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“I’m not sure I’m comfortable doing it with everyone watching,” Jason said.

It was a clear-skied morning, but the magic affecting the manor’s climate dulled the scathing desert heat to a pleasant warmth. Jason, Rufus, Gary and Farrah had gathered on a terrace, sitting out on some patio furniture. Most of them were gathered around a picnic table in chairs, but Gary was too big for the chairs and went to pick up a low bench.

“But you said I could watch,” Farrah said to Jason.

“Actually, you asked,” Rufus said, “but he didn’t answer either way.”

“I want to watch too,” Gary said. He picked up the bench, which turned out to have been affixed to the tiled terrace. Some of the tiles came loose along with the bench. Gary looked at the damage and shrugged.

“Can you please stop destroying the place?” Rufus asked. “Anisa is prickly enough at the best of times.”

“Compared to what we did to the hedge maze, this is nothing,” Gary said.

“And you somehow think that makes it better?” Rufus asked.

Gary walked back to the group and dropped the bench loudly. The legs were uneven after having been torn from the ground, but Gary was happy enough and plonked himself down. The bench loudly scraped the terrace under his weight as Rufus wearily shook his head.

“I’m part of the Magic Society,” Farrah said to Gary. “My interest in seeing Jason use an essence is academic. What would you get out of it?”

“What else am I going to do?” Gary asked. “Help Anisa organise documents? No thanks.”

“That probably wouldn’t go well for anyone,” Farrah acknowledged.

The missing member of the group, Anisa, was in the manor’s main study. They had managed to dig out various letters and other records linking the occupants to the blood cult in other regions. Before they left the manor behind, she was gathering it together for use as evidence.

“You might as well stick around,” Jason said. “I don’t want anything happening to me if I pass out again. Don’t anticipate a great show of dignity.”

“I’m still a little surprised you got your hands on so many essences,” Rufus said. “You did say you only arrived in our world yesterday, right?”

“It was a busy day,” Jason said.

“You’re not wrong there,” Gary said.

“Should I be doing this on an empty stomach?” Jason asked. “I’m hungry, but I don’t trust any of the food here. All the kitchen had was every nightmare I’m ever going to have again.”

“Sorry,” Farrah said, “but we didn’t pack food.”

“Right, you all eat money, which definitely isn’t weird. I do have some tyrannical pheasant meat. Maybe we could roast it with your fire powers.”

“I love tyrannical pheasant,” Gary said. “How did you stop it from dissolving with the rest of the monster? Do you know monster harvesting magic?”

“There’s a magic for that? It’s an ability I have.”

“Makes sense,” Rufus said. “Outworlders all have different abilities, but they’re usually all focused around giving them the tools to survive.”

Farrah nodded.

“Looting abilities are rare, and valuable, but far from unique.” she said.

“If you have enough essences to make a full set, you can get to iron rank,” Rufus said. “Then you can just eat some coins as well.”

“A full set of essences is four, right?” Jason asked. “I’ve only got two more, plus the one I already used. I don’t suppose you have another one on you?”

“Three is enough,” Farrah said. “I keep forgetting that you really don’t know anything. Once you use your third essence, a fourth one manifests itself on the spot. They’re called confluence essences, because they’re a result of the three essences you already have. In my case, I used the fire, earth and potent essences, which gave me the volcano essence.”

“Confluence essences only manifest after three essences are used,” Rufus added. “You can’t find a volcano essence anywhere. Even when essences manifest near a volcano, you’ll usually get essences like fire and earth.”

“Is that where essences come from?” Jason asked. “They just appear randomly?”

“That’s right,” Farrah said. “Your world may not have any magic, but this one has it in abundance. To the point where it just starts manifesting all over the place.”

“Most magic manifestations are monsters,” Rufus explained. “They just appear, hopefully in the wilderness, but the magic they’re made of isn’t stable. Eventually they break down and dissolve back into magic. Killing them just makes it faster.”

“Just say you killed something that wasn’t a monster but an animal,” Jason said. “A giant snake, for example. That wouldn’t dissolve into a stinky cloud?”

“Exactly. Monsters frequently aren’t a problem when they first manifest, but as they get closer to breaking down they become highly aggressive. The bulk of our job as adventurers is hunting them down before they reach that stage.”

“It isn’t just going places and killing everyone you find?” Jason asked.

“No,” Rufus said. “I’m not sure I’d have the stomach for that. I definitely wouldn’t care to work with those that did.”

“How long do monsters last before they go berserk?” Jason asked.

