In the garden courtyard of the inn, Jason was sitting comfortably in the late afternoon shade, looking down at a single leech on the ground.
“So you’ve got it, right?” he asked. “Left for yes, right for no. That’s my left and right, so your right and left. You have that?”
The leech moved to the left.
“Okay, that’s a yes. Unless you don’t have it right and you were trying to say no.”
The leech wobbled side to side.
“Yeah, I’m confused too. I can’t seem to help overcomplicating things. Alright, let’s just assume you’ve got it. That fine by you?”
The leech moved left.
“Great. So, do you have a name?”
The leech moved right.
“No name, okay. Would you like me to give you one?”
The leech moved left.
“That’s good,” Jason said. “I don’t want to keep calling you Leechy. That’d be like Gary calling me Humany. Or Outworldery, I guess. Not being human anymore is bit of a blow.”
“Who are you talking to?” Gary asked, walking into the courtyard.
“I’m trying to come up with a name for my familiar,” Jason said.
“How do you know it doesn’t have one already?” Farrah said, following Gary into the courtyard.
“I asked,” Jason said.
“And it answered?” Gary asked.
“We have a system,” Jason said. “Where have you all been? There was some excitement here.”
“We found out the guy had a cabin in the desert,” Farrah said. “There’s a cave where he’d go searching for earth quintessence. We thought that might be where he'd holed up.”
From inside the inn Jason heard the door slam open. He got up and went into the common room to look, seeing Martha the landlady, doing the same. What they saw was a fuming Rufus stomp loudly up the stairs, followed by the sound of another slamming door.
“How did he get that reed door to slam so loud?” Jason wondered aloud. “They’re really light.”
“A heady combination of finesse and rage,” Farrah said.
“I take it the guy wasn’t in his cabin, then,” Jason said.
“Oh, he was there,” Farrah said. “Anisa killed him before he could get a word out.”
“I guess she was serious about the guy being her church’s to deal with,” Jason said. “Why was Rufus so set on talking to the guy anyway?”
“We can sit down for that,” Gary said, “but I could really use a drink first.”
“Just use a spirit coin,” Farrah said.
“We can do better than that,” Jason said. “Martha, could we get some of that fruit punch?”
“Anything for you, sweetie.”
“What is it with you and the people in this village?” Farrah asked as they walked back into the courtyard and sat down at a picnic table. “I could swear I heard people talking about you when we came back into town.”
“It’s the dashing good looks,” Jason said.
Farrah and Gary shared a look.
“Hey…” Jason said sadly. He knelt down and held his hand out for the leech to crawl onto, then lifted it up to rest on his shoulder.
“Are you sure you want to put that there?” Gary asked. “I don’t think I’d want those teeth that close to my ear.”
“He won’t hurt me,” Jason said. “He’s my little guy. I think he’s a guy; I think I read that leeches can switch it around.”
“You are a strange man,” Farrah said.
Martha came in with a huge jug filled with juice and large chunks of ice. Her nephew, Harold, followed with a trio of glasses, getting a swat from Martha when he goggled at the leech on Jason’s shoulder.
“Thanks, Martha,” Jason said, filling each of the glasses. One was even a Gary-sized mug with a big handle.
After the landlady and her nephew left, Jason asked again about Rufus.
“The area we come from,” Farrah said, “has a higher density of magic than this region, so the monsters there are stronger, on average. In this region, iron-rank monsters are the norm, with a good smattering of bronze-rank. Silvers can show up, but only very occasionally.”
“But where we come from,” Gary added, “you get more silver rank monsters than anything. You see as many golds as you do bronze, and sometimes even diamond rank monsters. And if iron ranks do appear, there’s always about forty of the pricks.”
He chugged half of his giant glass at a go, topping it off from the jug.
“You’re from one of those big cities?” Jason asked.
“That’s right,” Gary said. “Vitesse.”
“The City of Flowers,” Farrah added.
“That’s weird,” Jason said. “There’s a language in my world where Vitesse means speed.”
“Not how it works in our city,” Gary said.
“Vitesse is as leisurely as any place you’ll find,” Farrah explained. “Culture, cuisine. Lots of money floating around, even at the low end. A labourer in Vitesse can make as much as a craftsman here.”
“Not a good craftsman,” Gary said, “but still…”
“What does any of this have to do with Rufus being angry?” Jason asked.
“Well,” Gary said, “around here an iron rank adventurer can wander about in relative safety. If some monsters show up then an iron rank adventurer can go after them on their own, or with a small team.”
“But around Vitesse,” Farrah said, “that’s just asking for death. Even bronze rankers go out with a silver ranked escort. Coming here was our big chance to strike out on our own.”
“Prove ourselves,” Gary said.
“And then you went and got captured,” Jason said. “Rufus is in charge, so he blames himself.”
