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“You probably want your essence abilities to be more well-rounded than Farrah’s,” Gary said.

“Hey,” Farrah complained.

“In terms of raw power, Farrah is easily the strongest of us,” Rufus said. “But that focus comes at the cost of versatility.”

“She’s great at blowing things up,” Gary said.

“It’s true,” Farrah said. “I am good at blowing things up.”

“Which, admittedly, solves the bulk of our problems,” Rufus said. “But when overwhelming, barely-contained annihilation isn’t the answer, it leaves her somewhat at a loss.”

“Power is always the answer,” Farrah said.

“Mass destruction sounds pretty good to me,” Jason said, “but it doesn’t seem like the blood essence would give me that. Should I use it, or hold out for something better?”

“That’s up to you,” Rufus said. “It’s best to consider what other essences you’ll have.”

“Well, I’ve already used the dark essence,” Jason said.

“That could work,” Farrah said. “A sneaky assassin type. A bit of poison here, exsanguination there.”

“Just make sure you avoid the death essence,” Rufus said, the others nodding in agreement.

“Death essence?” Jason asked.

“The death essence has some powerful abilities,” Gary said, “but they come with big drawbacks. Very few essences have side-effects, but death can produce some nasty ones.”

“Remember how we explained about confluence essences?” Rufus asked.

“That’s your buy three, get one free deal on essences, right?” Jason said.

“That’s right,” Rufus said. “More or less. Some confluence essences are produced by a wide variety of combinations. The death essence has a nasty habit of producing the confluence essence undeath. There are many combinations that produce it, almost all of which involve the death essence.”

“Take the blood essence you have here, for example,” Farrah said. “Add in a death essence and pretty much anything else and the undeath essence will pop right out.”

“Undeath is bad,” Gary said.

“The abilities in the undeath essence have a nasty habit of turning you into some kind of unliving monstrosity,” Rufus said.

“If it came along with the the blood essence,” Farrah said, “you’d almost certainly get an ability that turns you into a vampire.”

“Vampires are a thing?” Jason asked.

“They are,” Rufus said, “and they’re bad. For one thing, they can’t sustain themselves with spirit coins or even regular food anymore.”

“They drink blood,” Jason said.

“They do,” Rufus confirmed. “Imagine having vast magical powers and an unquenchable thirst for blood.”

“Not a combination good for public safety,” Jason said.

Rufus nodded.

“People with the undeath essence almost always awaken a power that changes them like that,” he said. “Such powers are very strong, but they all bring with them unnatural appetites.”

“If that wasn’t enough,” Farrah added, “they can often turn normal people into monsters like them. Not with the essence powers of the original, but dangerous enough.”

“Vampires turning other people into vampires,” Jason said. “Can’t beat the classics.”

“Even if the undeath essence doesn’t turn you into a monster,” Farrah added, “it tends to give out less than palatable abilities.”

“You already said the blood essence has life-draining powers,” Jason said. “Less palatable than that?”

“Yes,” Gary growled. “No one will mind if you drain some health out of a guy that stabbed you. As long as you don’t drink his blood to do it, anyway. When you raid the local cemetery, though? No one wants their dead family members shambling into town as part of your undead army.”

“And that’s one of the lesser evils,” Farrah said. “We actually all met fighting a zombie plague,” Farrah said.

“A proper zombie plague?” Jason asked. “Zombies turning other people into zombies, the whole deal?”

“The whole deal,” Gary said. “Entire towns were burned out just to contain it. Bad business.”

“None of us want to see something like that again,” Farrah said. “If you get the undeath essence we’ll kill you ourselves.”

Jason looked at the expression on the faces of the others and saw they weren’t joking.

“Avoiding the death essence then,” he said.

“On top of everything else,” Rufus said, “the Adventure Society has a list of restricted essences that pose an inherent threat to ordinary people.”

“The death essence sitting at the top of that list,” Gary said.

“Mostly it’s combinations of essences,” Rufus explained, “since the confluence essence is usually the bad one. The death essence is on the list by itself, through, because it always seems to go wrong. You need to pay attention to the restricted essences. It’s impossible to get membership in the Adventure Society if you have one of them.

“And I want to be a member of this Adventure Society?” Jason asked.

“You do,” Rufus said emphatically.

“Well,” Jason said, “I don’t have a death essence, but I’m a little wary of the one I do have.”

Jason took a second cube from his inventory. This one looked like white jade flecked with gold.


Item: [Sin Essence] (unranked, legendary)

Manifested essence of transgression (consumable, essence).

  • Requirements: Less than 4 absorbed essences.
  • Effect: Imbues 1 awakened sin essence ability and 4 unawakened sin essence abilities.
  • You have absorbed 1/4 essences. Once absorbed, an essence cannot be relinquished or replaced.
  • You are able to absorb [Sin Essence]. Absorb Y/N?

