“I need a shower,” Jason said.
“You just had a shower,” Rufus said.
“I need another shower. The stink won’t go away.”
“Oh, we’re aware,” Farrah said.
After waking up Jason had been fed a stamina potion and pointed in the direction of one of the manor’s bathrooms. After washing away the gunk that had oozed out of the very pores of his skin, he had changed into fresh clothes.
“What was that stuff all over me?” Jason asked.
“We told you,” Farrah said. “Reaching iron rank made your body advance closer to a state of perfection, which included purging your body of impurities.”
“There is no way I was that impure.”
“It did seem like a lot,” Gary said, wrinkling his nose. “Maybe he should have another shower.”
“He still has awakening stones to use,” Rufus said, “and I want us out of here and on the trail by noon.”
Jason frowned as Rufus took out a pocket watch to look at.
“You have noon in this world?”
They explained timekeeping in their world to Jason as they went back outside. To his surprise, it seemed exactly the same as in his own. He couldn’t be sure how close their hours, minutes and seconds hewed to the ones he knew without a clock from his own world, but the were at least close.
“It’s weird they’re the same,” Gary said.
“Suspiciously weird,” Jason said.
“What about the calendar?” Jason asked. “Is that the same too?”
The local calendar, as it turned out, was similar, but not the same. although not as close as the time. There were twelve months of thirty days, divided up into early, mid and late stages of each season. There were five additional days that didn’t count as days of the month, for the solstices, the equinoxes and the new year, which was at the beginning of spring.
“It still seems strange that we keep time the exact same way across two worlds,” Jason said.
“Well, maybe someone from your world came here,” Gary said, “saw how we do it and took it back to yours.”
“Or someone brought our system here,” Jason said.
“Nah, that doesn’t sound right,” Gary said.
“Are you saying your world’s better than mine?” Jason asked.
“We have magic,” Gary said.
“We have internet porn,” Jason said.
“Will you two please stop?” Rufus asked. “Gary, go check on Anisa. Tell her she needs to finish up in the next couple of hours.”
Rufus, Farrah and Jason went back outside, the others giving Jason and his lingering smell some distance.
“Did something happen to you?” Jason asked the others.
“Like what?” Rufus asked.
“I’m not sure,” Jason said. “I’m getting a weird vibe from the two of you. From Gary as well. It feels… I’m not sure how to describe it. Dangerous, maybe?”
“That feeling is our auras,” Rufus said. “Now that you’re iron rank, you can sense them. We’re both bronze rank, and not that far off silver, so we’re a lot more powerful than you. That’s the danger you’re sensing. You’ll soon learn to differentiate strength, and tell a monster from an essence user from a regular person.”
“So it’s like a warning,” Jason said.
“Yes,” Farrah said, “but it isn’t completely reliable. Some monsters can hide their auras. People can too, if they have an aura power.”
They arrived back on the lawn outside, staying upwind of where all the Jason goo was still laying in a puddle.
“You’ve already used an awakening stone, right?” Rufus asked. “Was it much different to using an essence?”
“It was easier,” Jason said. “You need a ritual for those as well, right?”
“You do,” Farrah said. “Well, not you, apparently, but everyone else. How many stones do you have?”
“Six,” Jason said.
“Good thing you can just use them, then,” Rufus said. “Going through a half-dozen rituals would take hours.”
“Wouldn’t be that bad,” Farrah said. “I’ve done a bunch of them, so I can knock them out fast.”
They sat down on the soft grass and Jason took out his awakening stones, laying them out in a row.
“Where did you get all these?” Farrah asked.
“The feast stones were on those cages they had us in.”
“In those ritual bowls wired into the top?” Farrah asked.
“Yeah,” Jason said. “I snagged them up as we went.”
“Sometimes awakening stones get used as part of a large-scale ritual,” Farrah explained. “Even essences, sometimes.”
“They did make an apocalypse monster,” Rufus said.
“Could that thing have really wiped out the world?” Jason said. “Not to say it wasn’t scary, but it didn’t seem up to the task of global annihilation.”
“They would have had to feed it for a long time before it became a genuine threat,” Farrah said. “They people probably intended to keep it somewhere isolated and supply it with a steady stream of victims. Killing it as soon as it emerged was like smashing an egg before it could hatch into a dangerous animal.”
“Even if we hadn’t,” Rufus said, “there are people far stronger than us that could deal with it. Even if it became truly powerful, there are diamond-rank adventurers out there.”
“Is that the highest rank?” Jason asked.
“It is,” Rufus said, “but you don’t see them very often.”
“Or at all, if you’re most people,” Farrah said. “I’ve only met one because of Mr. Fancy Britches, here.”
“I don’t wear britches,” Rufus said.
“Rufus’ grandfather is diamond rank,” Farrah said. “He’s chancellor of the academy his family operates.”
