Rufus, Farrah and Gary were racing across the desert, feet pounding into the dry earth. Rufus had told Jason they would be running at a sustainable pace. Their unflagging momentum confirmed his words, but they were moving at a pace that, in Jason’s world, would be the equal of world class sprinters.
Jason had little time to think about such things as they stormed over the rough ground at ten metres a second. He was draped over Gary’s back like a cloak, legs flailing as he desperately clenched his arms around the tree trunk Gary used as a neck. Any concerns over dignity quickly went out the window. His only objective became not getting thrown off.
The edge of the estate grounds was startlingly apparent; a green line of grass and trees cutting across the barren browns and yellows of the desert. Like stepping into a different world, a single step took them from scorched air and unyielding earth to cool grass and a welcoming breeze.
They slowed down and stopped just across the line. Rufus and Farrah crouched, hands on knees, panting heavily while Jason poured off Gary’s back to form a puddle on the ground. He groaned miserably as Gary looked down at him.
“You’ve built up quite a sweat for a guy who didn’t do any running,” Gary chuckled. Despite all his fur, body mass and having carried Jason, he wasn’t even breathing heavily like Rufus and Farrah. He looked as comfortable as if he’d been lounging at a pool, rather than sprinting through the desert. Jason, sweating enough for both of them, raised his head to retort.
He didn’t care that his mouth was too dry for vowels, only regretting the energy he had expended to lift his head. He was happy to let it drop back onto the soft grass.
Farrah once again pulled her magic chest out of the ground. Retrieving a handful of potion vials, she handed one each to Rufus and Gary.
“Stamina potions,” she said.
“I’m fine,” Gary said as Rufus knocked his back without hesitation.
“I think he needs one more than any of us,” Farrah said, looking at Jason. “Too bad, really.”
“He has water,” Rufus said.
Jason pushed his unwilling body into a sitting position and pulled a bottle from his inventory. He started chugging it thirstily.
“Life is hard, outworlder,” Rufus said without sympathy. “And you, my friend, are soft. If you want to get by in this world, you’ll need to toughen up.”
Jason struggled to his feet.
“How did you all handle the desert so well?” Jason asked. “I was being carried and it broke me. I think I got sunburn through my clothes.”
“How much do you know about the four attributes?” Rufus asked.
“I remember that there are attributes,” Jason said. “Now that you say it. There’s the strength one and… some others.”
“One of the others is recovery,” Farrah said. “Our recovery attributes are all in the upper range of bronze tier, so our bodies replenish themselves as fast as the desert can take it out of us.”
“Unless we push ourselves too hard,” Rufus said. Jason unhappily compared himself to Rufus, whose glistening sweat and unconscious poise made him look like a model for an athletics calendar. Jason, by contrast, looked like a rag someone had just used to clean up a spill.
Replenished somewhat by the water and the rest, Jason took a look at the startling border between desert and garden. It was a straight line, like a border betweens worlds. A single step went from scorched, desert earth to springtime in an English country garden. Looking along the border, Jason spotted pillars placed periodically along the edge, white stone columns with magic symbols carved into the surface.
“Are those things making it like this in the middle of the desert?” Jason asked.
“They’re only part of it,” Farrah said. “It takes a large and sophisticated system to make something like this work.” She handed out spirit coins to Gary and Rufus. All three popped them into their mouths.
“What now?” Gary asked.
“Now we get to the manor house,” Rufus said. “We find Anisa and kill everyone else.”
“I like this plan,” Gary said. Grey light started sparkling around him, growing thicker until it formed a set of metal armour, encasing his entire body. It was thick and heavy, made from dark steel plates held together with large bolts. Engraved into the surface were runes that looked to have been carved out with a blade, rough but radiating strength. Where the engravings dug into the dark metal, red forge light shone from within.
“That’s impressive,” Jason said. “Isn’t it hot in there?”
“Heat I can handle,” Gary said. After seeing him sprint through the desert like he was jogging on the beach, Jason believed it.
Rufus held out a hand, around which motes of golden light were gathering. The light coalesced into a sword in Rufus’ hand, an elegant scimitar that seemed as much a work of art as a weapon. The hilt was a vibrant red gold, as was the edge of the blade. The bulk of the blade was yellow gold that shone like the sun, with red gold inscriptions running down its graceful curve.
After Gary and Rufus called their impressive equipment, Jason looked over at Farrah.
“All the stuff I conjure is made of rock,” Farrah said. “I’m not carrying that lot around.”
“I’d conjure up my cloak,” Jason said, “but even if I had the mana, I think it’d kill me.”
“What can that cloak ability do?” Rufus asked.
“It gets bright or dark,” Jason said unenthusiastically. “It can also make me lighter, so I can jump from high places.”
Suddenly he perked up.
“Oh, and it lets me walk on water,” he said. “I haven’t tried that yet, though.”
“I have some magic boots that let me do that,” Rufus said, then frowned. “At least I did, until they were taken from me. We’ll get our equipment back after we’ve freed Anisa.”
Before sending away the stone chest, Farrah took out two belts with heavy pouches. One was grey, which she handed over to Gary, the other red, which she kept for herself.
“What are those?” Jason asked. He watched Farrah loop her belt into her clothes, while Gary tied it around the outside of his armour. The heavy metal suit barely seemed to impede him.
“Summoning materials,” Farrah said.
“Summoning?” Jason asked.
“You’ll see soon enough,” Rufus said. “Let’s not tarry more than we have to.”
