyes, the burned lady looked like her hair was slowly burning.
Ah, an apostle of Hastia, Garth thought. That made sense, everyone here must be an apostle of somebody. It explained all the high-end personalities.
The lumberjack collapsed into his chair beside Garth in a casual, but manly way that said ‘I don’t always fight monsters, but when I do, I wear oldspice deodorant and smell like fresh cut wood.’
“God, I’m really petty when I’m high.” Garth said, shaking his head.
“What did you say?” Lumberjack said beside him. the man even sounded like he had a Swedish accent. Or Norwegian. Scandinavian?
“Nothing.” Garth said, shaking his head. “Talking to myself.” He offered the man his hand. “I’m Garth.”
“Nice to meet you, Garth. I’m Erik” he said his name in that accent where he put extra emphasis on the e, making his name ee-rick. Finnish! Garth realized as he searched his drug-addled brain. The Fin’s grip made Garth think he might not be getting that hand back, but a moment later the giant let go, apparently pleased enough with the handshake to give Garth an amiable grin.
“This is exciting, yes?”
Garth glanced around at the other hard-bitten men and woman settling around the table before taking stock of the guy. Mr. Eerik had a long brown beard, a long coat that he was even then shrugging out of, and a neck thicker than Garth’s leg. He was probably the kind of guy that had never come across a problem or person that had ever truly been too much to handle on his own. That kind of confidence was hard to fake.
“I guess it is.” As the wise Andre once said, ‘It’s not my fault I’m the biggest and the strongest. I don’t even exercise.’ Garth decided not to hold anything against Erik. Garth shrugged, reached into his vest and pulled out his half-spent joint, relighting it with a tiny flame he summoned just above his thumb.
Create fire at 4%, the new bic lighter. In the meantime Wilson was glaring at Jim with intent to harm. Garth would stop it if his familiar tried to hurt his brother. Probably.
“Alright. We haven’t much time. You are all here because you are the highest preforming Apostles from Earth for each god, and we want you to lead the rest of the iron rank soldiers in the battle to keep the dungeon from spilling over into the outside. While you do that, a party of gold rank adventurers will go in and destroy the dungeon core.”
“Why do you need us? I hear this sort of thing happens all the time without needing our help.” Leanne said, leaning back in her chair. The pose was full of machismo, but it didn’t quite fit her small frame. Garth could barely see her over the edge of the table.
“This is a particularly bad situation. A kipling who evolved into a Demon Lord is stalling for time, protecting the core and launching attacks on local nations, using it as a home base until the core finishes its work and strips the life of the planet from it.”
Eyebrows raised around the table, and Garth managed to hold back a series of coughs.
“I don’t have time to give you all a history lesson on a planet you’re never coming back to, but suffice to say a noble house got greedy and kept a dungeon going far past the legal limit. A rather patient, cunning Demon Lord found out and set up shop in that same dungeon, not announcing his presence for decades. When the noble house finally tried to remove the core, they were wiped out, and the dungeon was on track to destroy the planet. According to the family’s records, it had fifty-three levels, but with the Demon Lord’s influence that number could be well over eighty. Once the number reaches one hundred and one, we’re all toast. Once it reaches one hundred and fifteen, the planet is toast.”
“Why should we care? Skinhead said from his seat across from Garth.
“You should care,” the shinta said slowly, for his benefit. “Because this planet is the closest to yours. It lies just beneath your layer of the Sphere, and if this planet becomes a tear in reality, the Earth will suffer another round of dungeon cores spawned from the breach, be disconnected from the Inner Spheres, and most importantly, have a good chance of being drawn into said tear in reality, torn to tiny pieces and be jettisoned into oblivion.”
“That puts it in perspective.” Garth said, exhaling a cloud of smoke over the table, trying to pull a Gandalf with telekinesis to shape it. All he managed to do was spread the grey cloud around. His mind-fingers were still far too clumsy to handle a vapor. That and he was fairly stoned.
On the other hand, Garth thought as he watched Jim across the table, this isn’t going to be the sort of reunion I want to be sober for anyway.
The shinta general gave Garth an odd look and scanned the rest of the assembled humans.
“Now, if you wouldn’t mind giving us an introduction. Your name, your deity and a bit about your fighting style will be fine. We need to know where to put each of you.
