The moment the show was over, Jasper made himself scarce, vanishing into the shadowed hallway behind his makeshift stage; if there was one thing Jasper hadn’t expected, it was that the bandits had welcomed him with open arms. If anything they were too friendly. If he stuck around a second too long, he’d be invited to drink with them, and there was no point in refusing. Then he’d be expected to drop hints about what would happen next, and tell jokes, throw insults– for hours.
These people were desperate for entertainment.
What passed for amusement around here was going into the woods to forage for food and set traps. Only a few of the men could actually hunt, and they were the heroes or the villains of the camp depending on the day and whether they’d managed to bring back any meat.
Scuttling up a rickety flight of stairs, Jasper arrived at his ‘room’.
It was at the top of one of the towers, and the ceiling was missing, replaced by a stretch of tarp that fluttered and crackled as the wind scraped over it. There was a cot and not much else; the bandits lived a threadbare existence.
And now, he did too.
Glancing down, Jasper found a notification waiting on the edge of his vision. It was a single exclamation point imposed over a stylized image of the sun.
The Great God Aphon Blesses You
Skill ‘Storytelling’ is now Level 7.
A man’s worth can be measured by how many stories he leaves behind.
The messages had started when his stint as a performer did. Whenever he had a particularly good show, they would crop up, sometimes two at a time.
And every time they did, Jasper could feel himself getting better. He was calm on stage now, in better tune with the audience’s mood, and it with every level it became easier to hold a moment of tension or remember a line.
The fact that the effects were noticeable at all surprised him. If it was this easy to learn a skill, why had nobody in the camp picked up storytelling? And why were the musicians, the cooks, the hunters all shit at their jobs?
It didn't make sense.
But… Nothing about Jasper's life made sense anymore. He washed his face in the rainwater bucket, stripping off a layer of sweat. God, but he missed air conditioning. He was going to learn how to do ice magic, he swore, just so he wouldn't live the rest of his life in a puddle of his own sweat. Maybe he’d even invent the modern shower and save this world from smelling like ass.
But if he wanted any control over his life at all, he had to get out of here.
And his abnormally fast learning curve was the key.
The way Jasper figured things, he needed three skills to escape. One was stealth. Another was gathering food for himself, once he made it out into the wilds. The third...
The third was learning to defend himself.
The bandits weren't keeping him under lock and key. They knew he had nowhere to run; the jungle was dark and endless, and the nearest village was hours away even on a horse. Stumbling blindly through the trees would just end in his bones lining the den of some man-eating monster.
Stealth. Survival. Self-defense.
The middle one was easy-- he could just tag along when the bandits went out foraging. The last one, he could probably swing. He could get one of his captors to agree to teach him-- the problem was finding one who wouldn't take it as an excuse to beat him senseless.
It was the first that was really difficult. The only way he could think to make a Stealth skill appear was to start sneaking around the camp. And if he got caught...
It would become very obvious, very fast, what he was planning.
So he’d have to learn Stealth, stealthily. Which would be hard, because, again, he didn’t have Stealth to begin with.
“Fuckity.” Flicking cold water off his hands, Jasper smiled despite himself.
Look at him…
Making plans. Making daring plans, at that.
He missed an endless list of things– air conditioning, coffee, and the Internet, for a start– but he was finding something new. Some kind of clarity, like his mind wasn’t polluted with a million things to worry about and an endless stream of meaningless entertainment.
He had found focus. They had thrown him into the deep end of the pool, and it looked like he might be able to swim after all.
— — —
Jasper waited until dinner time to descend from his little hideaway. By then, the bandits were usually back to arguing and gambling, and paid him less attention.
This time, they didn’t pay him any attention at all.
A caravan had pulled into the castle grounds. It was a colorfully-painted wagon drawn by a creature best described as an enormous, foul-looking chicken, with a thin and fighty build to its black-feathered body. Big Dog was personally up front and center, extending a hand to help the wagon’s occupant step down from the driver’s bench.
Well first of all, she was female. Even after three days, that meant an awful lot to Jasper, and he could only imagine it was worse for the men who’d been camped out here for years…
But even putting aside a certain air of desperation…
She was dazzling. Her skin was olive-dark and smooth like silk, the light brushing over the curves of her cheekbone and lips in a faint golden glow; she had a proud, aquiline nose, and dark hair bound up in a braid that circled around her head like a crown. Her neck was wrapped in hanging necklaces– Jasper blinked and realized they were snakes, pale green serpents.
“The Witch of the Wilds…” Big Dog said, respectfully. Jasper had never seen someone who could take up more space than the bandit king, but he seemed to shrink back in the woman’s presence, letting her fill the air with her presence. “Bow down, idiots!” He barked out to his men, who were all but drooling.
Jasper felt a bit salivatory himself– and after a moment he realized he hadn’t taken a knee with the rest of them, leaving him standing out like a sore thumb.
“Er…” Big Dog glared at him with a ferocity that made Jasper flinch and grin helplessly. “My lady, this is our resident fool. You’ll have to forgive him, he was born for the role.”
“And even if I wasn’t– I’d gladly make a fool of myself over you.” Jasper said, before he could think. When his brain did catch up, his first thought was, Damn, I’m smoother than I thought.
She smiled. Very faintly, but she smiled.
