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Dawn and the toe of a boot woke Jasper up.

He had slept curled around his sword, twitching at every small sound of the woods. The archer-girl had been the last one up– she slid into the woods and returned several times, poking at the remnants of their small fire to keep it going.

Jasper had spent the night running his choices over in his head.

He didn’t know where he was going– that was the first problem.

And he didn’t know what to do once he got there– problem two.

But here, he had a group of useful people, ones moving across the country. It would be easy to pick up what he needed to know from them, and easy to leave when the time came to bail. He knew it was the right call…

But his night brought the faces of the dead to him, as he lay at a campfire with their murderers.

And he was waiting to see if the coins would fall again. They didn’t– which confirmed he’d broken whatever connection he had to the old fort.

It hadn’t been a great night for sleep.

And now Jasper was awakened from his dim rest by the archer-girl. As he cracked his eyes open, she stared down, prodding his ribs with the toe of her boot. “Go get some firewood. Take Teysa with you.” She said.

Not a lot of words wasted with this one.

“I didn’t get your name.” Jasper said, groggily rolling over and climbing to his feet.

“Nope.” She replied. “But it’s Thorn.”

“Thorn?” He raised an eyebrow. That didn’t sound like a normal name.

“I don’t like questions or people who ask them.” And then she was gone. Jasper made a face behind her back, but really, he found her refreshing compared to Amun– she wasn’t easy to get along with, but she didn’t expect anyone to try. She was who she was.

And there didn’t seem to be any risk of Jasper accidentally liking her, which was a plus.

Teysa, on the other hand…

She popped up from her bedroll with a pneumatic yawn, and grinned at him. “G’morning.”

Jasper did his best not to let any of the good cheer infect him. His smile was thin.

And she was full of questions.

“So, where are you from?” She asked, as they went out into the woods, looking for dead branches that hadn’t yet been overgrown with wet mosses. “You don’t strike me as Tevaldi. Or a Broskman. But I don’t know where else you could’ve learned to play like that.”

“I’m from here.” He said, on guard. Jasper still didn’t know enough to weave a proper story for himself, so every time he opened his mouth, he risked stumbling over some unseen contradiction, giving the truth away. It was a game of admitting as little as he could. “But Ardish.” He hastily added. Being Ardish seemed to have saved his life– which didn’t bring the most pleasant of implications.

“Well of course.” The good news was, Teysa seemed happy to spin a story for him. “Let me guess…” A finger perched on her chin. “Parents weren’t in love with the constant wars. When the Edro was settled, they came out as homesteaders, looking for a slice of peace and quiet?”

“Yeah. Something like that.” He mumbled.

The woods rustled around them, a faint wind beating against the canopy.

“And judging by how quickly you added that.” She tapped her chin. “Half Ardish.”

“You got me. I ah, don’t really know who my father was.” Jasper ‘admitted.’ There was something uncomfortable in the back of his head– this was the most interest a girl had shown him in years, maybe in ever.

He really should have learned the guitar back in high school.

“Your mother must have been brave, moving out here alone.” Teysa chirped. “But you still haven’t answered the question. Where under the light did you learn to play like that?”

“I just… learned…” Jasper said weakly. “I guess music was part of my family?” A flash back to, since Tesya had mentioned it, his mother howling along with oldie rock radio as they plunged down the highway at murderous speeds, a cigarette hanging off two fingers as the other three gripped the wheels. “And some passing bards gave me some hints, because they said I had talent.”

All around them were the moss-scarred trunks of ancient trees, the canopy tangled with parasitic, flowering vines; he was a world away now.

“I’ll say… A real self-taught prodigy… You know, the College of Bards would accept you in a heartbeat. Anyone who can play like that doesn’t need to worry about the age requirement…” She paused, glancing down among the roots of an old oak. “Oooh. These’ll go nice…”

Sitting in a basin of moss and root were a cluster of frilly, wrinkled mushrooms, like the lobes of a gray-green brain. She reached a hand for them–

“Careful!” He lurched forward, catching her wrist. “Those are, uh, poisonous.”

And it felt like someone had passed over his grave. A cold surge of emotion rose up through his chest, all ice-water and regret. Memories were coming flooding in.

He released her hand.

“Well, of course they are.” Teysa grinned. “I wasn’t going to throw them in the cookpot, silly. I’m an alchemist, aren’t I?”

“Oh.” His voice sounded like it came from a ghost. “Right…”

She looked at him oddly. “Thank you, though. I appreciate the concern?”

Jasper did his best to smile.

She seemed to find it effortless.

 

The Great God Iskatae Blesses You

Skill ‘Foraging' is now Level 1.

The earth is resplendent with a thousand treasures, for those who know their worth.

 

— — —

 

Breakfast was a hare Thorn had caught in her traps last night. When they got back to camp she’d hung it upside down and was stripping away the fur. Jasper blanched– the others giving him odd looks. The beast went into a cast-iron pan alongside slabs of thick-cut leek and cakes of an odd, savory-sweet grain that reminded Jasper of a cross between corn and lentil. The cakes agreed with his stomach more than the greasy, bloody meat.

Amun only woke up in time to wolf down his breakfast. “If we hurry, we can make it to Saltboon before midday. Thorn isn’t much use without a bow, and the greenhorn–” He waved his haunch of rabbit at Jasper. “–needs gear.”

“And…” Thorn actually seemed to be tempering her words, for once. “What about the village that asked us to handle the bandits? They owe us good money.”

