“Well … how does that help us at all then?” Brandon asked, frustrated and soaking wet.
“It gives us a place to start. And a place to go next.”
“And where’s that?”
“Your friendly neighborhood Hero’s Hall, of course,” she said, as if that explained everything. “Trust me,” she added. “You’ll like it. Hero’s Halls have something for everyone, and they mean that literally.”
“If they’ve got a towel, they’re already sounding pretty good to me. How do we get there?”
“Couldn’t be easier. Straight down this hill, around that rock, and slip through the passage.” She suited actions to words, heading down the hill and away from the bugs.
Another reason to like this plan, he thought, even if deep down he found himself fascinated by their use of language. “Sorcha, why did those bugs down there act so much like regular bugs when they’re smart enough to speak?”
She raised an eyebrow at him and grinned. “What an interesting question! When did you become such an expert entymologist? You must know an awful lot about insects to be able to distinguish between ‘regular’ bugs and a species you’ve just encountered and watched for all of twenty minutes!”
“You have a thing or two to learn about intelligence though,” she added thoughtfully. “It’s not always a good idea to assume that the ability to speak makes one intelligent, or that the inability to speak makes one stupid. Be very careful about which assumptions you bring with you from your day to day life here, Brandon. Some of them could get you killed.”
He shut his mouth with a snap, startled. “So were they intelligent?”
“As it happens, they were and are,” she said. “You’re a bright fellow yourself, and I’d hate for that to get you in trouble.”
“Wouldn’t be the first time,” he said, and smiled. “So we go around this rock, and—”
And the world abruptly changed again, except that once more, the line was blurred. He blinked his eyes a few times, trying to refocus on what had just appeared around them.
It looked like the same physical spot they’d been in before, but the grass was a darker shade of green, the sky was lead-gray with clouds, there was a faint mist clinging to the air, and there was a monstrous wooden hall in front of him. He could almost believe she’d taken him around the corner gotten them stuck in New Zealand where they’d filmed the great hall scenes of Edoras in Rohan from The Lord of the Rings films.
A long, low hill rose before them, and the hall crowned the top of the hill, itself longer than he could see from below. A great stone foundation held the heavy wooden building, all of carved logs and fine fitted planks, ornately inlaid with iron and steel as both decorative elements and reinforcement.
Stone steps ran down the face of the hill near where they stood. Sorcha started up. Brandon stood and stared.
“C’mon, are you coming or not?”
He looked around. For once, they weren’t the only people around; there were horse ties nearby where several people were caring for their mounts, while other people came and went, climbing up and down the stairs. It seemed to be a fairly well-trafficked area. Nobody paid them any mind.
He started up the steps after her. “What is this place?”
“This is the Hero’s Hall, of course. Weren’t you listening?”
“Well, yes, but I was hoping for a bit more than just what it’s called,” he said. She nodded.
“Naturally. It’s hard to plan when you don’t know everything, isn’t it?” She smiled. “This is where the heroes of the world go to get their assignments.” She bit her lip, looking at the sky. “We’re a bit late in the day, I’m afraid. Most of the good stuff will probably be gone, but we might get lucky.”
“You’re kidding,” he said. It sounded like something out of computer role playing game. “This place hands out assignments to heroes?”
“Well, it’s not like you’re obligated or anything. Nobody’s forcing you to take an assignment. Not even me!” she exclaimed, seeing the look on his face. “There are a bunch of these all over every country of the worked, tucked away in the hidden corners beyond what most of your kind can see. When things need to be done, these places know about it, and they try to match the things with the people who want to do something for the world. But that matching is first come, first served.”
She cast another glance at the sky, looking for the sun. “Yeah, the really useful ones will probably be gone, but I’m sure we can find you something. And I promise, I’ll do my best to make sure it isn’t killing rats in a tavern basement.” She winked at him.
“Tell me they don’t actually have that one,” he said.
“Oh yes, they always have that one.”
By the time they reached the top of the stairs, he was glad he walked to and from work every day. It was a long climb, but he wasn’t as bad off as he could’ve been. They headed inside.
The interior of the hall was even more impressive than the exterior, though it looked seriously out of place, too. It was as though someone had taken a job fair from what he still thought of as the ‘real’ world and stuck it inside this fantasy setting. Many of the booths could have come from the ‘real’ world; he spotted formica and aluminum construction in more than one location, often sitting right next to wooden carts filled with straw and sporting plank signs.
The people milling about the space were just as diverse; maybe more so, in fact. Not all of them were people, or at least not all of them were human.
There were people in business suits talking to guys in loin cloths, and he was pretty sure that in at least one case, the guy in the suit was the hero looking for a job. There were women in practical armor, and a few women in armor that almost made him blush to look at it. Sorcha noticed his glances at them and smirked. “Makes you stop and think, doesn’t it?”
“I have always wondered how any of those outfits protect the wearer.”
“They don’t. That’s why there’re so few of them. These ladies are either stupidly lucky, or they’re protected by something far more effective than just armor.”
It was enough to make his head hurt all over again.