In the control room of the mirage chamber, all eyes were on Rufus. He walked over to the stone block under the window, which had a dizzying array of runes, sigils and intricate magical diagrams carved into it. He spent a few moments looking it over.
“Standard arrangement,” he observed. “Jason, hand me that crystal.”
Jason took a long, faceted crystal from his inventory, something Farrah had created using Magic Society resources. It looked rather like a long, narrow diamond, the facets catching the light and reflecting out flashes of rainbow colour. He handed it to Rufus, who looked around one side of the stone block, then the other, finding a hole into which he pushed the crystal.
“So, what’s with the crystal?” Jason asked.
"A mirage chamber projects things from these platforms along the walls," Danielle said. Jason glanced again at the wooden platforms lining both sides of the room.
“If it doesn’t have direct access to something through the platforms,” Danielle continued, “you need to give it a magical imprint to replicate instead.”
“And the crystal is a storage device for the imprint,” Jason said.
“Exactly,” Danielle said.
Rufus, having inserted the crystal, was now looking over the top of the stone block.
“This mirage chamber has an impressive array of monster imprints,” Rufus said, “but Humphrey needs something a little different to a basic combat scenario. What I’ve just added in should help him climb the next wall in his development. Humphrey, you can go on in, now.”
Humphrey lay down on one of the wooden platforms. The runes under him lit up and he went still as death. Suddenly Jason spotted him through the window, standing under the centre of the dome. He glanced back down at Humphrey’s still body on the platform, then up at his other body inside the dome, which turned to look at the window.
“That’s an illusionary body?” Jason asked.
“That’s right,” Danielle said. “It can only affect or be affected by other illusions created by the mirage chamber. To him, though, everything feels completely real.”
“That’s right,” Rufus said. “Right now it feels completely real to him, but nothing he suffers will affect his real body.”
“What if something happens to his body here while he’s out there?” Jason asked.
“Then he’ll be snapped awake,” Rufus said. “The illusion feels completely real, but it’s just a projection. Being unexpectedly taken out is disorienting, but harmless.”
Rufus used a finger to trace out some of the lines of the stone slab in front of him. They lit up under his finger, but the real change was on the other side of the window.
The inside of the dome went from darkness to bright and wild illumination. Segmented panels blasted the interior with a maelstrom of rainbow lights, moving and flashing from one colour to the next as the interior of the dome became a shifting kaleidoscope. Humphrey's figure looked tiny In the vast, empty space, like the flood of colour would sweep him away. Rainbow light spilled through the window and over the observers.
“That’s certainly impressive,” Jason said. “Has this ever given someone a seizure?”
“Once,” Danielle said. “It turns out they had some kind of brain sickness. We had a healer remove it.”
“Of course you can casually cure epilepsy,” Jason muttered.
“There is nothing casual about maladies of the mind,” Danielle said. "You need to remove the sickness, then restore the damaged portions of the brain with healing, like a wound. After that, it often takes them time to recover. Especially if the condition had been with them for a long time. They can lose memories, even physical skills."
“Oh,” Jason said. “It’s oddly comforting to know magic isn’t just the instant solution to every problem.”
“Magic is a tool, like any other,” Danielle said. “Delicate tasks require care and expertise.”
As Jason and Danielle talked, Rufus' hands moved over the engravings on the stone block like he was playing a theremin. On the other side of the window, the chaos of light was slowly moving towards order.
“Is he alright in there?” Jason asked.
“He has experienced this many times,” Danielle said.
“Sorry this is taking so long to get in place,” Rufus said. “I need to get a handle on the nuances of your chamber design.”
“What exactly are you planning for Humphrey?” Jason asked.
“We need to motivate Humphrey to act boldly. I have an exercise designed to instil that mindset”
“You think this new addition to our mirage chamber will do that?” Danielle said.
“In my family’s academy,” Rufus said, “I’ve seen plenty of people with Humphrey’s issue. Good people, heroic, even. You can't motivate them with glory or power, not if you want to really move them to action. It has to be with consequence."
The light inside the dome suddenly vanished. Even Jason’s dark sight power couldn’t penetrate the sudden darkness. Then daylight lit up the space beyond the window, which was no longer the inside of the dome. It was a wide desert gorge, with Humphrey standing at the bottom, near a shallow stream. Sunlight came down from a clear blue sky. Humphrey looked around, finding a small, adorable child standing next to him.
“Holodeck,” Jason whispered in awe.
Rufus tapped a rune on the control table.
“Humphrey,” he said. “Can you hear me?”
“I can,” Humphrey said, his voice emerging from the control table. “Why is there a little girl, here?”
