Jason sat on the bottom stair of the chamber while Farrah removed the collars from Rufus and Gary. His whole body was wracked in pain after using the last of his mana to conjure the cloak and float down from the top of the chamber.
“Explain something to me,” Jason said. “If you can do…”
He gestured at the sections of wall and floor melted by lava.
“…that, then how did they catch you in the first place?”
“Ambush,” Rufus said. “We were meant to resupply and get information from a local contact. Instead, he set us up for capture.”
“We’re going to go find him,” Gary said.
“And have a sizzling conversation,” Farrah added.
“But first,” Rufus said, “we have to get back to the Vane Estate. They still have Anisa and I’m concerned about the cultists that Jason lured away. If they left because they saw the tides turning, they’re probably heading back to the Estate.”
“You think they’ll use Anisa as a hostage?” Gary asked.
“Possibly,” Rufus said. “They might take her for leverage, or worse.”
After the collars were removed, Rufus and Gary started stretching like they’d just woken up. Farrah, in the meantime, held her hand out over the ground and chanted something quietly. It was a short chant, only a few words. When she was done, a large chest made of dark brown stone rose out of the ground. It didn’t break through the floor, instead rising up through it, like a ghost. Farrah pushed open the hinged, heavy lid and took out fresh clothes for herself, Gary and Rufus. They all started changing clothes, having no qualms stripping down to their underwear in front of Jason or each other.
Jason glanced surreptitiously at the three of them. Rufus and Farrah had the bodies of Olympic athletes; lean muscle filled with the power of coiled springs. Gary was so huge he made bodybuilders look like they were still under construction. His wild mane and leonine features completed his majestic appearance. Jason didn’t know what passed for handsome in Gary’s species, but he suspected Gary was it.
“Why am I the only one who isn’t super good-looking?”
“What?” Rufus asked, looking over as he pulled on a shirt.
Jason thought back to the beautiful Cressida Vane, standing next to the ordinary-looking high priest Darryl, and was struck by an unpleasant revelation.
“I’m the Darryl,” he said disconsolately.
“What are you talking about?” Rufus asked.
“Doesn’t matter,” Jason said, shoulders slumping gloomily.
“Clothes are fine,” Farrah said, “but we need to get our gear back.”
“I just hope the ones who left didn’t go back to the manor and swipe it all,” Gary said.
Watching the others change clothes reminded Jason that he had completed the quest to get a shirt. He’d forgotten because that was two cages and a shovel to the head ago. He stood up and pulled the shirt from his inventory, discovering it was plain, white T-shirt, complete with what looked like machine stitching. Holding it out in front of him, he read the text printed on the front.
I WENT TO A MAGICAL ALTERNATE UNIVERSE AND ALL I GOT WAS VAST COSMIC POWER.
Jason shook his head.
“This must be what insanity feels like.”
“What does it say?” Gary asked, moving up to examine the shirt.
“You can’t read this?” Jason asked.
“It’s not in any language I know,” Gary said.
“Probably for the best,” Jason said as he pulled on the shirt.
- You have equipped [Starting Gear] outfit. Outfit tab has been added to your inventory.
“What?” Gary asked.
“Nothing, never mind.” Jason said.
Jason checked his inventory, which now had a second screen he could access with a tab at the top labelled ‘outfits’. Jason was now used to navigating the screens with a thought and opened the new section. It showed a silhouette with various slots for equipment, most of which were empty. There was also a column to the left, empty aside from two entries. The first was listed as ‘starter gear’, the second as ‘new outfit’.
“How does that work,” he muttered to himself.
- You can designate sets of gear as outfits, allowing you to quickly switch between them. Outfits can be modified by adding or removing items from item slots. An outfit can only be equipped so long as all items in that outfit are in the inventory or already equipped.
He noticed the others were all watching him stare into the distance and mumble to himself.
“You alright there, Jason?” Gary asked.
“Sure,” Jason said. “Actually, now you say it…”
He’d been pushing through on a potent mix of panic and adrenaline, but now the immediate threat was gone he was starting to crash. His wooziness came back, his vision going dark and blurry. He stumbled forward, dropping to his hands and knees as his empty stomach again tried to heave out what wasn’t there. The next thing Jason knew, something was being splashed over his face.
Sputtering awake, he was helped into a sitting position and a glass bottle was shoved into his hands.
“Drink it,” Farrah said. “It’s just water. You can’t take any potions for at least a couple of hours.”
As Jason slowly sipped at his water, he looked over the icons he could see at the edge of his vision. The health silhouette showed a warning yellow all over, with a more ominous orange on his head and mid-section. The potion cooldown icons were also present, but were completely greyed out. There was an icon for the mana toxin, with more than two hours listed under it.
While Jason was taking stock of his miserable condition, the others were recovering theirs with stamina potions from the magic chest. After drinking his, Rufus made a sour face.
“Oh, that was sickly. What happened to the other potions?”
“Gary chose the flavour,” Farrah said.
“I think it’s nice,” Gary said defensively.
“Me too,” Farrah said. “Rufus only likes things when they’re bitter.”
