With their sweep through the manor house, the group completed their mission. The cultists were dead or running and they found plenty of documentation pointing them to the main cult.
“So, these people were only a local branch?” Jason asked as he rifled through a closet.
“That’s right,” Rufus said, opening a chest of drawers. “It’s called the Red Table. They’re only weak in remote areas like this. Core membership takes higher-ranked adventurers than us to deal with.”
They decided to remain at the manor overnight before leaving. Jason was able to explore and was surprised at what he found. Rather than the medieval technology he was expecting, magic had been used to replicate amenities from indoor plumbing to lighting to refrigerators. The horrors found in the cannibals’ kitchen were the stuff of nightmares.
Jason was looking for clothes to replace the filthy rags his current outfit had become. The local fashion was big on loose fits, letting airflow combat the desert heat. That made it easy to find something in his size.
He put together something suitable and took a hot shower, the water flow and temperature controlled by a pair of crystals. Stepping out feeling refreshed, he put on some of the new clothes. The top was lightweight and breathable, fully covering the arms and with a wrap-around hood to shield the head and face from the sun. Gary had worn something similar for their previous trek across the desert. The rest of the outfit was some loose pants and practical desert boots. Underneath were the silkiest pair of boxer shorts he had ever encountered.
He hesitated before using purloined underwear, but he decided not to go commando when they headed back into the desert. He wondered if he had killed the person whose clothes he now wore. As for his old clothes, only the t-shirt was salvageable. The pants and sandals were beyond saving and got thrown away.
- You no longer own items belonging to the [Starting Gear] outfit. [Starting Gear] outfit has been removed from the outfit tab of your inventory.
Remembering the outfit tab, Jason played around with it, creating several outfits from the clothes he had collected. His snake tooth dagger had been retrieved along with the gear from the rest of the group, so it joined the default ensemble, along with the snakeskin belt and sheath. He put together a few extra outfits, creating more sets for them. Conveniently, items in the outfit tab didn’t take up space in his main inventory slots.
The most interesting part was when he changed outfits. Switching gear-sets shrouded his body in dark mist for a brief moment, during which the old gear was returned to the inventory and the new gear appeared directly on his person. He switched rapidly back and forth between outfits to try it out. The dark smoke lightly tingled his skin.
Night time found Jason laying in a bed, staring at the ceiling. He was exhausted after the strangest and most dangerous day of his entire life, but his mind refused to retreat into sleep. Shoving off the covers, he opened his inventory to throw on one of his new outfits.
The group had claimed bedrooms in a row on the top floor. A shared balcony connected all the rooms, each accessible through French doors. Jason opened his set of doors and wandered out. He rested his hands on the balustrade and looked up at the sky. In a massive field of stars, a pair of moons shone bright, one half moon and one crescent.
“I really am in a different world.”
“You’re just figuring that out?” Rufus’ voice came from behind.
Jason turned to see Rufus emerging from his own room. He walked over and joined Jason in leaning on the balustrade.
“Couldn’t sleep either?” Jason asked.
“I’m on watch,” Rufus said. “We don’t think the cultists will come back, but they’ve surprised us before. We’re rotating turns through the night.”
“Didn’t want me to take a turn?” Jason asked.
He turned his gaze back to the sky.
“So why aren’t you sleeping?” Rufus asked. “I would have thought you’d be out the moment you hit the sheets.”
“Everything that happened today just keeps running through my head,” Jason said. “I was concussed for most of it, so it feels like it wasn’t me, somehow. But it was me. It was my hands I washed the blood from.”
“You were impressive today,” Rufus said. “We’d be dead if it wasn’t for you.”
“It didn’t feel impressive,” Jason said. “It felt like a perpetual state of desperation and panic. I think all the blows to the head may have helped, strangely enough. My head hurt like hell, but I was too punch drunk to really think about what was happening. Otherwise I would have freaked out and hidden under a table.”
“I don’t believe that,” Rufus said. “I’ve seen a lot of adventurers. Most you can teach, but some will never have what it takes. Others…”
He patted Jason in the shoulder
“… others take to it like it’s what they were born for. You’ve got the stuff, Jason.”
“It doesn’t feel like I’ve got the stuff,” Jason said. “Not the stuff you’re talking about, anyway. When I first woke up here, I had no idea of what was happening or where I was. I didn’t think any of this was real. The best explanation was that I’d gone mad and it was all in my head.”
“You thought I was imaginary?” Rufus asked.
“By the time I met you,” Jason said, “I was past stopping to contemplate. I was too busy scrambling from one deadly situation to the next.”
“You certainly arrived in rough circumstances.”
“Impossible circumstances, from my perspective,” Jason said. “Everything in this place is impossible. Where I come from, there’s no magic, no elves. Definitely no awesome lion-men named Gary. Monsters are just myths and metaphors. Stories we tell ourselves about the dark corners of our own nature.”
“But now you believe it? That all this is real?”
“Anisa gave me pause, but yeah.”