“May I?” Farrah asked, reaching for the essence. Jason nodded and she picked it up, turning it over in her hands.

“Pretty,” she said. “I don’t recognise it.”

“It’s a sin essence,” Jason said.

“Are you sure?” Farrah asked, examining the white and gold cube. “It looks more like the holy type.”

Rufus looked at Jason with a thoughtful expression.

“You have an ability to identify items, don’t you?” he asked.

“Yeah,” Jason said. “It’s one of my outworlder things.”

“I’ve seen it before from other outworlders,” Rufus said.

Farrah placed the cube back on the table.

“I’ve never heard of the sin essence before,” she said. “It must be one of the really rare ones. I would have thought a sin essence would be all dark colours.”

“You have a problem with dark colours?” the midnight-skinned Rufus asked.

“I knew a guy with the sin essence,” Gary said. “Back when I was growing up there was this priest in my home town who had it.”

“A priest had the sin essence?” Farrah said. “Who was he a priest of?”

“God of Justice,” Gary said.

“Seems a little odd,” Rufus said. “What kind of powers did he have?”

“I was just a kid and it was a long time ago,” Gary said. “He was bit of a hard man, the way those Justice guys can be. I seem to recall a lot of smiting going on.”

“I could get behind some smiting,” Jason said. “Hold up; you guys have gods here?”

“Of course,” Gary said. “You don’t have gods in your world?”

“We have religions,” Jason said.

“Isn’t that the same thing?” Gary asked.

“No,” Jason said. “No it is not. Do your gods turn up and do things? Where people can see them?”

“Of course they do,” Farrah said. “Anisa’s a priestess. We’ve seen her god show up in person. Spend some time in the worship square of any good sized city. You’ll see one sooner or later.”

“That must forestall a lot of theological debate,” Jason said.

“If you decide to use that sin essence,” Gary said, “you might not want to tell Anisa about it.”

“Why not?” Jason asked.

“She’s a priestess of the God of Purity,” Farrah explained.

“That’s not good,” Jason said.

“You have a problem with purity?” Gary asked.

“In my world, you have to keep an eye on the ones who talk about purity all the time. Leave them be and they start rounding people up into camps, getting all enthusiastic about purging the unclean.”

“That does sound like something Anisa would get behind,” Farrah said. “Her church has this idea that the essences we use change who we are, so they only like the ones they see as holy or pure. They say other essences taint the soul.”

“You say that like you think she’s wrong,” Jason said.

“She is,” Rufus said. “Essence abilities aren’t inherently good or bad. Like a sword they can be used to oppress or protect. The accountability isn’t with the tool, but the one wielding it. The only people who advocate that essences guide our actions, instead of the other way around, are religious zealots and people looking to abdicate the responsibility for their actions.”

It was clear Rufus was speaking from experience, and not a good one.

“Didn’t you all just finish explaining that I need to be careful of essences changing me?” Jason asked.

“That was a warning about rare and extreme cases,” Rufus said. “That’s what the restricted list is for. But people try and claim that extends to all essences, when it simply doesn’t.”

“Not that Anisa would agree,” Farrah said.

“Anisa is wrong,” Rufus said.

“I’m going to pull out the restricted list,” Farrah said, getting up. “See if the sin essence is on it before Jason decides what he’s going to do.”

“Good idea,” Rufus said.

Farrah caused her stone storage chest to rise out of the ground. It rose up through the terrace without breaking through the tiles, like it wasn’t truly substantial until it had completely emerged.

She took out a stone tablet from inside the chest. It looked to be made of swirling blue and white marble, with script written across it in what looked like actual gold. Farrah touched a finger to the script and it started shifting about, the text changing in front of their eyes.

“What is that?” Jason asked.

“This is called a living document,” Farrah said. “It stores large amounts of information and is connected to a central record. When the central record is updated, the information in the tablet changes. This one has the full list of every essence and essence combination known to the Magic Society.”

“Is that different to the Adventure Society you mentioned?”

“Yes, but we can explain all that once we get back to civilisation,” Rufus said.

“The tablet is lot more expensive than a paper copy of the list,” Farrah said, “but it’s smaller and doesn’t have to be replaced when the list is updated.”

“Does it get updated a lot?” Jason asked.

“There are all kinds of essences,” Farrah explained as she kept her eyes on the shifting text of the tablet. “Many of them are extremely rare. Most people go for tried and tested combinations, but there’s always someone trying new things. Ah, here we are.”

She found what she was looking for in the tablet and the text stopped changing about.

“We can look up an essence and see what combinations are known for it, as well as any restricted combinations,” Farrah said. “Looks like your sin essence is in the rarest category. There really aren’t a lot of them going around.”

“Is it restricted?” Jason asked.

