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“Uh oh,” Jason said.

“Uh oh?” Farrah repeated. “What power did you get exactly?”

“I may have made a huge mistake,” Jason said.

“Where was that sensibility a minute ago?” Rufus asked. “What were you thinking?”

“He was thinking,” Gary said, “that if you don’t want to be a pawn of fate, you need the strength to kick fate square in the beans.”

“Actually, that’s pretty close,” Jason said, nodding at Gary who grinned back.

“Would you please just tell us what the power was?” Farrah asked.

“It’s a familiar power,” Jason said. “That’s like a magical companion that follows you around, right?”

“That’s right,” Rufus said. “What kind of familiar do you get from an awakening stone of the apocalypse?”

“Funny story…” Jason said weakly.

An hour later, Jason was drawing a complex magical diagram in chalk on the floor of one of the manor’s many rooms. They had taken out the furniture and the rugs, leaving a smooth, polished floor. Jason had been working on the diagram for some time, guided by the ritual magic knowledge inserted into his head as well as Farrah’s expertise. He stopped drawing for a moment to take some powder from a nearby pouch on the floor. He sprinkled a pinch over the part of the circle he had just drawn, most of which started glowing. He rubbed out the parts that didn’t glow and redrew them.

The powder was ground-down monster cores from lesser monsters. Jason had several but they were all intact, so the powder had been provided by Farrah. She was guiding him through his first magical ritual.

“Putting together a magic circle isn’t as simple as knowing the right design,” Farrah explained. Any time she wasn’t pointing out something specific she was lecturing. “If it were that easy I could just carry around a bunch of boards with different magic circles on them. Every time you draw a magic diagram you need to adjust for the ambient magic conditions. A weak source of congealed magic like the core of a lesser monster is a perfect way to check your work.”

“There’s a ritual room under the manor with a permanent circle,” Jason said.

“That must have been expensive,” Farrah said. “You have to design the whole room around something like that to regulate the ambient magic. Did we loot that room?”

“Wasn’t much in there,” Gary said. “The most valuable stuff was set behind the walls and into the floor, so Anisa wouldn’t let us touch it. It was all pretty trashed, anyway.”

Jason got to his feet.

“I’m done,” he said. “So, am I able to do a magic ritual like this because I already have essence magic?”

“You really don’t know anything about magic,” Farrah said.

“Was that not clear at any point?” Jason asked.

“Alright,” Farrah said. “You understand essence magic already. Simple, instinctive, usually doesn’t cost anything but your own internal reserves. External magic is the opposite. Complicated, requires extensive training…”

“Or a skill book,” Jason said.

“…or a skill book,” Farrah acknowledged through gritted teeth. “If you’re satisfied with quick and dirty knowledge.”

“Don’t knock quick and dirty,” Gary said. “All my favourite things are better quick and dirty. Or slow and dirty.”

Farrah shot Gary a look as Rufus shook his head.

“Ritual magic,” Farrah continued, “relies on external sources of magic. That’s ambient magic, plus more concentrated sources, like quintessence or spirit coins.”

Scattered all through the magic diagram Jason had drawn were small piles of blood quintessence, looking like uncut rubies. There were also stacks of iron-rank spirit coins. There were a few other materials, but the largest requirement by far was the blood quintessence.

Fortunately for Jason, and rather unsurprisingly, the manor’s magical supply room had more blood quintessence than anything else. The lord of the manor had taken all the bronze-rank materials when he fled, but most of the iron-rank materials were left behind. It was more than enough for Jason’s ritual.

“External magic doesn’t require you to have an essence,” Farrah explained. “There are people who make careers out of learning a specialised slice of external magic.”

“Like plumbers,” Gary said. “They know the magic to set up running water in a building. That shower you like so much.”

“Exactly,” Farrah said. “They know just enough to do a specific job. Most of those people don’t have essences and lack the proper grounding in theory. The fundamental theory is the same, whether you specialise in rituals like me, magical craftsmanship like Gary, or something like alchemy. Same basis, different applications.”

“What about you?” Jason asked Rufus.

“I’m good at stabbing.”

“Rufus doesn’t know external magic,” Farrah said. “His obsession is swordsmanship.”

