“Aren’t you the person that tried to get us out of the cages but got hit upside the head?” Anisa asked, giving Jason a second glance.
“That’s me,” Jason said.
Jason recognised Anisa’s voice from where they had all been locked up in cages. He recalled she hadn’t thought much of him, even then. She looked him over, her expression suggesting her opinion hadn’t improved.
“He’s lucky you were there,” she said to the others. “I hope you didn’t let him slow you down.”
“Actually, he rescued us,” Rufus said.
“I find that hard to believe,” Anisa said.
“It was something to see,” Gary said. “He’s taken a few too many blows to the head, though. We’ve been dumping potions into him, but only a couple of hours in the desert left him a wreck. Any chance you could throw a healing spell his way?”
Anisa turned her gaze back to Jason. With a reluctant grimace, she held a hand out in front of his face and recited a short chant.
“Let the life that has withered return to full bloom.”
“I think ‘withered’ might be a bit harsh,” Jason said.
A soft light started shining from under his skin. The perpetual ache in his head turned sharp, the now-familiar sense of magic healing, although the spell was far gentler than the potions he had consumed.
- You have been affected by [Regenerate]. Your health will be restored over time.
An icon appeared in his vision relaying the remaining duration of the spell. The injury indicator in Jason’s vision was still yellow and orange, but over the half-minute duration of the spell, the health silhouette all cooled to a healthy green. His head had long been an overfilled balloon threatening to burst, until the healing magic deflated it to his great relief. He fell into a sitting position on the grass, letting out a long, satisfied breath.
“Thank you so much,” he said, letting himself fall back, arms splayed out. “I’m suddenly very sleepy. I don’t think being unconscious is actually very restful.”
“You can sleep after we’ve cleared this place out,” Rufus said, moving to stand over Jason. He held out a hand, which Jason gripped reluctantly, letting Rufus pull him to his feet.
“You found our gear, then,” Gary said, looking at Anisa. Rufus, Farrah and Gary had changed clothes, but were still various degrees of sweaty and dirty, while Anisa wasn’t just geared-up but also clean. Jason looked the worst of the lot. His shirt was sweaty and smeared with trail dust, while his pants could only be described as wretched.
“They have a store room in the cellar complex under the manor,” Anisa said. “Most of our equipment was there, but they’d already taken some of it away. Including the dimensional bags, which is why I didn’t bring it with me.”
“Let’s start there, then,” Rufus said. “They didn’t take my boots, did they?”
“Your boots are still there,” Anisa said, prompting relief on Rufus’ face.
“Summoning time?” Gary asked.
“Go ahead,” Rufus said.
“No,” Anisa countermanded. “Your summons are both too destructive. My church is seizing this estate, so I won’t let you destroy it.”
“Let the summons search the grounds,” Rufus said. “If that doesn’t flush out any hiding cultists, nothing will.”
“They’ll ruin the grounds,” Anisa said.
“Priestess,” Rufus said to Anisa, “You brought this contract to us, so I’m willing to accommodate you, but only to a degree. After what we’ve already gone through, I am not going to compromise the capabilities of this team to save your church from hiring a landscape gardener. Is that understood?”
Anisa’s face was a picture of unwillingness, but she nodded acquiescence.
“My dad’s a landscape architect,” Jason said. “I don’t think we could get him out here, though.”
“Alright,” Gary said. “We’ll just whip out the old summons and then pillage the manor.”
“You will not,” Anisa commanded.
“Come on, Rufus,” Gary said, not bothering to appeal to the elf. “What’s the point of being an adventurer if we can’t do a little looting?”
“Any personal possessions you find, you can take,” Rufus said. “Anything that is part of the manor stays where it is. That’s furniture, decorations, art, whatever. And no unnecessary damage.”
He waving a finger between Gary and Farrah.
“This means you two,” he said.
Anisa still looked like she had a mouthful of lemon, but didn’t protest further.
“Fine,” Gary said. “It’ll be a conservative pillage.”
“Not helping,” Rufus said through clenched teeth. “Gary, Farrah, you’re staying out here. Use your summons to flush out any loose cultists.”
“But the loot,” Gary said.
“Maybe think about that next time you open your big mouth,” Rufus said.
“My mouth was closed,” Farrah complained, drawing a scolding look from Rufus.
“Fine,” she said.
“Just find any cultists still on the ground and pick up any who make a run for it,” Rufus said. “Anisa and I will sweep the manor, so you may get some people running out.”
“What about my gear?” Gary asked.
“You can collect it once the place is clear. Do you really need your hammer now that the collar is off?”
Gary held up a fist, now encased in metal by the gauntlet of his armour.
“No,” he acknowledged reluctantly.
Gary’s chagrin seemed to mollify Anisa somewhat. Gary stepped away from the group and untied from his belt the pouch Farrah had given him earlier. Opening a small flap that served as a nozzle, he started pouring a grey powder from the pouch onto the ground in a circle.
“Are those iron filings?” Jason asked.
“They are,” Farrah said. “Summons are a little more involved than most essence abilities and require something to act as a medium. Salt circles are the most common, but plenty use other things. For Gary’s ability, it’s iron filings.”
She patted the pouch on her own waist.
“For me it’s obsidian powder. We keep a good supply of both in my magic chest.”
