They continued walking through the stony desert. There was a rough trail to follow back to the manor, and Jason’s map ability had apparently been plotting locations, even when he was unconscious. The hard ground was uneven but not too difficult to walk on.
There was a stash of water bottles in Jason’s inventory, provided from Farrah’s own magical storage space. The pounding heat was not helping Jason’s condition and he emptied one bottle after another.
Jason was grateful they were walking over dry, hard earth instead of trudging through endless sand dunes. His knowledge of African geography was limited but he’d seen a documentary about Namibia’s Skeleton Coast once. From what he could remember, things got very sandy there. Of course, it could be a completely different in another world.
The others helped introduce him to their world as they marched on.
“What I don’t understand,” Jason said, “is why I have abilities that I never had before. Is it because my world doesn’t have magic, but this one does?”
“I’m not sure,” Farrah said. “I don’t know much about outworlders.”
“I’d never heard of them before this,” Gary said, “so don’t look at me.”
“I’ve met some before,” Rufus said, prompting groans from Gary and Farrah.
“What?” Rufus asked.
“Of course you have.” Gary complained.
“What’s wrong with that?” Rufus asked again.
“Your childhood friend is the Crown Princess of Vitesse,” Farrah said.
“This again?” Rufus asked. “It’s not my fault who my parents chose to socialise with.”
“So, Rufus is a big deal?” Jason asked.
Rufus glared at the other two.
“I do know a little bit about outworlders,” Rufus said. “They’ve been pulled into our world from another one through some magical accident. Usually a summoning spell that's gone awry.”
“The evil cult lady’s son,” Jason said. “He blamed me for ruining his magic thing.”
“That’s how it usually works,” Rufus said. “As far as I’m aware. I’m no expert.”
“This happens enough that there’s a name for it?” Jason asked.
“My understanding is that it’s something that happens in high-magic worlds like ours,” Rufus said. “I really don’t know any more than that.”
“Is there a way to go back home?” Jason asked.
“I’m not sure,” Rufus said. “If there is, it probably involves magic well above our level, let alone yours.”
Jason bowed his head in disappointment.
“Jason, tell me if this sounds familiar,” Rufus said. “Do you have some kind of guide that helps you interact with our world? Something that doesn’t fit our world but does fit yours. Maybe something you’ve heard of from a legend, or a part of your world’s mythic traditions. Something that exists in your world as a story, but here has become real.”
Jason thought about the video game interface he had been experiencing. The quests, the inventory system. The map he had open at that moment, even if the others couldn’t see it.
“I think I know what you’re talking about.”
“That’s something all outworlders have,” Rufus said. “It works differently for every outworlder, but whatever magic that brought them here changes them. It gives them abilities to help them adapt and survive.”
“That’s why I can read languages I’ve never seen?”
“And speak languages you’ve never spoken,” Rufus added.
“Someone say something,” Jason said.
“You didn’t even realise it, did you?” Rufus asked.
Jason focused on the sounds, rather than the words. It wasn’t English. He didn’t know if it was more disturbing that he could speak some unknown language or that he didn’t notice he was doing it.
“I have an ability,” he said, listening to the sounds he was making. “One of the effects is called language adaptation. Does that mean I can speak any language and not even notice?”
“Most likely,” Rufus said.
“That’s why you sound like you learned the language from a skill book,” Gary said.
“You do,” Farrah said. “There’s a recognisably neutral accent and things sometimes come across as odd because of the difference in language structure. It’s a giveaway, if you’ve seen it enough. Colloquialisms can translate very strangely.”
“Your telling me the old lingo is hard yakka to get the noggin around?” Jason asked, leaving them looking at each other in confusion.
“It seems there’s a limit to the translation,” Rufus said. “You might want to stick to plain language.”
“Stuff that for a bag of chips,” Jason said, laughing as three brows creased in confusion.
“I’d love to know how that got translated,” he said
They continued on, answering more of Jason’s questions as they trudged through the desert. At least, Jason trudged. The others looked as comfortable as they would strolling through a park.
“Outworlders like you might have their advantages,” Farrah said, “but we natives have advantages of our own. Take Gary, here. His leonid race are stronger and faster than us, and that’s only the beginning of what leonids can do. Elves are powerful spell casters and their skill with healing magic is unparalleled.”
“I forgot there were elves” Jason said. “Some guy said he wanted to eat one.”
“That’s not good,” Gary said.
“They’re cannibals, Gary,” Farrah said. “Of course it’s not good.”
“What about dwarves?” Jason asked. “Gnomes? Non-copyrighted small people who live inside hillocks?”
“I don’t know what any of those things are,” Gary said. “Except for hillocks.”
“We have elves,” Rufus said. “Leonids like Gary, obviously. We’ll eventually be heading for a port city, so while this region is human-dominated, you’ll see all kinds of people.”
“Each of which have their own special gifts,” Farrah said. “Some are there from birth, while others only show themselves once you get essences. Humans like Rufus and I are kind of like you, in a way. Our abilities differ from person to person, based on our essences. They start out dormant and we have to figure out how to wake them up.”
“How do you do that?” Jason asked.
“You push yourself,” Rufus said. “Take yourself to the limit and beyond.”
“I wouldn’t complain too loudly,” Gary said. “Humans have their essence abilities increase faster than other races. They’re kind of annoying about it.”
“Do I get that?” Jason asked. “I’m human, right?”
“Um… I have some bad news,” Rufus said. “You’re an outworlder, now. Not a human.”
“I’m not a human?”
“Not strictly, no” Rufus said. “You might be kind of human.”
“That somehow sounds worse,” Jason said.
“I met an elf outworlder,” Rufus said. “She retained some of her race’s abilities, while others were replaced by her outworlder gifts. It’s possible you might still have some human abilities.”
