Chapter 1 – Strange Business

He Who Fights With Monsters, Shirtaloon, 25.09.2019

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Jason woke up naked, face down in the grass. That was not how he expected to wake up, having gone to sleep in his own bed and his own Darth Vader boxer shorts. From the feel of cool grass on his unmentionables, he had been removed from his bed and shorts both. The last thing he recalled was doing what he did most nights; playing video games until he got tired and fumbling his way into bed.

The grass he woke up on was weirdly comfortable; a dense bed of lush green softness. It wasn’t like any grass he had encountered before, which was a little unusual. His father was a landscape architect, and Jason had grown up learning more about grass than he ever wanted. Mostly because it was the only escape from his mother’s Japanese lessons.

Jason rolled himself over and sat up. He was feeling very odd, beyond just the circumstances. It wasn’t a bad sensation, more like waking up after a really long sleep. There was the lingering sopor, but also a feeling of refreshed energy. He ran a hand over his head, only to be startled to realise his hair was missing.

“Uh…”

He felt about his head with both hands, but his head was balloon smooth. He made a quick check with his eyes and hands, realising there was no hair at all. No eyebrows, nothing on his chest, or arms, or… other places.

“I thought it was meant to look bigger when you trimmed.”

He pushed himself to his feet and started assessing his environment. Casting his gaze to the sky, the sun was high and the air was warm. It was unbroken blue, the blazing orb burning away so much as the merest hint of cloud. Sunburn, more than cold, was likely to threaten his exposed extremities.

Looking around, he was boxed in between two long, tall hedges. Looking up and down the dead-straight lane, it seemed to turn at sharp right angles in either direction. The lane itself was wide and grassy, with plenty of room for unconscious sprawling. The hedge walls were meticulously trimmed.

After an unhappy glance down at his bald, naked body, he set off at random to explore. He quickly discovered he was in a hedge maze, the living walls having been cultivated to almost twice Jason’s height. Jason’s first thought was to climb one to get a better sense of his location, but a closer examination of the hedges changed his mind. Instead of the usual boxwood, the hedges were something very prickly, and he was very naked. He looked up and down the path he was on, with neither way looking any better than the other.

“What the bloody hell is going on?”

As if in response to his question, something appeared in front of him. It looked like a touch screen, floating in the air, disembodied. He reached out to touch it with an experimental finger, the screen shimmering as his finger passed straight through.

“Hologram?”

He looked at the ground and the nearby hedges for some kind of projector, but as he started moving, the screen followed. There was text on the screen, which he started reading.

New Quest: [Stranger in a Strange Land]
You have awoken in a place you do not know. Explore the area to discover more.

Objective: Explore the hedge maze 0/1.
Reward: Simple pants.

“Huh.”

He looked around, suspiciously. He even carefully probed the pointy foliage of the hedge walls, looking for hidden cameras. Looking up at the sky, he didn’t spot any camera drones. What he did notice was the moon, pale and easy to overlook in the daylight. Then he noticed another moon.

“That can’t be right.”

Jason looked down, at the floating screen, then back up at the sky. Still two moons.

“Am I going nuts?”

Jason sat down on the grass, unsure what to do. He kept glancing up at the sky and the extra moon. In front of him, the screen still waited patiently.

“This is crazy. I mean, a quest? I’m not a level 1 sorcerer.”

Another screen appeared next to the first.

Information
Jason Asano
Race: Outworlder.
Current rank: normal.
Progression to iron rank: 0% (0/4 essences).

Attributes
[Power] (no essence): normal.
[Speed] (no essence): normal.
[Spirit] (no essence): normal.[
Recovery] (no essence): normal.

Racial Abilities (Outworlder)
[Interface].
[Quest System].
[Inventory].
[Map].
[Astral Affinity].
[Mysterious Stranger].

Essences (0/4)
No Essence [No Attribute] (0/5)
No Essence [No Attribute] (0/5)
No Essence [No Attribute] (0/5)
No Essence [No Attribute] (0/5)

“Is this a character sheet? Am I meant to understand any of this?”