“That’s Ellie,” Rufus said. “You have to protect her from the monsters.”
Rufus’ hands moved over the runes again. A half-dozen monsters appeared from further down the gorge, running toward Humphrey. They looked and moved like leopards, but were the size of full-grown tigers. Behind them, their tails were long and thick, ending in a huge, talon-like claw.
As Humphrey took a stance in front of little Ellie, armour formed around his body from thin air. It looked to be made of scales, mostly sandy yellow but flecked with other colours, like rainbow droplets. In his hands, a huge sword appeared. Absurdly large and shaped like an extended dragon wing, Jason couldn't help but question the practicality.
Staying close the little girl and shielding her with his body, Humphrey awaited the monsters. As they arrived he started swinging his huge sword. Jason was startled at the ease and expertise with which he wielded the massive weapon. It was clearly heavy, but his footwork seamlessly shifted to manage the weight and momentum. Each blow was the end of a monster, but he couldn’t take down all six quickly enough. Two of the nimble monsters skipped around Humphrey as he dealt with the others. By the time he fought past them, Ellie’s corpse was being pulled apart in a tug-of-war between two monsters.
Even watching from a distance, Jason felt viscerally sick at the sight. Rufus tapped a rune, causing the monsters and the child to vanish. Humphrey looked at the now-empty ground in horror, the huge sword falling from his hands and vanishing.
Danielle reached over the console and tapped the rune to close communication with Humphrey.
"Are you trying to traumatise my son?" she asked Rufus, her tone a clear warning that his answer had best be a good one. Rufus calmly turned to face her as she stepped forward to confront him.
“Yes,” Rufus said. “I am trying to traumatise your son. During the field assessment, I could see clearly the training he had been through. His skills are exceptional, but it was equally evident you have coddled him to the point of a critical deficiency. The reason I failed him isn't that he lacks the ability. It's because he doesn't understand the duty of being an adventurer. You taught him to handle killing, but not how to handle failure. He hesitates in critical moments because you've taught him to be too perfect.”
Jason watched Humphrey’s forlorn figure through the glass. He agreed with Humphrey’s mother that Rufus’ training was essentially emotional abuse, and thought Rufus’ speech sounded suspiciously like a pot critiquing a kettle. From what he could tell, Rufus and Humphrey had similar upbringings. He wondered if Rufus had been through the same exercise himself.
“He'll stop to look for the optimal path when what he needs to do is act,” Rufus continued. “If you want Humphrey to act quickly and decisively, he needs to understand the price of not doing so. I can let that slide with the other adventures in this city, but you wanted him to meet my standards. These are my standards.”
Danielle was a head shorter than Rufus, but she got right up into his space, tilting her head back to glare at him.
“Is this how you treat people in your famous academy?”
“Yes,” Rufus said. “It is.”
Rufus turned back to the control table and reopened communication.
“Get ready, Humphrey,” Rufus said. “We’re going again.”
Jason watched Danielle, seeing she was on the edge of stepping in to stop it. In the end, she took a step back. Inside the dome, a small boy appeared next to Humphrey.
“What about Ellie?” Humphrey’s voice came from the control table.
“Ellie’s dead,” Rufus said coldly. “She was torn apart by monsters. This is Ben.”
Jason winced, looking once again at Danielle. She was looking sternly at Rufus but didn't say anything.
Humphrey's real body stirred on the wooden platform, the runes under him fading. He swung his legs off the side and sat up, face pale, eyes wide and shaking. He had failed to protect every new child Rufus had placed with him.
“How was that?” Rufus asked.
“A nightmare,” Humphrey said weakly. “An endless, inescapable nightmare.”
“Not inescapable,” Rufus said, devoid of sympathy. “You had the power to protect those children. It was your hesitation and doubt that doomed them. You need to understand that sometimes the best action is the immediate one. You’ll do better tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow?” he asked weakly.
“And every day, until you stop getting the children killed.”
“I… I don’t know if I can do that.”
“Yet you think you’re ready to do it when the people are real?” Rufus asked. “Adventurers aren’t hunting monsters recreationally, Humphrey. We are the shield for those who can’t protect themselves. Yes, there are adventurers who only care about money and status. But the real ones, and I know you want to be one of the real ones, care about duty. You have the heart for it, but until you have the mindset to match, all you’re going to do is fail.”
Rufus placed a hand on Humphrey’s shoulder.
“Only you can decide how much you’re willing to go through to do the right thing.”
Rufus and Danielle sat in the shade with a pitcher of iced drinks on a picnic table. Danielle had suggested Humphrey lead an enthusiastic Jason in the direction of the orchards.