They set off through the grounds. The outer areas were manicured woodlands, shaded gravel trails making their way through artfully placed trees and shrubbery. Somewhere he could hear the babbling of a stream.
“This is nice,” Jason said, looking around.
“Indulgent,” Rufus criticised. “They should be working with the surroundings instead of against them. The cost of building and maintaining all this in the middle of the desert is beyond extravagant.”
“I know what you’re talking about,” Gary said. “There’s a desert city not too far from where I grew up. It has a subterranean river, and half the city is built underground around it. They use the natural landscape to their advantage. Hardly any core infrastructure requires magical upkeep.”
“Is that Zartos you’re talking about?” Rufus asked.
“Wait, did you just say Zardoz?” Jason asked.
“No, Zartos,” Rufus said. “Is Zardoz a place in your world?”
“No, Zardoz is…” Jason searched for the best way to describe it. “Lets just say it’s for the best you didn’t say Zardoz.”
“Have you been to Zartos, Rufus?” Gary asked.
“No, my brother told me about it,” Rufus said. “He said it was definitely worth seeing.”
“Knowing your brother,” Farrah said, “he probably meant the women.”
“He’s not that bad,” Rufus said, prompting looks from Gary and Farrah. “He’s not.”
“Zartos has a large celestine community,” Gary said. “But I suppose your brother didn’t tell you about that.”
“He may have mentioned it,” Rufus said evasively. “In passing.”
“Celestines,” Jason said. “That’s another one of the races in this world, right?”
“That’s right,” Rufus said. “Like elves they’re famous for being attractive to human sensibilities.”
“We only have humans in my world,” Jason said. “The idea of meeting whole new races is exciting.”
He slapped Gary on the back, which was currently encased in metal.
“But you’ll always be my first, Gary,” Jason said.
“I like your attitude,” Gary said. “Humans have something of a bad reputation when it comes to other races.”
“I can believe it,” Jason said. “My world only has humans and we’re still awful to one another. My Dad’s parents came from a different country from where I grew up, so I look different from most of the people I know. People in my own country look at me like I’m a foreigner. Even the people who do look like me call me a banana.”
“A banana?” Farrah asked.
“Yellow on the outside, white on the inside,” Jason said. “My Mum’s name is Cheryl; why can’t I listen to Pat Benatar without people turning it into a thing.”
The other three looked at each other, shaking their heads.
“I don’t think any of us know what that means,” Farrah said.
“Probably for the best,” Jason said.
The cultivated woodlands were small, soon giving way to gardens of colourful flowers. The pathway continued out from the woods weaving its way through the garden beds. Beyond lay the manor house, which Jason hadn’t seen from the outside before. Like the grounds, it was very much in the vein of a sprawling English country house. Three storeys of old stone and dozens of windows, in the old money style.
“I think that’s the hedge maze over there,” Jason said, pointing as they made their way through the garden. “I woke up in there with no idea of where I was or what was going on.”
“That’s where they found you?” Gary asked.
“It would be nice if it was that simple,” Jason said.
“Quiet,” Rufus ordered. “We could meet enemies at any point. We have no idea how many were left behind or if the others came back from the sacrifice chamber.”
“Are you sure I should be going with you?” Jason asked. “I’m not exactly an asset if combat breaks out.”
“You want to stay by yourself?” Rufus asked.
“Uh, no. Now that I think about it.”
“Then shut up.”
They moved out from among the flowerbeds and onto the lawn in front of the manor.
“Seems quiet,” Rufus said.
“Use our summons now?” Farrah asked.
“We go quiet as we can until we find Anisa,” Rufus said. “We don’t want someone deciding to make her a hostage.”
Suddenly glass shattered as a person crashed through a second storey window. He landed hard on the ground, but immediately scrambled up and into a sprint. He was taken aback to find the four people looking at him, but didn’t pause as he kept running.
“You think you can run from me?” a woman’s voice roared from the broken window, prompting a laugh from Gary.
“I don’t think we have to worry about someone taking her hostage,” he said.
Three spheres of bright light erupted from the broken window, spinning around each other as they pursued the fleeing man. He was bleeding from the broken glass and limping from the fall, but still moving faster than Jason could have managed. It still wasn’t enough to escape the accelerating spheres of light, flashing white and gold as they unerringly pursued him.
When they caught up, the spheres started spinning around the man, firing beams of light into his body. He let out a painful cry with every beam that lanced into his flesh, but he kept moving in the drive to escape. The orbs tenaciously followed his every movement, firing over and over until he dropped. His screams gave way to dead silence. The spheres vanished.
The group looked back to the broken window, in which a pretty blonde woman was now standing. She stepped out into the air, light glowing under her feet as she delicately drifted to the ground. She started walking across the lawn to meet them.
“Didn’t you all say she was the healer?” Jason asked.
“That’s right,” Rufus said.
“This lady here,” Jason said. “The one with the death orbs.”
“That’s her,” Farrah said.
“Suddenly I'm less enthused about subjecting myself to her ministrations.”
Anisa was slender, almost frail-looking, with platinum-blonde hair and pale skin. She was wearing a practical outfit of fitted pants and top, all in spotless white. Sturdy-looking cloth covered her from neck to boots, with thicker panels over vital areas. There was a belt, also white, with many small pouches and a sword at her hip. Even her boots were white, without so much as a blemishing smear of dirt. Her hair was cinched severely back into a ponytail, revealing ears that gently tapered to a point. She moved with lithe grace and absolute confidence, nodding her head in greeting.
“You got free as well,” she said, as if expecting no less. “Why is there a vagrant following you around?"