He shook his head in bewilderment.

“It could have at least gone with a game system I know.”

He looked over the screen again.

“Map,” he read, latching onto something familiar. “I know what maps are. How do I see the map?”

A new screen obligingly appeared, but as the third screen, the space in front of him was getting crowded. He absently thought it would be convenient for the other screens to close, which they immediately did.

“I’m sure that’s good.”

Things were getting harder to explain away, even ignoring the extra moon. Some kind of voice-command hologram was implausible, but not impossible. Mental command holograms were something else entirely.

“I’m becoming increasingly concerned.”

Hoping it wouldn’t work, he started experimenting. He was able to open and close any of the windows with a simple thought.

“Maybe you’re unconscious,” he reassured himself. “Maybe you have a brain tumour and you’re in a hospital somewhere. Or passed out on the floor. Hallucinating in an asylum. A nice one, with a big garden. But no hedge maze.”

He closed his eyes with a groan. “How is this the way I’m trying to comfort myself?”

He took a deep breath, letting it out slowly before opening his eyes again. The screens were still there, waiting.

“Just go with it, I guess,” he told himself. “Reserve judgement until more information is available. That’s the rational approach.”

He turned his gaze back to the map floating in front of him. It looked like a map from any video game, complete with a location listing.

Zone: Vane Estate (Hedge Maze).

Also like a video game map, it was mostly obscured. The only unveiled portion was the small section of the hedge maze he had already explored. He tried moving the map with mental commands, finding he could zoom it in and out as easily as he could open and close the disembodied screens.

Zooming all the way out he reached a world map that looked both familiar and unfamiliar. Although the details were obscured, he could make out the outline of the continents. Disturbingly, they weren’t quite the same as the ones he knew. South East Asia was a singular landmass, pushing Australia south and east where it looked to have consumed New Zealand. The Iberian and Arabian peninsulas were missing entirely, leaving Africa wholly disconnected from Europe and Asia. Sri Lanka was further south and several times larger, making for a huge land mass in the middle of the Indian Ocean.

“Well, that’s not what the world looks like. Lax cartography?”

According to the map, Jason was in south-west Africa, somewhere around inland Namibia. He looked at the rich, green hedges boxing him in. Felt the lush grass under his feet. He felt the hot, but not dry air on his skin.

“This doesn’t feel like the Kalahari Desert.”

He sighed, closing the map.

“This is some strange business.”

He pulled up his character sheet again.

Racial Abilities (Outworlder)
[Interface].
[Quest System].
[Inventory].
[Map].
[Astral Affinity].
[Mysterious Stranger].

 “Shouldn’t my race be human? What’s an outworlder?”

Jason half expected another screen to appear, but nothing did, so he started looking down the list.

“Interface seems obvious. Quest system too, I guess. Inventory?”

A window appeared, dominated by an almost empty grid of icon slots. There were five spaces down and eight across, for a total of forty. There was also what looked like a currency counter at the bottom.

“Well, that’s certainly a classic inventory,” Jason said. “Can I really put stuff in here?”

There was one item in the inventory, occupying the first slot. It was some kind of red icon, presumably representing an actual item.

“Alright, Jason. Time to see how nuts you’ve really gone. How do I get this thing out?”

After some quick trial and error, he discovered it was a simple as plucking the icon straight out of the screen. The icon vanished and the item appeared magically in his hand. a medallion the size of his palm. It looked and felt like polished red marble with gold engravings on both sides. It was pleasantly warm to the touch. On one side the engraving was a picture of a fire bird, while the other had symbols reading ‘Authority of the World Phoenix.’

“Well, that just magically appeared out of thin air,” Jason said. “That’s definitely not possible. Wait, why can I read this? I never even learned Japanese properly.”