“Diamond rank essence users are the peak of mortal power,” Rufus explained. “The Adventure Society likes to keep two or three in the biggest cities, in case a diamond rank monster shows up. That rarely happens, though, so they largely go unseen. When you’re that powerful, the idea of a higher authority is laughable. Mostly, diamond rank adventurers are mysterious figures pursuing goals known only to them.”
“And there aren’t that many diamond-rankers in any case,” Farrah said. “The only reason they exist in the numbers they do is because they live so long.”
“They live longer?” Jason asked.
“All essence users age slower,” Rufus said. “At iron rank you wouldn’t notice the difference, but bronze rankers can live well past a hundred. Silvers can double that; reach silver rank young enough and you’ll look young for decades. Gold rankers live for centuries, and I’m not even sure diamond rankers can die of old age.”
“They’re immortal?” Jason asked.
“It’s a rumour,” Rufus said, “but a persistent one. There’s kind of an unwritten rule that diamond rankers don’t tell the rest of us the limits of their abilities.”
“So, am I going to get super old now?” Jason asked.
“Keep raising your rank, and yes,” Rufus said.
“Wow, that’s actually quite the bombshell,” Jason said.
“What’s a bombshell?” Farrah asked.
“It’s a weapon that causes a great big explosion. Imagine shooting Farrah at people.”
“We kind of do that already,” Rufus said.
“So how do I raise my rank?” Jason asked. “I want some of that sweet immortality action.”
“How about we walk before we run,” Rufus said. “You can’t even properly progress toward bronze rank until you awaken every essence ability you have. That’s all twenty. The first step is using those awakening stones.”
Jason nodded, picked up the first stone and took a deep breath.
“Here we go.”
The stone melted in his hand, sinking into his skin with little fanfare.
- You have awakened the blood essence ability [Leech Bite]. You have awakened 2 of 5 blood essence abilities.
“That’s it?” Farrah asked.
Jason’s stomach made a large rumbling sound.
“I was pretty hungry already,” he said. “I think the stone of the feast made it worse.”
“You’re an essence user now,” Rufus said. “Eat a spirit coin.”
Jason took an iron-rank coin from his inventory. It had the metal-grey colour of iron but was actually made of crystal. Hesitantly he placed it into his mouth, where it immediately dissolved with an intense fizzing sensation. It tasted like he’d touched his tongue to a battery, tangy and energetic. He felt power flood through his body, washing away the hunger of moments before. Rufus and Farrah laughed as they watched his expressions, wide-eyed and panting.
“What’s wrong with him?” Gary asked. He had left the manor through the terrace doors and approached to sit with them on the lawn.
“He just ate his first spirit coin,” Rufus said, causing Gary to chortle.
Jason shook his head to clear it.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been this awake,” he said.
Rufus picked up another awakening stone and handed it to him. Jason nodded and took it. He went through the remaining awakening stones of the feast in quick succession.
- You have awakened the blood essence ability [Feast of Blood]. You have awakened 3 of 5 blood essence abilities.
- You have awakened the sin essence ability [Feast of Absolution]. You have awakened 2 of 5 sin essence abilities.
- You have awakened the sin essence ability [Sin Eater]. You have awakened 3 of 5 sin essence abilities.
Jason had abilities before he reached iron rank, but now he could feel them within himself much more clearly. They were like hunting dogs, waiting to be unleashed at his command. Even without the descriptions Jason clearly understood the abilities he had just awoken. Two came from the blood essence and were different ways of draining health. The other two came from the sin essence, letting him resist afflictions on himself or remove afflictions from others.
“My abilities feel incomplete,” Jason said. “Like a puzzle where I don’t have all the pieces.”
“There’s a scale,” Farrah said. “At one end of the scale is people whose abilities are individually strong. Those people don’t tend to feel what you’re feeling, because their powers might work together, but aren’t reliant on one another.”
“Those kind of abilities are strong, but simple,” Rufus said. “Farrah’s abilities are like that.”
“Of course, simple doesn’t mean bad,” Farrah, said. “Straightforward power is the usually most effective solution to a problem. It’s when you try to get complicated that things go wrong.”
“According to people with simple powers,” Gary said.
Farrah stuck her tongue out at Gary.
“At the other end of the scale,” Rufus said, “are abilities that underwhelm in isolation, but used together become very dangerous. Affliction specialists tend to fall at that end of the scale, so expect your powers to feel awkward until you get the full set.”
“Doesn’t that dagger of yours poison people?” Gary said.
Jason’s dagger had been stored away along with the gear of his new companions. He had gotten it back at the same time Rufus reclaimed a pair of ostentatious blue boots. Despite the garish colour, he was demonstrably quite fond of them.
“You can rely on your dagger for an extra source of afflictions until you’ve awakened all your powers,” Gary said.
“Speaking of which,” Rufus said, “you have two more awakening stones to get through before we leave.”
Jason nodded, picking up the next stone. Unlike the awakening stones of the feast, his next awakening stone was higher rated.