“I’m sorry if you feel I went too far,” Rufus said. “You’re a good adventurer. You know the things he’ll be facing sooner or later.”
“My father always said I shield him too much from the realities,” Danielle said. “But he was always such a good boy. It’s like there’s something inside him that makes him want to help people. I didn’t want to break that.”
“Did you consider something for him other than adventuring?” Rufus asked. “There are other ways to help people.”
“Not in our family, there isn’t. Gellers are adventurers, with all the good and bad that comes with it. And he has talent.”
“He does,” Rufus said. “If he can get past this obstacle, he could be one of the greats one day.”
“You have similar hopes for your friend, Jason, yes?”
“I’m sorry about him,” Rufus said. “He has a habit of saying whatever pops into his head.”
“No he doesn’t,” Danielle said. “You should pay more attention.”
“What do you mean?”
“Haven’t you noticed the way he seizes control of a conversation? The way he provokes people out of their comfortable patterns? He has a very political mind, but he applies it quite unlike anyone I’ve met. I do hope Humphrey can learn from him, a little.”
“You want Humphrey to be more like Jason?” Rufus asked incredulously.
“Humphrey is too straightforward a thinker for that,” Danielle said. “I’d just like him to understand that things are more complicated than he realises. Social survival training, if you will.”
“I think you may be overestimating Jason. You might be conflating unpredictability with cunning.”
“Perhaps,” Danielle said. “I will acknowledge he’s hard to predict. You know, I heard an interesting thing while you were off doing the field assessment.”
“A god appeared in Divine Square.”
“They do that all the time,” Rufus said.
“There were a couple of interesting quirks in this particular instance.”
“Which god?” Rufus asked.
“Hero,” Danielle said. “Interesting god. Did you know he’s the only core deity not to have subordinate gods?”
“I did, actually.”
“That’s right,” Danielle said. “Your uncle is a member of Hero’s clergy, isn’t he? How is he doing?”
“Very well. I’ll tell him you asked after him.”
“Please do. What really caught people’s attention about Hero’s appearance, though, was that when everyone kneeled before the god, one man did not.”
Rufus put a hand over his eyes, groaning wearily.
“Jason has something of an issue with religion,” he said.
“I did hear some rumours about that priestess you were working with,” Danielle said. “She has some unkind words about you, by the way. But you can see why I wasn’t startled at Jason’s lack of formality. What is the deference due an aristocrat when you won’t bow to a god?”
Rufus narrowed his eyes at Danielle.
“You seem to know a lot about Jason for someone who just met him,” Rufus said. “It’s hardly a surprise for someone of your influence to hear about the Divine Square incident, but you were certain it was Jason. You’re investigating him, aren’t you?”
“I am,” Danielle said. “At your father’s request.”
“Thousands of miles away, and he still can’t let me chart my own path.”
“He’s concerned about the man arresting so much of his son’s attention,” she said. “A man who seemingly fell out of the sky. Imagine my surprise to discover he did almost exactly that.”
“You know he’s an outworlder.”
“I do,” Danielle said. “Very exciting.”
"It was a fanciful guess until I met him. He's so obviously a man out of place. The way he talks, the way he thinks. The way he looks at things. He doesn’t fit.”
“The way he looks at things?”
“Like a man who doesn’t expect to recognise anything.”
“Have you told my father what he is?”
“I did,” Danielle said. “It won’t be hard for anyone to put the pieces together once people start looking for them. Which they will, when they realise you’re training him.”
“It’s inevitable, I know,” Rufus said. “I wanted him to reach the point where his skills at least weren’t an embarrassment. Jason doesn’t seem to embarrass, though.”
“He can be frustrating to teach,” Rufus said. “He’s driven, but whenever I see an opportunity to teach him a lesson, he just figures it out and explains it back to me, like he'd learnt it all before.”
“How do you think he manages that?”
“I advise strongly against ever asking him to explain. Something about an old man making a boy put wax on a carriage, then take it off again, because people were mean to him at his school. I think Jason’s world must be a very strange place.”
“Sounds rather intriguing,” she said.
“Then feel free to ask him about it,” Rufus said. “Just do it when I’m somewhere else.”
“When will he find his way into the mirage chamber?” she asked.
“Sooner, rather than later. I want him to use a martial arts skill-book first. I’ve been holding that off to prepare him as best I can, but he’ll need at least a few weeks to consolidate before his field assessment. So, in a few days, most likely. In the meantime, do you need me to keep coming for Humphrey?”
“No, our family has trainers enough with the stomach for it,” Danielle said. “When you bring Jason by, we can have them spar a little.”
“I will,” Rufus said. “But first, I need to have a talk with my father.”