Gary finished pouring out the iron filings into a circle and returned the pouch to his belt. Then he crouched down and held his hand out, which startled Jason by spontaneously bursting into flame. Unconcerned, Gary reached out and touched the circle. The iron where his finger touched almost immediately turned red and started to melt, smoke coming off the ground where the grass met the burning iron. The flame spread like burning a fuse, making its way around the circle.
Once it was a complete ring of glowing metal, complex magical patterns started appearing inside the circle. From those patterns something rose up as if emerging from the ground, but the ground remained unbroken. It was a humanoid figure, crudely hewn from ugly black iron. With it came a strong smell of ozone.
It was huge, around three metres tall. It looked ungainly and menacing, like something hammered together from leftover slabs of pig iron. In between the joints, the glow of molten metal could be seen shining from within. The head was flat and blank. The centre of the torso looked to be two separate pieces of metal pushed together, the edges ridged like interlocking teeth. As he watched, its torso opened like a hideous mouth, revealing a pool of molten metal inside, radiating heat over the group before closing shut again.
“Impressed?” Gary asked Jason, having already cheered up.
“Very,” Jason said. “What is it?”
“It’s a foundry golem,” Gary said proudly. A droplet of molten metal dripped from it, sizzling as it hit the ground.
“I do understand why Anisa doesn’t want it in the house,” Jason said.
“You too?” Gary asked sadly.
Anisa was giving Jason an unhappy glare.
“You,” she said, making it sound like a swear word, “may address me as Priestess.”
Jason didn’t care for being talked to like he was something scraped off the bottom of a boot.
“Well you,” he said with an insolent grin, “may address me as Rakishly Handsome Jason.”
“Excuse me?” Anisa said, barely believing what she just heard.
“You’re excused,” Jason said pompously, as he looked away. “Just don’t let it happen again.”
Anisa’s eyes went wide and Rufus stepped into her path as she took an angry step forward.
“Jason, you should probably stick with Gary and Farrah,” Rufus said.
Farrah took her turn to summon a creature. She poured out her own circle next to the ring of scorched earth that had been Gary’s. Farrah’s process was the same, right down to the powder melting into a red-hot ring. Instead of a golem like Gary, Farrah’s summon was a pile of black and red magma with arms.
“Lava that can punch you with a fist bigger than my head,” Jason said. “Why does she get that when I get to see in the dark.”
“Well,” Gary said, “what essence did you use?”
“The dark essence.”
“Well, hers came from the volcano essence, so there you go.”
“There’s a volcano essence? That definitely sounds better than mine.”
“That depends,” Gary said. “Farrah’s not great when it comes to sneaking.”
“That’s because she has volcano powers,” Jason said. “Everyone else has to do the sneaking.”
Gary considered for a moment.
“That’s a pretty good point,” he acknowledged.
Rufus and Anisa made for the house as Gary and Farrah set out though the grounds.
“I can’t believe they made us wait outside,” Gary said. As they walked, the two monstrous figures ranged ahead. Both emanated searing heat, so Gary and Farrah didn’t keep them close.
“I can believe they made you wait outside,” Farrah told Gary.
“Maybe we’ll catch some cultists,” Jason said.
“That’d be nice,” Gary said.
“How long do these summons last?” Jason asked.
“Depends on your power level,” Farrah said. “A few hours for me and Gary.”
It was around an hour later that Rufus came out to find them. He looked down the row of scorched archways cutting a straight line through the hedge maze.
“You said flush them out,” Gary said defensively.
“You were unspecific as to how,” Farrah added.
“Well,” Jason said, “he did point at you and say, ‘no unnecessary damage, this means you.’”
“Whose side are you on?” Gary asked.
Farrah snorted a laugh.
“Did you actually find anyone?” she asked.
“There was one guy in some kind of storeroom,” Gary said.
“Did you get anything out of him?” Rufus asked.
“The storeroom kind of burned down with him in it,” Gary said.
Rufus shook his head.
“We found a carriage shed with a missing carriage,” Jason said. “It looked like they left in a hurry. Seems like someone raided the valuables and made a run for it, not even stopping to pick up the stuff they dropped.”
“Cowards,” Gary said.
“They can’t be cowards,” Jason said. “They would have needed those horrifying monsters to pull the carriage.”
“Monsters?” Rufus asked.
“They’re not monsters,” Gary said. “Heidels are just normal animals.”
Jason had his first encounter with a heidel when they found the stables. They were the size and shape of a horse, but with scales in instead of hair and two heads, each of which had a horn sticking out of the forehead. To Jason’s eyes it looked like someone had put two unicorns and a lizard in a teleporting machine and they came out blended together.
“If you think they’re bad,” Farrah said, “you’re in for it when you see an actual monster.”
“What did you find?” Gary asked Rufus.
“We found a few people squirreled away. After those cultists came back, the lord of the manor cleared out the vault and they all took off, leaving the staff behind.”
“Wasn’t the lord that high priest guy?” Gary asked.
“Apparently not,” Farrah said.
“What did you do with the cultists you caught?” Jason asked.
“We questioned them and then we killed them,” Rufus said, matter-of-factly.
“You just executed prisoners?”
“What’s wrong with that?” Farrah asked.
Jason ran a hand over his face, the energy draining out of him.
“Oh, damn it.”