“A haughty, elf girl in tight leather that doesn’t hide how much she dislikes me? That’s exactly the kind of thing my brain would throw out.”
Rufus gave Jason a sideways look.
“Don’t look at me like you don’t have hang-ups,” Jason said.
“I didn’t say a thing.”
“Sure, mate. But I get it. She’s real. It’s all real. This experience has been too long and too coherent, even with the concussion. Any explanation that makes sense in my world doesn’t fit. At least, none that I know of. Hallucinations, madness, dreams. The ability to muster even a little bit of logical detachment implies that they aren’t the answer.”
Jason sighed again.
“If nothing else,” he continued, “there’s just too much going on for me to have come up with all of it. I don’t have the imagination to have thought up all this. I mean, broad strokes, maybe, but not all the little details.”
“Well,” Rufus said, “now that you’ve accepted it, what comes next?”
“I have no idea,” Jason laughed. “If I’m really here, then I guess I start looking for a way home.”
“You don’t seem too enthusiastic about that.”
“I didn’t leave a lot behind,” Jason said. “I kind of made a mess of my life.”
“A fresh beginning, then,” Rufus said. “You can start by becoming an adventurer, like us.”
Jason looked over at Rufus.
“I’m not sure that’s what I want,” Jason said. “This, today, is what you do, right?”
“It normally goes better,” Rufus said. “Not so dangerous. Although it’s a dangerous life; I won’t lie.”
“It’s not the danger that worries me,” Jason said. “Well, it is, but that isn’t what’s keeping me awake.”
“It was the first time you’ve killed someone?” Rufus asked softly.
“This time yesterday,” Jason said, “I hadn’t been in a fight in ten years. I don’t remember what it was about. Some nonsense that seemed important when I was thirteen. A child’s fight, for a child’s reasons. But I killed people today. I can tell myself they were evil, but that doesn’t matter. I can say I was defending myself, but I manipulated people in order to bring about their deaths.”
Jason shook his head.
“That isn’t the even worst part,” he said. “That came later, when I was laying in bed. A stranger’s bed, maybe even someone I killed. That was when I realised I had to count to remember how many people I murdered today.”
Jason fell quiet and they stood in silence, looking out into the dark for some time.
“I’m guessing your world is a safe one,” Rufus said after contemplating Jason’s words.
“Not all of it,” Jason said. “But my part, yeah.”
“That’s good,” Rufus said. “But you have to accept that you’re not there any more. This world can be hard, and life can be cheap. You said it doesn’t matter that the ones you killed were evil, but you’re wrong. You think we were the first people on their chopping block? You saw what was in that kitchen. There’s a larder downstairs with a cell to keep people in, and it wasn’t a new cell, either. They’ve been doing this for a long time. If we hadn’t stopped them, they’d have killed us too, and plenty more after. I don’t know what justice is like in your world, but in this one, it sometimes comes down to people like us dealing with people like them.”
“I’m not sure I can be that hard,” Jason said.
“I saw you today,” Rufus said. “You can be.”
“And if I don’t want to be?”
“That’s a choice only you can make. I don’t know what kind of person you were before, but this is a chance to leave that person behind. To become whoever you choose to be. That’s a rare chance. Just remember that every choice has its consequences. Even if you choose to do nothing.”
Rufus looked over at Jason, then back out at the night sky.
“I’m an adventurer,” Rufus said. “Being an adventurer can open every door, give you everything you ever wanted. Power, money, respect. Travel the world, see amazing things. Nine days out of ten, being an adventurer is the best thing you could possibly be. But on that tenth day, that’s the one where you earn all the others. Where you make the hard choices, where you walk through fire so no-one else has to.”
Rufus turned to Jason, giving him a weary smile.
“Has it made me callous?” Rufus asked. “Yes it has. Has it cost me sleep? Absolutely. But there’s a whole lot of people sleeping safe and happy tonight because of me and people like me. You can be one of those safe and happy people if you want. Never making the hard choices; never doing the things that need to be done. But think about what happened to you today. You stood up in a horrifying situation and you took control. The safe and happy people don’t get to do that. When fate comes for them, they need people like me to stand in its way. That’s fine; it’s what I’m here for. But if you want to control your own fate instead of people like me doing it for you, then you have to become one of us.”
Rufus took a deep breath, letting it out slowly.
“I’m not going to lie” he continued. “If you become an adventurer like we are, this won’t be the last night of sleep you lose.”
“Is it worth it?” Jason asked.
“Only you can answer that. You saved lives, today, mine included, but you had to stain your hands doing it. If you got to remake those choices, would you do it all again?”
“I don’t know.”
Rufus pushed himself off the balustrade.
“Give it some thought,” he said. “When you can answer that question, maybe you’ll know what to do. I’m going to patrol around a little. You’ve got a lot to think about.”
He walked off, but Jason called out to him before he disappeared back into the manor.
“If I decide to become an adventurer, what do I need to do?”
“We can teach you,” he said, “but you start by absorbing more essences. Before everything else, adventurers are strong.”