Item: [Awakening Stone of Adventure] (unranked, rare)
An awakening stone filled with the spirit of adventure. (consumable, awakening stone).
- Requirements: Unawakened essence ability.
- Effect: Awakens an essence ability.
- You have 11 unawakened essence abilities.
- You are able to absorb [Awakening Stone of Adventure]. Absorb Y/N?
“With awakening stones,” Jason said, “you said rarity doesn’t make stones better, right?”
“No, just more specialised,” Farrah said. “And harder to find, obviously. All stones have some amount of focus, but there’s no telling exactly what they’ll give you. Those feast stones, for example, could have given you anything from mana-draining special attacks to conjuring food to summoning flesh-eating fish. People like to have some control, so stones with desirable specialties tend to be the most expensive.”
She patted Rufus on the knee.
“Although when you come from a big important family like Rufus here, they ship you high-rarity stones by the crate.”
“There are no guarantees when it comes to awakening powers, though,” Rufus said. “Not even with the rarest of stones. What kind of awakening stone is that one?” Rufus asked.
“Awakening stone of adventure,” Jason said.
“Really?” Farrah said, surprised.
“Those are highly sought-after,” Rufus said. “As a mid-rarity stone it’s hard to pin down what it will give out, but it’s almost always a useful utility power.”
“Just having a bunch of destructive combat powers makes you less useful to a team,” Gary said. “Even Farrah knows that. A few good utility powers can really help you when it comes to getting the better jobs. Groups will be happy to take you along when it makes things easier for them.”
“Here we go, then,” Jason said as the stone melted into his hand. His whole forearm went numb, and for a moment he could see right through it before it returned to normal.
“That was weird.”
- You have awakened the dark essence ability [Path of Shadows]. You have awakened 3 of 5 dark essence abilities.
Ability: [Path of Shadows] (Dark)
- Special ability (dimension, teleport)
- Cost: Low mana.
- Cooldown: None.
- Current rank: Iron 0 (00%)
- Effect (iron): Teleport between shadows. You must be able to see the destination shadow.
“Shadow teleport,” Jason said with a laugh. “Now that’s a proper magic power.”
He looked around for a shadow to try it out on, then stopped.
“Aside from this weird country estate thing here,” Jason said, “We’re in the middle of the desert, right?”
“That’s right,” Rufus said.
“I don’t recall seeing a lot of shadowy nooks in the barren desert wasteland,” Jason said.
“It is a lot of open country,” Rufus acknowledged.
A little disheartened, Jason turned to his final awakening stone.
Item: [Awakening Stone of the Apocalypse] (unranked, legendary)
An awakening stone containing a seed of annihilation. (consumable, awakening stone).
- Requirements: Unawakened essence ability.
- Effect: Awakens an essence ability.
- You have 10 unawakened essence abilities.
- You are able to absorb [Awakening Stone of the Apocalypse]. Absorb Y/N?
“I’m a little wary of this one,” Jason said.
“What kind of stone is it?” Farrah asked.
“It’s, uh… an awakening stone,” Jason said.
“Of what?” Farrah asked.
“Of… well… the apocalypse.”
Gary erupted into laughter, falling back on the grass. Rufus raised an eyebrow while Farrah’s eyes went wide.
“Really?” Rufus asked over the top of Gary’s laughter.
“Should I actually use it?” Jason asked.
“I’m not sure,” Rufus said. “I’ve never actually heard of that one before. It does sound like trouble.”
“You should consider selling it,” Farrah said. “An awakening stone like that would get you enough to buy all the awakening stones you’re going to need.”
“Don’t you dare!” Gary yelled, sitting back up. “You’re going to use that stone!”
“Gary,” Rufus said, “He needs to be careful with his choices. We don’t know what kind of ability that stone could produce.”
“A powerful one,” Gary said. “Jason, you need to grab all the power you can.”
“He’s already using a rare essence combination,” Rufus said. “What if that stone unlocks some power that gets his combination on the restricted list?”
“You know they’re lenient on people who discover new things,” Gary said. “They can’t blame him if even they didn’t know.”
“It’s an awakening stone of apocalypse,” Rufus said, “that’s a pretty big hint.”
“It doesn’t matter either way,” Farrah cut in. “Look.”
Jason’s arm was blood red from where the awakening stone had sunken into it, before returning to a normal colour.
“That was rash,” Rufus said.
“Before everything else, adventurers are strong,” Jason said. “Your words. These abilities I’ve been getting are fine, but I saw Farrah spray lava like it was shooting out of a hose. I want that kind of power.”
“Yeah you do,” Gary said.
“Not helping, Gary,” Rufus said.
“No, Rufus,” Gary said. “He’s right. He needs all the power he can get, and you know it.”
“There’s no point arguing about what’s done,” Farrah said. “Jason, you might as well tell us what power you got.”