“Your skill book gave you the minimum to be considered a proper ritual magician,” Farrah told Jason. “The bare minimum. That’s how you awakened a familiar summoning power.”

“You can only awaken that kind of essence ability if you already understand ritual magic,” Gary said. “That’s why me and Farrah have summoning powers and Rufus doesn’t.”

“You’ve seen Gary and myself call up short-lived monsters,” Farrah said. “Rituals that are also essence powers tend to be…”

“Quick and dirty,” Gary said with a grin.

“Please stop,” Farrah said.

“I remember when you summoned those things,” Jason said. “You just kind of knocked out a circle and out they came.”

“Summoning a familiar is a more elaborate ritual,” Farrah said. “Unlike a regular summoning, you should only need it each time you go up a rank. Unless your familiar gets killed, in which case you’ll have to summon it back.”

“Not everyone summons their familiar,” Rufus said.

“That’s true,” Farrah said. “Some familiar powers act like a call, and a creature that has an affinity to that call will come and form a bond with the person. Less costly than summoning, but if that kind of familiar dies, you can’t just summon it again. You need to find a whole new creature to be your familiar, which may or may not be like the one you lost.”

“Let’s get this thing going,” Rufus said. “You don’t want Anisa to walk in on us.”

“You definitely don’t,” Gary said.

Jason stood in front of the diagram. He could feel the power inside him aching to trigger the ritual. He knew the incantation; he had since the moment he used the stone. He held a hand out over the magic diagram. In his other hand was a knife. He hesitantly cut the palm of his outstretched hand, letting blood drop into the circle as he chanted.

“Let this mortal blood beckon the all-devouring power of the final threshold. Answer the call and claim the offering. Heed my command and bring forth the avatar of life’s annihilation.”

“Oh, using that stone was a terrific idea,” Rufus said.

“Shush,” Farrah told him.

Red liquid started oozing out of the floor where Jason’s blood had fallen. Dark, thick and viscous, it spread out over the entirety of the magic diagram, obscuring the lines and only stopping when it reached the edges.

“Does that remind anyone else of something we saw recently?” Gary asked.

Jason felt a prickling sensation spreading throughout his body. It became sharper and sharper, turning into pain as it focused on points on his arms, legs and chest. He gritted his teeth, but yelled out as blood burst out of a dozen pain points, spraying over the circle.

Rufus moved to intervene, but Farrah grabbed his arm.

“Interfering now would be more dangerous than letting it happen,” she said. Rufus turned a frustrated face to look at her, but stepped back on seeing her resolute expression.

Blood sprayed out of Jason like a fountain, ripping right through his clothes. He staggered, struggling to stay upright as the blood kept spurting out of him. As the blood mixed with the pooled liquid on the floor, the obscured lines of the diagram underneath started to light up, shining red light through the liquid. The other three looked at each other as the room was filled with the same red light that had suffused the ritual chamber they escaped together.

Jason stumbled as the blood finally stopped pouring out of his body. He was pale and sweaty, swaying as he struggled to avoid toppling over, but remained on his feet. His eyes were locked on the glowing red pool in front of him.

Rufus and Gary flinched as a leech with a horrifying ring of lamprey teeth emerged from the pool, mirroring the scenario of the day before.

“Isn’t that…?”


Ability: [Sanguine Horror] (Blood)

  • Familiar (ritual, summon)
  • Cost: Extreme mana, extreme stamina, extreme health.
  • Cooldown: None.
  • Current rank: Iron 0 (00%)
  • Effect (iron): Summon a [Sanguine Horror] to serve as a familiar.

A second leech crawled up through the red liquid, then a third and fourth as their rate of appearance accelerated. Soon leeches were tumbling out until they formed a waist high pile on the floor. Unlike their experience the previous day, no bloodied rags appeared to push the pile into a humanoid shape. The pile remaining as a pile.

The red pool started slowly soaking into the floor, which absorbed it as if it were disappearing down a drain. Jason’s blood, the circle he drew and all the magical materials within it, vanishing into the floor as if they had never existed. Jason watched the process with eyes foggy, standing unsteadily.

“That’s not going to drip downstairs, is it?” Gary asked.