Fighting style? Did he have a fighting style? Grow big trees and pound on ‘em? Run away until I know for sure I can beat them? Is being underhanded a fighting style?
“I am Erik,” the lumbering lumberjack stood beside him. “I am an Apostle of Terantu, the god of courage and battle. My fighting style…umm…I hit the white men with my chainsaw until they can’t move, saving my family. Then I went to village hall and used my fists to remove twenty more, saving the governor, who then led our town to safety while I stayed behind to lure out more Kipling. Terantu saw this and chose me.
God-damn! Garth thought, glancing at the big guy sitting down beside him with a placid smile. Left for a suicide mission and he didn’t think anything of it. Garth had the feeling he was going to be in heroic company.
“Jim Daniels,” Jim said, standing up.
Lemme guess, he led his football team to victory against the away team and saved America.
“Me and the remaining members of my football team-“
No fucking way! I was totally right!
“Used homemade spears and a line formation to kill hundreds of Kipling. Afterwards, we went to the party where my girlfriend and her parents were, and managed to rescue her along with the president of the united states-“
“and a few senators. That night I dreamed about the twin gods of fate, Elle and Markus.”
A few people perked up knowing the leader of the free world was still alive, but most of them ignored it. Zero communications means zero government, like it or not. Come to think of it, I’m competing against guys like that. They’re gonna know how important the mail is. There’s going to be fierce competition to be the only voice that all of humanity hears. I wonder if they have video in this magic world, and a way to transmit it long distances. That’s the only thing that’ll bring government back to the scale it used to be, and this time, I’m gonna do it right.
“Tyler.” The skinhead said, thumbing himself. Me and my boys stole some horses from a racetrack and ran down a bunch of the freaks. Juntei or jawntie or some shit said I did good.” He turned his attention to Garth. “You bring enough to share with the rest of the class, asshole?”
As a matter of fact, he hadn’t, but Garth had an idea.
“One sec,” Garth said, putting the remains of the joint in his mouth, popping open his bandolier and standing. Since all the attention was on him, he might as well introduce himself.
“My name’s Garth Daniels,” he said as he turned a B-B sized seed into a sprout, its distinctive leaves spreading outwards like hands.
“I lured a bunch of Kipling into my apartment and burned it down. Beladia chose me because she felt like it, I guess.” The pot grew up and outward, budding at an incredible pace.
The leaves wove themselves around the bud and dried while the bud shredded itself, disconnecting from the branches. At the end, Garth had in his palm what could only be described as a miniature cigar tree
“My fighting style involves plants.” Garth plucked one of the blunts and lit it with Create Fire, getting it started before he held it out to Tyler. The tattooed man lightened up as he reached for it, but his expression quickly turned murderous as Garth pulled the blunt back out of reach.
“Do you wanna die?”
“I want you to understand that I’m not your personal drug dispenser bitch. Be absolutely clear that I could just as easily make this into a poison that could kill you in seconds, or make you so hopelessly addicted that you’d offer to suck my cock for one more hit. So please Tyler, a little respect.”
Garth wasn’t sure whether or not he could actually do that, but he didn’t want anyone getting ideas about using him like that. Times like this you gotta strut your stuff a little to prevent problems later.
Tyler studied Garth’s face for a moment, he seemed a little more wary of the blunt than before, but he seemed to reach a decision before nodding toward the blunt Christmas tree.
“Can I get one, please?”
“’Course, Tyler.” Garth said, immediately letting go of the cigar, leaving it floating in midair for a moment before Garth drifted it toward him on a bed of mana with Telekinesis. Garth wanted the people in the room to find him as mysterious as possible, because if they knew that all it took to take him down was a couple well-placed punches to the face, they’d lose all respect for him they might have had.
One of the other things he did was to employ the con-man tactic of saying the mark’s name over and over to build trust. Garth didn’t really consider himself a con man but he would use every advantage he could think of to train the animal in front of him not to bite.
“Anyone else want one?” Garth asked as he and Tyler sat back in their chairs, looking around the room. Erik raised his hand, along with the Mexican and the fire-woman. He plucked and lit a blunt for each of them except Fire-lady. She did that herself.
“Is that you, Garth?” Jim asked, his brows furrowed. The usual look of confusion was on his brother’s face. Must be all the blows to the head.
Here we go, Garth thought, fighting the urge to climb over the table and pummel him.