“Not by itself,” Farrah said. “Not a big list of known combinations. Looks like there is one restricted combination. Never heard of the succubus essence before. Probably because it takes two insanely rare essences.”

“What about the essences Jason has?” Rufus asked.

“Hold on. Dark, blood and sin, right?”

“That’s what I have,” Jason said.

“It’s actually here,” Farrah said. “It produces the doom essence, another one I’ve never heard of. Not restricted, so good news.”

“Did you say the doom essence?” Jason said.

“I did,” Farrah said, putting away the tablet. “Sounds imposing, right?”

“Is that something I really want to run around with?” Jason asked.

“Of course you do,” Gary said. “Who’s going to mess with the guy with the doom essence?”

“Did it say what kind of abilities it produces?” Rufus asked.

“Affliction specialist is what’s listed,” she said.

“Affliction specialist?” Jason asked. “Is that like a ‘death by a thousand cuts’ kind of thing?”

“Yeah,” Gary said. “Ongoing damage, debuffs.”

“Did you just say debuffs?” Jason asked.

“Yeah that’s where…”

“I know what debuffs are,” Jason said. “I’m just wondering how directly my ability translated that word.”

“So what do you think?” Rufus asked. “Afflictions are an uncommon specialty, and the exact opposite of what Farrah does. Her damage powers are immediate and explosive, but she exhausts herself quickly. An affliction specialist is weaker in short fights but unparalleled in drawn-out conflict.”

“I don’t know,” Jason said. “I don’t know what’s good.”

“I say go for it,” Farrah said. “There aren’t a lot of affliction specialists, which will put you in demand.”

“You’ll get called out for all the big fights, too,” Gary said. “When it comes to the really tough monsters you want staying power. In a battle like that, someone who burns through all their mana like Farrah is just trashy.”

“Hey!”

Jason looked at Rufus.

“What do you think I should do?”

Rufus gathered his thoughts for a moment before answering.

“Affliction specialists usually don’t have abilities that will hit hard and fast. That gives them a harder time with what most people consider the easy fights,” Rufus said. “As a trade-off, they become more and more dangerous the longer a fight goes on. They have endurance. An enemy others will exhaust themselves fighting, an affliction specialist can fight multiples of at once. It isn’t an easy path, though. It requires good judgement to avoid losing a fight before you really get going.”

“There’s also the intimidation factor,” Gary said. “Smart people don’t mess with affliction specialists. Poisons, curses, setting your insides on fire. Even if you kill them, you might be a dead man walking. No one wants that kind of enemy.”

“There is certainly a social factor,” Rufus said. “Affliction masters scare people.”

“Should I do it, then?” Jason asked. “Use these essences I have?”

“My advice would be yes, you should,” Rufus said. “It doesn’t matter if the easy fights aren’t quite as easy. The hard fights are what matter. You’re going to need skills to make it work, which you don’t have right now. But I can teach you.”

“Now there’s an offer not to refuse,” Gary said.

“Agreed,” Farrah said. “Rufus’ family runs one of the most exclusive prep academies for adventurers in the world. Kings go to that school. If he’s willing to teach you, let him.”

“We all owe you, Jason,” Rufus said. “If it weren’t for you, we’d be dead right now, and we aren’t going to forget that. So we’ll do our best to help you find your feet as an adventurer. Maybe you can eventually discover a way home.”

“Thanks,” Jason said, “although I wouldn’t have gotten out of there without you either. If I’d just ran out of that chamber I’d be in the middle of the desert. No water, no idea where I was or where to go. Even if the cultists hadn’t chased me down, I’d have died out there anyway.”

“I don’t know about that,” Gary said. “You seem to have a way of turning situations around.”

“I think turning the sun around is a bit beyond me,” Jason said.

He placed a hand on the blood essence sitting on the table.

“Alright,” he said. “I guess we should do this before Anisa comes out.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t worry about that,” Farrah said. “I left her buried in documents in the study. I think she’s going to read every piece of paper in the whole manor to make sure she doesn’t miss anything.”

“That’s good,” Jason said, “because I have an awakening stone that seems a little questionable as well.”

Jason picked up his two essences and stood up. Jason was concerned about passing out again, so he led them off the terrace and onto the grass where they all sat on the lawn.

“So how does this work?” Farrah asked.

“I just kind of do it,” Jason said. “I want to try something this time, though.”

He held up the blood essence in his hands.

“Fabulous secret powers were revealed to me when I held aloft my magic cube…”

He raised the cube above his head with one hand.

“What in the world are you doing?” Farrah asked.

“I told you, I’m trying something,” Jason said. “I didn’t expect it to work, but it wouldn’t be the least plausible thing I’ve seen in the last day.”

Jason lowered his arm.

“I’m starting to suspect that it isn’t just that you’re an outworlder,” Rufus said. “I think you might be strange in any world.”

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Shirtaloon

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