Amun smiled. He’d known this was coming. “Money they can’t actually afford to pay. I know it’s not your style but– let’s do the noble thing.”

She scowled…

But that was that.

 

— — —

 

Two hours later, Jasper saw the edge of a hex.

He’d gathered that this part of the world, Midland, ran on the logic of a wargame. He hadn’t expected it to be this…

Striking.

There was a point in the air where things simply stopped. A golden, watery veil cascaded down from the sky in a perfectly flat wall. On their side, the jungle pressed up to the veil, the branches of massive trees pressing themselves flat against the surface. Tall grass ran to the very edge.

And on the other side, a desert began.

Everything past the veil was a vast expanse of golden-white sands littered with glinting fragments of something blue, like fallen shards of sand. In the distance, thanks to a slight downward bend, Jasper could see threads of river gathering into a green basin full of still, rainbow-colored lakes.

The world had been split into two entirely different biomes.

Jasper hesitated but the others didn’t. They plunged through and the golden light flashing where they touched it, splintering into threads of color like rainbow veins around their silhouette.

After a moment, he followed.

The air went from damp and humid and sweat-warm to violently, viscerally dry and hot, so fast he felt his ears pop and his nose twitch, a blood-drop forming in his nostril and dripping down.

“Fuck.” He swore, stumbling, his feet sinking into the sand.

The others were looking at him oddly.

“First time in the desert.” He explained lamely, kicking his shoes free from the sand and hurrying to keep pace with them.

“Don’t drink any water from the pools.” Thorn warned. “They’re poisonous, and full of enough salt you’ll die thirsty anyway.”

You’ll die thirsty… Jasper smiled. Sounds like something he’d have said, in another life. Shouldering his pack, he nodded to the others, and out into the desert they went. Each step left a crater in the sand, for the wind to slowly sweep away. That same restless tumbling wind combed countless ridges and valleys into the endless sands, sweeping them to and fro into grooved tracks, like an endless maze.

The sun was high and devastatingly hot. Jasper began to count each drop of sweat as something precious, a momentary raindrop cooling him by a fraction as it slid down his face and fell off the bottom of his jaw.

They wove their way through oasis pools; each was a splendid little palace of green life in the arid death of the desert.

At the bottom of each oasis were concentric bands of metallic rainbow colors; Teysa explained they were made by toxic minerals and heavy metals leaching up from below. But there was drinkable water in the stout, squat trees that grew around the pools’ edges. These trees had numerous small ‘cups’ growing from their bark, where purified water that came up through their roots collected. As the water then dissolved under the heavy sun, it became condensate vapor that collected into a fluff of cloudy mist that hung in the branches, as if each tree was a mountain scraping the bottoms of the clouds.

Cobalt-blue birds with ridiculously tall crests of transparent, glass-green feathers atop their heads dipped long beaks into the collecting cups, hunting for bright-colored frogs. As he drank and splashed water against his face, Jasper saw a two-tailed scorpion being hunted slowly and relentlessly by a turtle with a shell made from black iron.

There was a whole world out here.

And it cooled a little of the hot, heavy guilt in his chest, to be moving through that world, experiencing it.

In the vastness of the desert Jasper felt comfortingly small.

“Hey…” Like a shadow, Thorn had crept up. She held a finger to her lips as he almost-yelled. “Come with me, quickly and quietly.”

Then she moved on to Teysa and Amun, issuing the same command. She led them up a dune, crawling on her belly with the rest following suit behind her.

Underneath the shadow at the crest of the dune were a pack of strange creatures, moving through the ruins of what looked to be an ancient temple. They picked at the skulls and bones that lay among the broken tiles and crumbled walls, crunching them between massive teeth.

They were huge dogs with skin made of rough, scaly lumps of milk-white stone, blistering up into geometric spikes. Like alligators, they had their teeth on the outside of their mouths, ridges of sharp bone set into skeletal, stony heads.

Jasper knew them. Quartz hounds. Elementals that longed for the life of human bodies, and would crack the bones for the precious marrow within.

But the creature that towered over them, like a master leading his dogs on a hunt, was unknown. It was a crudely man-shaped thing made from lumps of thick, cloudy-pink salt, sort of glued together in an ugly approximation of a human body. Light shone out of the cracks.

“Spirit beast…” Amun whispered.

“A salt-devil.” Thorn confirmed.

Oh right. Jasper silently rolled his eyes. A salt-devil and a spirit beast, the very common things everyone here knows about…

The moment they found civilization, Jasper swore, he was going to find someone to answer his questions. If his lack of basic knowledge raised suspicion, then so be it. Hopefully they’d never visit that city again, but at worst, he’d just bail on these three.

Better than stumbling about blind any further…

Thorn was drawing her sword. “We can take them…”

But Amun held out a hand. “Saltboon is near. We’ll get a better price selling the hunt to a class-seeker.”

She nodded, returning the blade to its sheathe. “Let’s move fast then. Before someone else takes our lunch.”

And they slid back down the dune, leaving the strange creatures to their own devices.

Amun punched him on the shoulder in a jocular way. “I bet you’ve never hunted a spirit beast before, have you? I’m guessing…” He paused with a mock thoughtful expression. “You got your class by playing the Histories, right?”

“Right you are.” Jasper lied to his face.

And at the same time, he was thinking.

So hunting a spirit beast is one way to get a class from the Ardish gods…

And I already have one, but its from a different set of rules, a different pantheon.

Could I get a second class?

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About the author

NoDragons

Bio: Author bios are for the mangy dogs who think they write literature. I write trash, and I am the king of the trash.

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