“Exactly,” Farrah said, “but you don’t understand the level of pressure on him. His family operates the Remore Academy, which is a big deal everywhere, not just Vitesse.”
“Let me guess,” Jason said. “Rufus is the living paragon of this academy’s teaching methods, so when he fails it’s a black mark on his family’s reputation.”
“His family isn’t like that,” Gary said. “They understand better than most that failure is a valuable lesson. Rufus is the one putting pressure on himself.”
“More than anything, he blames himself for putting us in danger,” Farrah said. “He takes responsibility seriously and he thinks he let us down.”
“The reason he was obsessed with catching the guy,” Farrah said, “was so he could find out what he did wrong. Rufus works harder than anyone to avoid making a mistake once, let alone twice. In his eyes, Anisa took away his chance to understand what he did wrong. As far as Rufus is concerned, what Anisa did was the same as putting the team in danger.”
“Is anyone else getting a shady feeling from Anisa?” Jason asked. “Like she’s quietly on the shonk?”
“I think that’s going a bit far,” Gary said.
“Probably,” Jason said. “I’m definitely biased, but think about it. She brought this job to you from her church, right? Then the guy supposedly working for her church sets you up?”
“The shonk?” Farrah asked.
“Anisa was in a cage like the rest of us,” Gary said.
“Sure,” Jason said, “but she didn’t go to the ritual chamber, did she? Who’s to say that if I hadn’t shown up there wouldn’t be some other excuse to leave her behind. Then she breaks out all by herself?”
“So did you.”
“They underestimated me backwards and forwards,” Jason said, “and even then I was lucky. Do you think a blood cult is going to underestimate a priestess of purity?”
“She had a collar like the rest of us,” Gary said. “They might have thought she couldn’t do anything.”
“Sure,” Jason said. “But did you notice that her escape took just long enough that if she rushed to save us she would have been tragically late?”
“That’s thin,” Farrah said.
“So we busted ourselves out,” Jason continued, “leaving you free to find and question the guy who might have answers. Except he gets silenced before you even start with the questions.”
“I’m not convinced,” Farrah said. “You’re jumping a lot of gaps there.”
“I’m not saying anything definitive,” Jason said. “Like I said; I know I’m biased enough to not see things objectively. But a lot of things are coming up funky on the smell test, so maybe keep your eyes open.”
“Always do,” Gary said.
“You were blind-sided and handed over to a blood cult,” Jason said.
“This is really good,” Farrah said after emptying her glass of fruit punch, veering off topic.
“I know, right?” Jason said, refilling her glass. “I’ll have to ask what’s in it. Most of the local ingredients I’ve never even heard of. Bought a notebook last night at the market to jot down recipes.”
They heard the front door of the inn slam open.
“That door’s going to get ruined,” Jason said.
Anisa strode out into the courtyard, storming up to Jason.
“Why is everyone talking about you like you’re the town hero?” she asked. Her face filled with fury when she spotted the leech on Jason’s shoulder.
“What is that thing?”
“That’s Colin,” Jason said. “I’ve decided to call him Colin. And his friends. Team Colin.”
Anisa’s hand flashed towards it, her bronze-rank reflexes too fast for Jason to react. Not too fast for Gary, however, who clamped her wrist in his huge, hairy hand. Anisa glared at Gary as she tugged at her arm, but his grip didn’t budge.
“Not happening,” Gary said.
“That thing is obviously evil,” Anisa said.
“It doesn’t matter what it is,” Rufus’ said, striding into the courtyard. While the others turned to look, Jason pulled a knife and pricked his finger, letting Colin the apocalypse leech melt back into his bloodstream. He’d bought a small, sharp knife for the purpose after accidentally poisoning himself with the snake-tooth dagger. Looking up after putting the knife away he saw Anisa and Rufus squaring off.
“You knew he had that thing,” Anisa accused.
“I did,” Rufus said calmly.
“He’s tainted,” she said. “We need to burn him.”
“You don’t get a say in what we do anymore, Anisa. Especially when it comes to killing people. You’re out.”
“What are you talking about?”
“This was always a temporary collaboration,” Rufus said. “The collaboration ends here.”
“Over him?” she asked, gesturing at Jason.
“No, Anisa, over you,” Rufus said. “You decide for yourself when to listen and when to do whatever you like. You’re willing to place even your slightest ideal over the wellbeing of this team and that is unacceptable. The most important thing in a team is trust, and I don’t trust you.”
“Humans,” Anisa said, spitting out the word like a curse. “You’re all filth.”
She turned, marched away, and they heard the door slam as she departed the inn. Rufus was stewing on the spot, Jason, Farrah and Gary sharing wary looks.
“I think we may be paying for a new door,” Gary said.