“No,” Farrah said. “Its all being drawn back through the astral channel created by the summoning.”

“It’d be funny if Jason summoned another outworlder.”

“That’d be fantastic,” Farrah said. “The paper I could write on that would be the talk of the Magic Society.”

As the final traces of the blood pool drained away into nothingness, Jason collapsed to the floor.

“He really does pass out a lot,” Gary said. “And he really goes through clothes. Wait, is that thing going to eat him?”

The mound of leeches was undulating its way toward Jason’s unconscious body. It wasn’t far, but the pile moved slowly.

“It’s his familiar,” Farrah said. “It’s not going to eat him.”

They watched the slow-moving pile undulate closer to Jason’s unconscious form.

“Are you sure?” Gary asked.

The pile crawled over Jason’s limp body, seeking out the wounds where the blood had sprayed out. The leeches started disappearing as they buried themselves into the wounds.

“Uh, I’m pretty sure,” Farrah said.

“Are they crawling inside him?” Gary asked.

“It’s a summoned familiar,” Farrah said. “A summoned familiar can temporarily disperse its body and place its spirit inside the summoner.”

“Does it usually look that disturbing?” Gary asked.

“You’re the one who wanted this,” Rufus said. “Farrah, what do we do with him?”

“Well,” she said uncertainly, “he should be fine.”

“He’s covered in wounds,” Gary said. “With leeches crawling into them.”

“They won’t hurt him,” Farrah said. “They’re not even really crawling inside him. Look closely and you’ll see they’re actually merging into his blood. See how they’re kind of melting as they push their way in?”

“I think that might be worse.” Gary said. “I mean, melted leech can’t be something you want in your blood, right?

“He’ll be fine,” Farrah said. “Probably. Every familiar gives different benefits when it subsumes itself into the summoner,” she said. “They can merge themselves into the hair, the skin, even the aura. If I remember rightly, the ones who enter the blood usually induce rapid healing. So really, he should be better than fine.”

They watched as the last of the leeches vanished in Jason’s blood. The three adventurers stood over Jason, laying unconscious and undignified on the floor.

“Is he healing?” Gary asked.

“I can’t tell,” Rufus said. “There’s blood over all the wounds.”

“Well, wipe some off,” Gary said.

“You’re the one who wanted him to use that stone,” Rufus said. “You wipe some off.”

“I have fur,” Gary said. “I don’t want to get blood in it.”

“Since when has that been a concern?” Rufus asked.

“It’s a new thing,” Gary said. “I’m growing as a person, and I think you should support that. By being the one who wipes the blood off.”

Farrah shook her head, pulling a handkerchief out of her pocket.

“You two are children,” she said, wiping carefully at a blood patches on Jason’s arm. Underneath was clear, unbroken skin.

“See?” she said to the others. “I told you he’d be fine. I had total confidence.”

***

Jason regained consciousness while being rattled around in the back of a wagon. He was on a blanket but it barely softened the hard wood he was laying on. It was an open wagon, giving him a wide view of the rocky desert as he looked blearily around. In the wagon with him were Farrah and Anisa, while Gary was on a seat at the front holding reins. Rufus wasn’t in the wagon, instead riding alongside. He was in the saddle on one of the two-headed horse-lizards called heidels, leading a string of them all tied together.

“Why would you bring those horrifying things?” Jason called out to him.

“You’re hardly in a position to talk,” Rufus called back with a laugh.

Jason could feel the blood monster flowing though his veins. It was unnerving, but he couldn’t help but grin at the sensation of power.

“How are you feeling?” Farrah asked.

“Tired,” Jason said, “but strong.”

“Are you still not going to tell me what happened to him?” Anisa asked Farrah, not even looking at Jason.

“Him is right here,” Jason said, “and you could ask him yourself.”

Anisa turned her gaze to Jason.

“Then what happened to you?” she asked.

“I said you could ask,” Jason said. “Didn’t say I’d tell you.”

Gary burst out laughing from the front, Farrah stifling a chortle behind her hand. Anisa schooled her fury into a look of blank disdain and turned away, staring out at the desert horizon.

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Shirtaloon

  • Australia

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