“Depends on the rank of the monster,” Farrah said. “Lesser monsters only last a week or two. They start so close to breaking down that they’re aggressive from the moment they appear, but they aren’t really a threat. An old woman with a broom can handle them. Iron rank monsters last about a month, getting aggressive in the final week or so. It goes up from there, but this is a low magic region so mostly you’ll see iron rank with a smattering of bronze.”

“Monsters have ranks, then?” Jason asked. “Do they use essences too?”

“No,” Rufus said. “It just means they exist within a certain power threshold. Whether an essence user or a monster, each rank has a suppressive effect on lower ranks. We’re all bronze rank. If you were to fight any of us, your iron-rank abilities would have much less effect.”

“You can overcome that briefly by boosting your attributes with spirit coins,” Farrah added. “That only works to a degree, though, and not for very long. You have to pick your moment, because it will leave you weaker once the strength fades.”

“I know all about that,” Jason said.

“There are other manifestations of magic,” Rufus said. “They’re not alive, which makes them more stable and they stick around until you use them.”

“Essences,” Jason said.

“That’s the most powerful manifestation,” Rufus said. “Also the rarest. Then there’s quintessence, which is kind of like chunks of essence.”

“Could you get a pile of it and use that as an essence?” Jason asked.

“Afraid not,” Rufus said.

“People have been trying to make that work for years,” Farrah said. “There’s always some crackpot who claims to have figured it out, but it isn’t possible.”

“Quintessence is still useful, though,” Rufus said.

“It may not be as powerful as an essence,” Farrah said, “but it gets used a lot more. Ritual magic, alchemy, weapon forging.”

“I make weapons and armour,” Gary said. “I go through quintessence by the pile. Literally, piles of it.”

“We found a magic supply storeroom yesterday,” Farrah said. “They took all the good stuff when they left, but there was quite a lot of iron-rank quintessence left behind.”

“Nice,” Gary said.

“The last manifestation of magic is awakening stones,” Rufus said. “Mostly they’re used to awaken essence abilities, but they can be used in various kinds of magic as well.”

“Like the thing they were trying to sacrifice us to,” Jason said. He took out four red crystals from his inventory, laying them on the table in a row.

“We all had one of these in some kind of ritual bowl, wired into our cages,” he said.

Rufus picked one up.

“I wonder what kind of stone they are,” he mused.

“Awakening stones of the feast,” Jason said. “All four are the same.”

“They’re pretty common,” Farrah said.

“I had one manifest in my kitchen when I was a kid,” Gary said, “right into a pot of soup. My dad said that’s why the soup tasted funny, but I think he was just bad at making soup.”

“They can be useful with the right essences,” Rufus said. “They’re common, so there’s no telling what kind of ability it can give you. They’ll be related to the concept of a feast, but that can manifest in any of hundreds of powers.”

“Thousands,” Farrah said. “The more rare an awakening stone is, the more specific the powers.”

“So, rare stones are better?” Jason asked.

“Not necessarily,” Rufus said. “A common as muck awakening stone can give you any ability the rarest could. It just has a much higher pool of potential powers. Rare stones don’t give out better abilities, just more specific ones. So if you want a specific kind of ability, that’s when you need to find yourself the right flavour of rare stone.”

“There aren’t any guarantees, though,” Farrah said. “Even the rarest stone might not give you what you want. You should always remember, though, that the biggest determinate of what ability you get is the essence it comes from.”

“I have this blood essence,” Jason said, pulling a red cube from his inventory. The slick surface looked like it was wet with blood, but it was dry and warm to the touch.

“Hardly surprising that you found a blood essence around here,” Rufus said.

“Blood is a fantastic essence,” Gary said enthusiastically. “You might get a health-drain power if you use all those feast stones. Then you can be your own healer.”

“Maybe,” Farrah said. “It could be almost anything with common stones, but blood, plus feast? The chances are decent.”

“Self-healing would be useful,” Rufus said, “given how hard it can be to get a healer on your team. We’ve struggled with that ourselves.”

“What about Anisa?” Jason asked.

“Anisa is a temporary addition,” Rufus said. “It’s usually just the three of us.”

“Self-healing is very common with the blood essence,” Farrah said. “Don’t expect much in the way of powerful attacks, though,” Farrah warned. “Blood essence abilities tend to be more insidious. Bleeding, poison, that kind of thing.”

“No lava cannon?” Jason asked.

“Sadly no,” Farrah said with a chuckle.

“But I want a lava cannon.”

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Shirtaloon

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