The closest thing she could compare it to was skydiving, Alinasha decided. Even though it was technically a "flying" carpet, the feeling was nothing like flying. Not in an airplane, at any rate. The sensation was more like being in free fall. The wind whipping her hair. The open sky all around her. The feeling of nothing but woven fabric between her butt and a 5000-foot drop.
Even so, it wasn't exactly the same. The one time she'd gone skydiving—down in Barbados, during her gap year—she'd gotten around 30 seconds of sheer exhilaration before the chute opened.
This had been going on for hours.
Add to it the sheer cool factor of being on an actual, real-life flying carpet. That was something she'd dreamed of ever since seeing Aladdin as a girl. For about the hundredth time since they took off from the Jewel Coast, Alinasha the Red Sorceress—aka, Allie Nash the UMASS Amherst freshman (undeclared)—fought the urge to break into a chorus of "A Whole New World."
Instead, she settled for leaning back, turning her face to the rising sun, and grinning from ear to ear.
Off on the horizon, she could just barely make out the minarets of a desert city. Kairo, the others had called it. Pronounced like Cairo, but with a slight roll to the "r" sound.
Somewhere behind her on the carpet, one of the others broke the tranquil silence. It was the party's Warrior and de facto leader, Jaym Waylander, aka Jimmy Weyland. "We're almost there. Probably another twenty, thirty minutes."
"Thank god," Jasten said. "I've had to pee for the last 500 miles."
Jasten Kraid, the party's Thief, was the only person she knew from before. They'd been dorm-mates at UMASS, and fast friends soon after. Back then, he'd been plain old Justin Kramer, a boyishly handsome cross country runner, with big ideas about being a veterinarian or a park ranger some day.
God... that was literally a lifetime ago.
Not for the first time, she wondered what everyone was saying about them back home. Were they still searching for the bodies? How long had they been missing now? It had to be months. Maybe even a year.
However long it was, she'd been in Avalis long enough that she was starting to forget the insignificant details from her old life. It was something that eventually happened to all the Reborn. It wasn't hard to understand why. The experiences here were so much more vivid, so much more exciting than on Earth. Life in Avalis was an adventure. Every new day brought sights and sounds she'd only dreamed of back home.
Here, she was truly alive.
So then that day in the White Mountains... was that really dying? Or was I just waking up from a bad dream?
It wasn't the first time she'd asked herself that question.
The plan was for a casual day hike, a way to unwind with her best friend before Thanksgiving Break. Justin had gotten bored hiking the Berkshires in western Massachusetts—hills, not mountains, according to him—so he planned a day-long excursion into the White Mountains of New Hampshire.
Allie quickly agreed. She was an Oklahoma girl. The thoughts of hiking the highest country on the East Coast thrilled her.
The weather had been unseasonably warm, so they only brought light jackets with them.
No one predicted the Nor'Easter.
Allie was the first to notice the change in the air, and the darkening skies. She repeatedly urged Justin to turn around. When the rain began to fall in big, ice-cold drops, he finally agreed.
Before they made it more than three miles over their back-trail, the freezing rain had turned to wet, heavy snow. They were soaked to the bone, hiking through frigid winds, and in near-whiteout conditions.
Allie was the one who suggested backtracking to the shelter. They'd seen one about two miles back. If they could just wait out the storm—and more importantly, get out of that driving wind—maybe they'd be okay.
She didn't remember much about what happened next. The next few hours were a blur.
She had vague memories of shivering uncontrollably under the skirt of a snow-covered pine tree, huddled next to Justin for warmth. She couldn't feel her arms or her legs anymore. She felt tired and sluggish, like her brain was trying to swim through molasses. If she could just sleep, everything would be fine...
The next thing she remembered, both her and Justin were in a warm field, the sun shining down on them under a clear blue sky.
At first, Allie thought it was a dream. But Justin kept rambling on and on about a Goddess, a light, and a second chance.
"We're different, now, Allie! I'll prove it. Bring up your stats."
She wanted to tell him she had no idea what he was talking about. But she realized she did know. She realized, with growing confusion, that bringing up her stat screen was just as instinctive as raising her right hand.
So she did.
This is real, she thought, staring at the blinking menu. I'm not dreaming. I'm awake.
"This place is different from the Northern Continent," Locke said. "If the Northern Continent was like Game of Thrones, this place is more like The Mummy meets Aladdin, with a dash of Ancient Greece."
Like Alinasha, Locke Harwind—aka Luke Hirschfeld—was a magus. Unlike her, he wore the Black Robes. He had no access to White magic, studying arts of destruction almost exclusively. He was the party's glass cannon, where Alinasha pulled double duty as healer and secondary offense.
Jaym grunted. "It's more like the Middle East if the Persian Empire never died out. And if Islam never became more than a fringe religion."
He explained more in detail. Something about the God King ruling the city-states through local satraps, or governors. Apparently, the God King's rule extended halfway to the Jewel Coast, with more city-states swearing fealty to him each year. He tolerated other faiths, provided they acknowledged him as divine, and that he ruled with the mandate of the heavens.
In truth, Alinasha only half-listened. The politics didn't interest her as much as the Dungeon.
"So what do you know about the Crypt?" Jasten asked.
Jaym considered. "I was here once before, back when I was 2nd Level. It's tough. Tougher than most of the dungeons on the North Continent. You absolutely need to bring hirelings."
Alinasha's curiosity was piqued. She'd delved three dungeons so far, including the Maze of the Maelific Mage-Emperor. Hirelings were something she'd never used. She wasn't even sure what they were for. So she asked.
"You know... Hirelings. Zero-levels. Meat shields."
"What are you...?"
It was Jasten that spoke up this time. "You ever play old school D&D back on earth? Like, anything before 3rd edition?"
"No," Alinasha said. She remembered an ex-boyfriend playing it. She'd tried a few times, but she couldn't really get into it. She preferred things like Zelda and Final Fantasy.
"Well, in those games, your characters are more vulnerable and weaker than later editions. So the only way for a party to survive is to hire a bunch of low-level or no-level NPCs to act as dungeon fodder."
"Dungeon fodder?" Alinasha stared at Jasten. The sheepish look on his face indicated he knew he screwed up.
"Well, it's not just Dungeon fodder... They do other things."
"Porters," Jaym said. "Torch-bearers. Shield-bearers. And most useful of all, men-at-arms. It's a group of temporary augments for the party."
"But you still call them meat shields?"
"Yeah. Look, I don't mean this to sound cruel. But it's best not to get attached. Most of them have only 1 or 2 HP. It's not uncommon to lose most of them on a delve. Or even all of them."
Alinasha searched the faces of her companions, waiting for one of them to tell her it was a joke. None did.
"But..." She began. "But these aren't NPCs. This is a real place. And these are real people!"
"Yeah," Jaym said. "And this is dangerous work. Dangerous even for us. Facts are facts. Anything that can kill us will kill one of them twice as fast."
"Then why on earth are we bringing them? Aren't we supposed to be heroes?"
Jaym shrugged. "They know what kind of chances they're taking down in the dark. If they wanna risk everything for a handful of gold, I say let 'em. It helps us in the end."
No one else on the carpet said anything. Even Jasten stayed quiet, refusing to meet her gaze.
The rest of the ride to Kairo didn't feel like skydiving.