“Every race gets exactly six gifts,” Farrah said. “There are ways of examining them with magic.”
“I can do that myself,” Jason said.
“You can?” Farrah asked.
“No worries,” Jason said, pulling up his list of abilities.
Racial Abilities (Outworlder)
- [Quest System].
- [Astral Affinity].
- [Mysterious Stranger].
“I have a half-dozen already,” he said. “I think these might all be outworlder abilities. Do humans normally get astral affinity?”
“Definitely not,” Farrah said. “That’s something celestines get.”
“Celestines?” Jason said. “That’s not something we have where I’m from.”
“They’re similar to elves and humans,” Farrah said. “One of the many new kinds of people you get to meet.”
“As long as none of them try to eat me,” Jason said.
As they walked on across rocky desert landscape, the dry heat started to overwhelm Jason. His head started throbbing worse and worse until he was no longer walking in a straight line. They found a rocky outcropping to rest in the shadow of, Rufus helping Jason along.
The others fetched out bronze spirit coins while Jason sipped at his water, laying back on the warm rock.
“You don’t need water?” Jason asked Gary. The enormous leonid was covered in fur, which can’t have been pleasant in the desert heat.
“Gary’s people require a lot more exertion than the rest of us to get tired,” Rufus said. “Another one of his racial gifts.”
“Also, when you have a full set of essences, you don’t need to eat or drink anymore,” Gary said. “You can, of course, but just for pleasure.”
“To actually sustain ourselves,” Rufus said, “we need a concentrated source of raw magic.”
He held up the spirit coin he was holding.
“There are various ways to get it,” he continued, “but spirit coins are the easiest, by far.”
“You’re lucky I even had that water,” Farrah said, “because we don’t need it. I just like to be prepared.”
“If you’re using coins,” Jason said. “What about the after-effects? Using those coins knocked it right out of me.”
Rufus popped the spirit coin into his mouth.
“It’s about not going over your limit,” Rufus said. “We’re bronze-rank adventurers, so a bronze coin will sustain us without stressing our bodies.”
“I don’t know what that means,” Jason said.
“What, bronze rank?” Gary asked.
“Also, adventurer,” Jason said. “Is that where you guys hang around in a tavern until someone hires you to kill forty gnolls in a dungeon?”
“What’s a gnoll?” Gary asked.
“And why would there be forty of them in a dungeon?” Farrah added. “Are gnolls a kind of criminal?”
“There’s an organisation,” Rufus said, forestalling more unhelpful questions. “It’s called the Adventure Society. They give out jobs to people like us, mostly to deal with monsters that are threatening towns, villages or whatever.”
“But sometimes to investigate a cult full of bloodthirsty cannibals,” Gary added.
“As for bronze rank,” Rufus said, “that’s related to your essence powers. Once you have all four essences, you become iron rank, and you can work your way up from there. Bronze is one rank above iron, but you can worry about that later. Reaching iron rank will fundamentally change you. Make you powerful.”
“Not that powerful,” Farrah said. “Not straight away. You become partially resistant to attacks that don’t have any magic behind them. You live on magic instead of food and water.”
“But my world doesn’t have any magic,” Jason said. “Doesn’t that mean if I became iron rank or whatever and then go back, I’d eventually run out of coins and starve?”
“You can get by on food and water,” Farrah said. “It just takes more of it, depending on how powerful you are. Some foods are better than others. Meat, sugar, anything with magical ingredients, obviously.”
Jason was relieved. He could handle living on protein bars and cake. Was he immune to getting fat?
“We owe you for getting us out of that mess,” Rufus said. “We’ll help you find a full set of essences.”
“Well, I do have a couple of extras,” Jason said. “On top of the one I used, already.”
“Where did you get those?” Gary asked. “I thought you only arrived in this world today.”
“I did,” Jason said. “I just kind of… came across them.”
Rufus raised a sceptical eyebrow.
“You just came across them?”
“Yeah,” Jason said. “You know; here and there.”
“I can do an essence ritual for you,” Farrah said. “Not before we find Anisa, of course. Who did the ritual for your first essence?”
Farrah’s suggestion prompted some of the ritual magic knowledge in Jason’s mind the skill book had put there. Remembering something he never learned in the first place was an odd sensation, like déjà vu. The new knowledge in his head told him that an essence ritual was required for a person to absorb an essence. Except, he knew from experience that wasn’t always true.
“I didn’t actually use a ritual,” Jason said. “I just kind of absorbed it. I think it was part of the same power that lets me speak all the languages.”
“What was that like?” Gary asked. “Just straight-up absorbing it?”
“Strenuous,” Jason said. “I passed out.”
“Can I watch when you do the next one?” Farrah asked. She was looking at Jason like a scientist with a lab rat.
“It wouldn’t hurt to have someone watching out for you,” Rufus said. “We at least owe you that much.”
“I haven’t even decided what I want to do,” Jason said. “I’ve been too busy trying to not die.”
“What’s to think about?” Gary asked. “Who doesn’t want power?”
“Hey look,” Farrah said, pointing out ahead of them. “I can see it.”
As they crested a rise they could see, in the distance, a strange patch of green in the middle of the desert.
“Let’s pick up the pace,” Rufus said.
“I don’t think I can,” Jason said. Under the harsh desert sun he was sweating buckets, his skin tingling with the promise of sunburn.
“Farrah, get him another bottle of water,” Rufus said. “Gary, are you alright to carry him?”
“Wait, carry me?” Jason said. “That doesn’t sound very dignified.”
The others turned to look at him and he looked down at himself. The filthy skin and clothes; the stains from blood, muck and sweat. The ridiculous shirt. Then there was the smell that all the sweating had turned from bad to egregious.
“Never mind,” he said.