And then she turned back to Big Dog, speaking loudly enough that everyone could hear. “There has been a disturbance. The Veil was sundered; the gods send us omens. I’ve discovered several minor artifacts already, littering this hex. I wish for your men to go out and search. You will be rewarded– handsomely– for any objects of power you find and return.” The serpents around her neck lifted their heads and hissed.
Jasper felt a certain fear knot in his stomach. He was probably what she was really looking for, and he’d gone and drawn her attention like, well–
“Of course.” Big Dog said, and turned to his men. “Hear that, dogs!? We’re going hunting!”
— — —
The jungle was sticky. Seeds covered in thorny, hooked hairs clung to his skin whenever he brushed through a tall glade of grass. The trunks of the trees dripped with oozing saps. Bugs landed on his skin, drinking the sweat that was constantly building, making his clothes cling to his back.
And he still didn’t have any skill like ‘Gathering’ or ‘Foraging’ or ‘Survival’.
His attention was called over by a bald, wrinkled creature with a bent back; Dessim, the camp’s cook. The poor man had maybe two teeth left in his head, which might explain why all he ever cooked was soft stew, soft mash, and watery gruel.
Dessim indicated a pair of dark-blue plums sitting in the crook of a tree’s green boughs. “Whatcha think, greenhorn? Poison or na?”
Jasper pretended to consider, but the answer was always the same. “Poison.” He said tiredly.
“That’s right!” Dessim chuckled, licking the stubs of his yellow teeth. “Poor ol’ Trem ate one of these. He shat himself for three days running, sweated all his water out, and died crying out in thirst; the body smelled so bad we threw it in the shitpit and covered it in.”
Jasper winced. So far, the only lesson he was learning was– the jungle was terrifying.
He wished he could just ask about skills, but especially now, Jasper didn’t want to call attention to the fact he was an outsider; the men had decided he was from somewhere called Ardaen, and Jasper found it convenient for them to keep thinking that.
“Now, these…” Dessim reached down and pulled up a fist-sized clump of black, ear-shaped mushrooms. “These you can eat. Taste like crap, which is how you know they’re safe.”
“‘Safe’ is what I’ll be saying about your stew from now on, Dessim.” Jasper quipped…
But as they continued on and Dessim pointed out more and more poisonous plants, pausing now and then to toss a few edible ones into his sack, Jasper understood why he was the cook, despite having no talent at all for it. The old man’s knowledge was encyclopedic. With him standing guard at the cookpot, there was no risk of some idiot tossing something in that poisoned the whole camp.
And when he wasn’t rambling about the flora, well, Dessim knew the fauna too.
There were Thirsting Stalkers, ugly things that looked like a combination of an insect and a lizard, with long piercing tongues that drained the blood from anything they could touch. Thankfully, they were bright orange and prone to croaking out a mating call– one Dessim bulged his cheeks out to imitate– so it was easy enough to stay away from.
Then there was Serpentvine, a parasitic plant that bloomed in old dead wood, each of its thorn-covered tendrils ending in a ‘mouth’ of toothy petals…
Jasper’s attention began slowly but surely to drift. He searched the branches for fruits, the low places for berries– he waved to an enormous, red-furred bat that sat on the branches, chewing a pale green bug in its jaws.
And then he stepped forward, and his heart lurched in his chest.
Sitting in a nest of torn-up branches was an enormous, green-feathered creature. ‘Bird’ was the wrong phrase. It was closer to a dinosaur, with a long scaly muzzle full of teeth and a brilliant crest of blue that ran from the top of its head down to its flicking tail. It moved on two enormous, claw-footed legs, with stubby wings ending in two-fingered hands.
And it was as tall as Jasper, even before he counted its ostrich-length neck.
Jasper’s mouth felt very dry. He wished he had a weapon– something better than the walking stick he’d made from a piece of driftwood.
The beast shifted slowly, lifting its head, vaguely aware someone was near. Jasper shrank back into the shadow of a tree with his heart in his mouth.
And in the background, unaware of anything, Dessim called out, “Hey, over here!”
Instantly the terror-bird was on its feet. It croaked, an ugly keening sound that scraped through its abundance of small, sharp teeth.
Dessim turned– his jowly, old face framing a perfect look of terror as he saw the creature staring him down. “Ah… Ah…” Letting out a chokey little laugh of terror, he began to edge back, slowly, slowly…
And then the beast suddenly lost patience, or sensed weakness– some switch flicked in its reptile brain– and it shot forward.
Dessim screamed in a truly pitiful way.
And without really thinking about it– because if he thought about it, even for a second, Jasper would not have let his stupid mouth open– Jasper shouted out,
“Heeeere chicken chicken chicken!”
And then he realized what he’d done; the terror-bird turned on him, and Jasper’s thin reserve of courage was suddenly melting under the hatred-hot glare of those yellow, cruel eyes.
So of course he kept talking.
“Y-you know, in about a thousand years, your kids get soooo fat and ugly, we have to chop them into pink paste and stamp them back down dinosaur-shaped before our children will eat them. With ketchup!”
It was a weak insult–
Sue him, he didn’t have time to think of a good one–
But as it left his mouth, Jasper felt a warmth burn through his body, traveling down his hand. His fingers clenched around something smooth and metallic.
A dagger had appeared in his hand.