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After handling the string of heidels, Rufus made his way into the village. He knew from their previous visit that the inns were all clustered together, so he had no concerns about finding the rest of the group. The sky was turning a rich blue, with orange and gold encroaching as twilight came over the desert. Along the ring road of the village, magic lamps were lighting up and some kind of night market was setting up. He came into the village along with a good many quarry workers who had finished up as they lost the light. Moving amongst the gathering people, he saw a familiar face.

“Jason?”

“Oh, g’day, Rufus,” Jason said with a wave. He was behind a stall selling skewered meat, helping what Rufus assumed was the stall owner to fry meat.

“What are you doing?” Rufus asked.

“Dan here is teaching me to cook… what was it called again?”

“Bruschard,” Dan said.

“It’s a giant worm!” Jason said. “Luckily I tried it before I found that out.”

“You seem to be adjusting well,” Rufus said.

“Yeah, no worries,” Jason said. “You go get your revenge, or whatever. I’m good here. Gary picked the inn on the end with the big livery, by the way. There’s a sign with a little house and a cart on it.”

“Thanks,” Rufus said.

“Now,” Jason said, turning back to Dan. “Give me those sauce ingredients again. I haven’t heard of any of them, so I’ll have to write them all down. Which means I’m going to need some paper…”

***

Hours previously, Jason was happily meandering around the circle road, frequently pausing to take in the village. He’d stop and talk with villagers who proved more than ready for a conversation. They were proud of their village and rightly so, Jason was happy to acknowledge. The colourful houses looked inviting, everywhere was lush with greenery, so removed from the desert around it. The air was fresh, cool and clean. Jason thought back to Gary’s claim about a gold coin buying whole buildings and found himself tempted.

He came across something that looked like a covered bus stop, but instead of a timetable there was a bulletin board with various pieces of paper pinned to it. Looking over them he saw they were all descriptions of monsters, along with when and where they were last seen. He asked a passer-by about it and, true to form for the village, she was happy to explain. According to the villager, Doris, any time someone discovered a monster around the village they would write down the details and put it up on the board. Every month some adventurers would pass through and clear out all the monsters on the board.

Doris was surprised at Jason’s lack of knowledge about something so basic. As he had done a number of times that afternoon he explained that he had recently come from an isolated area with little knowledge of the outside world. It was more-or-less true.

Jason himself was as interesting to the locals as they were to him, as visitors were mostly the same selection of stone traders. Adventurers didn’t often appear outside of the monthly patrol, and by all accounts were a surly bunch. Roaming the remote villages was apparently a punishment duty, so their visit wasn’t often friendly.

A group of higher-ranked adventurers passing through was the talk of the village. Jason was travelling with them, but wasn’t an adventurer himself, making him more approachable. This was the perfect combination for villagers looking for gossip. Jason obliged with harrowing tales of blood cults and ritual sacrifice.

The locals showed Jason the best place to get a drink and where to avoid because it was full of drunken quarry workers. He met people who made a career out of diving the lake for water quintessence, the village mayor and the man in charge of guarding the waterfall. People were allowed to go up for a look, but there were guards at all hours to keep people out of the astral space aperture that was the water’s source.

When the sun started to set, Jason watched the sky turn into red gold from the bridge over the channel that flowed from the waterfall into the village lake. He knew from the locals that there would be a night market and he slowly wandered in that direction. One of the earliest booths to set up was a man frying skewers of meat. The smell of the meat and the sauce he had on them was incredibly enticing.

“That smells amazing,” Jason said. “I have to try one. I’m Jason, by the way.”

“Dan,” the man introduced himself.

***

Gary blearily stumbled downstairs, his huge feet thundering on the wooden steps. Downstairs was a common area with a number of tables and a bar that saw use in the evenings. Gary wandered into an adjoining courtyard with more tables, Sitting with Anisa, Rufus and Farrah at theirs.

“Jason not up?” Gary asked.

“I tried his room, but no answer,” Rufus said.

“Heavy sleeper?” Farrah said.

“He was knocked out how many times in two days?” Gary said. “He probably needs it.”

A serving girl walked up to their table.

“Are you looking for your friend?” she asked. “He’s in the kitchen.”

“What’s he doing in the kitchen?” Farrah asked.

“Performing miracles!” Jason announced, walking into the courtyard. He was carrying a huge tray in front of him with four plates. He sat it down on the table, distributing the plates and attendant cutlery.

“Turns out they have tamarind, and some kind of little onion,” Jason said, “so I made son-in-law eggs. No idea why they’re called that, by the way. Or what kind of animal these eggs are from. Delicious, though.”

The dish was eggs that had been boiled then deep-fried, served in halves with a sauce, fried onions and generous garnish. Jason handed the tray off to the serving girl before taking a place at the table.