Jason’s father, Ken Asano, was born in Japan, but raised in Australia from a very young age. Proving there is no zealot like a convert, Ken was all about the Australian lifestyle, from pub rock to footy matches and weekend barbecues. He fell right in with the family of his wife, Cheryl, who were as Australian as he could ask for. Miners and farmers, tracing their bloodline back through bushrangers, convicts, and indigenous Australians. Ironically, Cheryl was the one fascinated with Japan, trying to engage her children with their father’s cultural heritage. Despite very strong support from her mother in law, results were mixed.

Jason tried putting the red tablet back into the inventory. His first attempt was just shoving it into the screen, which surprisingly worked. It vanished from his hands and reappeared as an icon.

“That’s disconcerting.”

Jason’s grip on reality was feeling increasingly tenuous. The screens were definitely odd, but could conceivably, if implausibly, be the product of hidden hologram projectors. It was when they started responding to his thoughts that he started to get worried, and now he was pulling objects out of thin air. He closed the inventory and pulled up his character sheet again. Next down the ability list was the map, which he’d already looked at, then astral affinity.

Ability: [Astral Affinity]
Increased resistance to the dimension effects and astral forces. Dimension abilities have increased effect and transcendent damage is increased.

“No idea what that means.”

Only one ability remained.

Ability: [Mysterious Stranger]
Language adaptation.
Essence, awakening stone and skill-book absorption.
Immunity to identification and tracking effects.

“Language adaptation? Is that how I read the weird writing on the tablet?”

He took the tablet out again.

“What is this thing?”

Item: [World-Phoenix Token] (transcendent rank, legendary)
???. (consumable, ???).

Effect: ???.
Effect: ???.

Uses remaining: 1/1

“Question marks. That’s enlightening. Do I have to pay a wizard to identify items?”

He put the tablet away, closing all the open windows except for the map.

“Alright, then,” he said, looking up and down the pathway he was on. Neither offered anything to recommend it over the other.

“It’s no yellow wood,” he told himself, “but I guess it’s time to Robert Frost this thing.”

He picked a direction at random and set off.

“I really wish I had clothes on.”


***


Jason was walking through the maze, the map open in front of him. It was being unveiled as he walked, so his current plan was to reveal enough that he could plot a way out. He froze when he heard a rustle in the hedges.

“Um, g’day?” he called out, hands moving to nervously hide his unmentionables. “Hello? Buenos días? Guten morgen?”

There wasn’t any response.

“Maybe it’s not morning. Guten tag?”

There still wasn’t any response.

“Yeah, Jason; that was the problem. You got the time of day wrong.”

He shrugged.

“Makes as much sense as anything else here, I guess.”

He was about to resume walking when a window appeared.

New Quest: [No Shirt, No Shoes, No Service]
For unknown reasons, your immediate area has become infested with lesser monsters.

Objective: Discover the reason lesser monsters have infested the area 0/1.
Reward: Simple shirt.

Bonus Objective: Defeat ten lesser monsters 0/10.
Reward: Simple footwear.

“Monsters? That doesn’t sound plausible.”

He was looking around suspiciously when something small came hurtling from the bottom of a hedge. His hands shot back over his privates, which left his head an exposed target. He was blinded by something latching onto his face, something sharp digging painfully into his scalp. He yanked it off with both hands, screaming as a chunk of skin went with it. He dropped to his knees, slamming the thing into the ground, over and over until it stopped struggling.

Information
You have defeated [Potent Hamster].
Defeat lesser monsters 1/10.

Jason released the creature and scuttled back, still on his hands and knees. His heart was racing, the wounds on his head throbbing. Blood was trickling down his face and he wiped it away from his eyes.

“What in the merry hell is happening? How did a hamster jump on my head?”

Jason looked over at the creature. According to the window that popped up it was some kind of hamster, but was easily as big as Jason’s head. That made it bigger than any hamster he had heard of. It was distended from being pounded into the dirt, as well as streaked with blood from Jason’s head. He crawled forward cautiously, ready to jump back. Extending a hesitant finger, he poked at it.

Information
Would you like to loot [Potent Hamster]?

Jason rocked back, hands clutching his bald head. His fingers found the wound and he yelped in pain.

“What the hell is going on?”