After letting him rest awhile, Gary pulled Jason easily to his feet. Jason wavered and Gary held him upright until the dizziness passed.
“Thanks,” Jason said. “I’ve passed out… three? Four times today? I think my brain might be bleeding.”
“We can’t use potions on you any time soon,” Farrah said, “but once we get Anisa back, she can heal you.”
“What are we waiting for, then?” Jason said.
They left the chamber through the huge stone doors. Jason glanced back at the space he had hidden in behind one of them. The tunnel was surprisingly long, carved directly out of the stone.
“Who made this tunnel?” Jason asked. “It must have been a tough job.”
“Wouldn’t be that hard,” Farrah said. “Construction magic would make it a straightforward process.”
She looked up and down the extensive length of the tunnel.
“Might have taken a while, though,” she acknowledged.
They emerged from a gap that, at a distance, would have looked like a natural crevice. They were on the gentle slope of the lower portion of a mountain that tapered up to a towering height. The upper reaches were black and lifeless, while the lower portions turned to yellow stone and red earth, with patchy coverage of dry, yellow grass. There was a wagon outside the tunnel, wheels chocked to stop it rolling down the slope. It had a yoke for animals, but the harness was cut and the animals were gone.
“Did they scatter the horses so we couldn’t use the wagon?” Jason asked.
“What are horses?” Gary asked.
“You’ve never heard of horses?”
The other three shook their heads.
“Then what was pulling the wagon?” Jason asked.
“Heidels,” Gary said.
“What’s a heidel?”
“It’s a work animal, the kind you see everywhere,” Gary said. “They pull wagons, carry packs. You can ride them. I can too, but you can tell they don’t like it.”
“Maybe the name is just different,” Jason said. “Four legs, hooves?”
“Sounds right,” Farrah said.
“Long body,” Jason continued, “long head.”
“Heads,” Gary corrected.
“Heads?” Jason said. “As in more than one?”
“Yeah, two heads, scales, horns…”
“That sounds horrifying,” Jason said. “We are definitely not talking about the same animal.”
“The animal doesn’t matter if there aren’t any here,” Rufus said. “Which means we start walking.”
Jason looked down the slope, getting a panoramic view of the land below. It was a flat, dry landscape of sandy yellows and sober reds, punctuated by withered grass or spiky scrub. Every so often, a low tree with sparse foliage would jut reluctantly up from the barren earth. The sun hammered relentlessly down over all of it, but the arid air was almost pleasant after the cloying humidity of the sacrifice chamber.
The climate bore no resemblance to the moderate warmth and lush greenery he had experienced in the hedge maze. Even the heat had felt different there, more pleasantly warm than this unforgiving desert air. He remembered looking at the world map, a warped, but not entirely different globe to the one with which he was familiar. It marked his position as being in the Kalahari Desert, which matched the terrain now before him.
They started down the slope, Gary in the lead. He was wearing loose clothing to let air flow through, along with a hood to shield him from the sun. The others were wearing more fitted clothes but didn’t appear discomforted.
“They brought us here while I was unconscious, right?” Jason asked.
“That’s right,” Rufus said.
“How long was I knocked out for? This is very different from the place we were before.”
They all turned to look him with curiosity.
“The Vane Estate was using climate magic,” Farrah said. “Didn’t you notice when you went there in the first place?”
“Actually, how did you get involved with all this?” Rufus asked. “Now that we have time to talk.”
“Um, I think I might have been summoned,” Jason said. “Not on purpose, obviously. I mean, who’d summon me? I went to bed, which was last night, as far as I know, and woke up in the middle of the Vane family hedge maze. I sort of stumbled around for a bit until I found one of the residents, and from what I gather he was trying to summon something and got me instead. He called me something that sounded specific. I don’t remember what, exactly. ‘Other-worlder,’ maybe?”
“Outworlder?” Rufus suggested.
“Sounds right,” Jason said. “Is that what the name suggests? Is this really a whole different world?”
“We’ve always been in this one,” Rufus said. “You’d have to tell us if it’s different enough from where you came from.”
Jason thought about the flying eels and leech monsters, people throwing around magic chains and streams of lava. Healing potions, reading languages he’d never seen before. The magic powers he’d used for himself. All of it was impossible.
“It’s definitely different enough,” Jason said. “My world has its share of strangeness, but this is a whole different kind of strange. Some things are weirdly the same, though. Like hedge mazes, and people named Gary. I have a cousin named Gary. Not as tall as you, Gary, but almost as hairy.”
“He’s a leonid?” Gary asked.
“I think it’s a glandular thing. We don’t have leonids on my world.”
“I’m not well versed in astral magic,” Farrah said. “I’ve heard of outworlders, but it isn’t my field of expertise.”
“Alternate realities maybe,” Jason said. “Some things are the same, others different. If that’s what this is, then this world diverged from mine a very long time ago. The continents are different, but not completely. The fundamental physical laws here have some interesting addenda. My world doesn’t have magic, at all. Or a second moon. I did see a second moon, right?”
“Your world only has one moon?” Gary asked. “That’s weird.”