“I had to play trial and error with some of the other ingredients,” he confessed, “but it worked out pretty well. Martha is an absolute treat.”

“Martha?” Farrah asked.

“These are fantastic,” Gary mumbled around a forkful of egg.

“Martha’s the landlady,” Jason said.

“You really seem to have settled in,” Rufus said.

Jason nodded, but didn’t speak with his mouth full.

“These are good,” Farrah said between bites.

“I’m quite satisfied sustaining myself with spirit coins,” Anisa said.

“Great,” Gary said, yanking her plate in front of himself.

“The way I look at things,” Jason said to Rufus, gesturing with an impaled egg, “is that coming here is like a fresh start. I can do the things I regretted never doing. I’m only twenty-three but I’ve been pretty efficient about squandering my opportunities.”

“There’s a surprise,” Anisa said flatly.

“Apparently being mean isn’t impure,” Jason said, prompting Anisa to jump to her feet.

“You dare blaspheme?”

“Frequently,” Jason said with a laugh. “It’s kind of my thing.”

“I think cooking might be your thing,” Gary said around another mouthful of eggs.

“I can have more than one thing.”

Anisa was clearly about to erupt, but Rufus forestalled her.

“Anisa,” he said firmly. “If you’re not having breakfast, then go get ready to start out.”

“I’m already prepared,” she said stiffly.

“Then take a walk,” Rufus said.

Anisa glowered at Jason but walked away without speaking further. Rufus turned a weary gaze on Jason.

“Is there any chance you could maybe not poke at her so much?” Rufus asked.

“Honestly?” Jason said. “Probably not.”

Gary snorted a laugh.

“Could you at least try?” Rufus asked. “We both know she’s never going to bend, so I need you to be the bigger person. For the unity of the team.”

Jason sighed.

“I guess I have been a bit childish,” Jason said. “Alright, I’ll do my best. Fair warning, though; my best may not be that good. She just gets under my skin, you know?”

“Oh, we know,” Farrah said.

“I’m amazed she doesn’t bump into things,” Jason said, “always looking down her nose like that.”

“Think of it this way,” Rufus said. “You were just talking about getting a fresh start. Try and see this as an opportunity to be a better person.”

Jason thought it over.

“I like it,” he said. “I can be the person I choose to be, without all the baggage of my old life.”

“And if you find your way back to that life?” Farrah asked.

“Then I’ll return better than I left,” Jason said.

“That’s admirable,” Rufus said, then popped his fork into his mouth. “These really are good.”

“Don’t talk with your mouth full,” Farrah told him. “You’re not Gary.”

“Was that a compliment or an insult?” Gary asked.

“So how did your roaring rampage of revenge go?” Jason asked. “You did say you weren’t going to kill him, right? Farrah seemed a bit keen on torturing him, though.”

“We didn’t find him, but we have a trail to follow,” Rufus said. “We’ll track him down, ask our questions, then hand him over to Anisa’s church.”

“Assuming we can run him down at all,” Farrah said. “Seems our boy left town in a hurry yesterday morning.”

“You think the people who ran from the manor warned him?” Jason asked.

“Most likely,” Farrah said. “We’ll do some digging around town today, see what we can find. If we come up dry, we’ll move on and leave it to Anisa’s church.”

“Well, you should start with Old Murph down at the general store,” Jason said. “He knows all the village secrets.”

“Jason,” Farrah asked, “was the world you were summoned from this village?”

“What?” Jason asked. “I met him last night.”

“So, will you be coming with us?” Rufus asked Jason.

“I’ve had quite enough blood-cult shenanigans, thank you very much, and want no part of whatever you do to that man. I found a guy who’ll take me to the top of the waterfall. Apparently there’s a mountain path that leads all the way up.”

“Surely they wouldn’t let you go into the astral space,” Farrah said.

“Sadly no,” Jason said. “They keep a guard up there to make sure no one mucks about with it. They’ll let you get right up close for a look, though. I was going to invite you, but you’ve got your whole revenge thing going on.”

“I bet the view is good up there,” Gary said. “I kind of want to go with you.”

“Focus, Gary,” Rufus said.

“If the guy’s gone, he’s gone,” Gary said. “If we’re handing him over to Anisa’s church anyway, just let them deal with it.”

“No,” Rufus said. “I have questions that need answering. We’re going after him.”

Rufus skewered his fork into another halved egg.

“After breakfast.”

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A note from Shirtaloon

I have settled on a fixed release time, which will begin with next week's chapters. It will be 9am my local time (GMT+10), Monday to Friday. That should be 7pm US Eastern, Sunday night through Thursday night, at least at this time of year.


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Shirtaloon

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