“Mr. Mayor,” Rufus said, “are you certain you don’t want us to investigate the astral space?”
“We considered it,” the mayor said, “but we are only one of many places with an aperture leading to that astral space. We have no idea if the other locations are having similar issues and the cost of a mistake could be critical.”
“I respect your prudence, Mr. Mayor,” Rufus said. “As promised, I’ll deliver your letters to the Adventure Society and the Magic Society when we reach Greenstone.”
The mayor was meeting them at the inn as they were ready to go. They were travelling on foot as Anisa had claimed the wagon and its animals for her church, which Rufus didn’t bother to argue. Hiram was standing alongside the mayor.
“Farewell, adventurers,” the mayor said, “and thanks again to you, Jason. I don’t like to think what would happen if those creatures had entered the village.”
“No worries, Greg,” Jason said, shaking the mayor’s hand, then Hiram’s.
“If there’s anything I can ever do for you,” Hiram said.
“Well, if you find another essence…” Jason said. “I looted all those monsters and you got the only one.”
“Stuff that,” Hiram, said. “If I find another essence I’m keeping it. I have more than one grandchild, you know.”
“You’ll have to introduce me next time I come through,” he said.
“That shouldn’t take long,” Farrah said. “The Adventure Society uses patrol contracts as punishment and…”
She placed a hand on Jason’s shoulder.
“…this one has a mouth on him.”
“Hey,” Jason said, mock hurt on his face.
They set out along the road on foot. Jason didn’t mind so much, since the wagon hadn’t been a comfortable ride over the hard desert ground. On their walk out of the village it seemed like everyone gave them a friendly wave or a few words of farewell.
“We’ve been here two days,” Farrah muttered.
“Not my fault you weren’t here when monsters started raining from the sky,” Jason said.
They set out along the south trail normally used by quarry transports, leaving the lush village behind for the dry wastes of the desert. Jason was much more comfortable than the last time they endured the arid waste. The reward he received from his quest to protect the village was exactly what he needed.
Item: [Oasis Bracelet] (iron rank, uncommon)
A bracelet that draws on the power of water quintessence to bestow the blessings of a personal oasis (accessory, bracelet).
- Effect: Keeps the wearer cool and refreshed. Bracelet energy is consumed at a varying rate according to climate.
- Effect: Reduces incoming fire and heat damage. This rapidly consumes bracelet energy.
- Effect: Consume a water quintessence gem to completely refill bracelet energy.
The bracelet was a cord looped with small round stones. When he first touched a sapphire-like water quintessence gem to one of the stones it had vanished. All the stones then turned from sandy yellow to vibrant blue.
Under the refreshing effect of the bracelet, Jason was happily making his way alongside the others. Now he wasn’t preoccupied with cursing the sun, he had a greater appreciation for the vistas of the barren desert. It wasn’t that different to parts of central Australia.
They were on an unsealed road, compacted to a hard surface by the scorching sun and heavy wagonloads of quarried stone. Wagons full of green marble rolled along the road in the same direction they were headed, while wagonloads of food came the other way.
“Did you really name your familiar Colin?” Gary asked as they walked.
“Yeah, I told you that,” Jason said.
“You should have given it a more intimidating name, like ‘Devourer’ or something.”
“Gary,” Jason said, “it’s a bloodthirsty apocalypse monster. It’s intimidating enough.”
Farrah, Gary and Jason chatted away as they walked. Rufus was still withdrawn after his confrontation with Anisa.
“It’s a little strange to be so comfortable in such an inhospitable environment,” Jason said.
“It gets much worse closer to the coast,” Farrah said. “At least here you can see some grass, the occasional tree. There, it’s just endless, lifeless sand. Dry and dead, like the sun scorched all the life out of it.”
“That’s cheery,” Jason said.
“We won’t need to trudge through that,” Gary said. “We’re heading south now until we hit the river, then we’ll take a boat west to the coast.”
They encountered a wagon that had been carrying fresh fruit to the village when it threw a wheel. While Gary and Farrah fixed the wagon, Jason and Rufus helped pick up the spilled fruit. Gary used one of his forge essence powers to repair the wheel. Jason was startled as Farrah used superhuman strength to lift the wagon so Gary could slip the wheel back onto the axle. Gary at least looked like he had overpowering strength. Seeing the same kind of power from Farrah was startlingly incongruous.
“What’s wrong with you?” Farrah asked Jason.
“I thought you were some kind of spell caster,” Jason said. “What’s with that strength?”
“I have some spells,” Farrah said, “but humans have an affinity for special attacks. I spend most of my time up close and personal. The spells just give me a little flexibility.”
“I don’t have any spells at all,” Rufus said. “Farrah having as many as she does is unusual.”
The wagon fixed, the grateful teamster left them walking away eating some kind of juicy melon. Jason, Rufus and Farrah had a slice each, while Gary ate the rest of the melon. Afterward, Rufus seemed a little less broody than he had for most of the day.
“Where are they getting fresh fruit in the desert?” Jason asked.
“You’ll get to see for yourself soon enough,” Rufus told him.
As they travelled, Jason took Rufus aside.
“I have kind of a delicate question,” Jason said softly.
“What’s that?” Rufus asked.
“Well,” Jason hesitated, “being iron rank does things to your body, right?”
“I just… I haven’t needed the toilet in four days. I had a sneaky wee back in the hedge maze, but since then, nothing.”
Rufus erupted into laughter, drawing the attention of the others.
“Really?” Jason asked.
“That’s normal,” Rufus said. “Your body doesn’t waste anything anymore; it can burn almost anything for fuel. I heard about a man that had to live on tree bark for a month.”
“That’s a myth,” Farrah.
“No, I know a guy who met the guy who did that,” Gary said.
“Of course you believe it,” Farrah said. “Mr. ‘I don’t need to check what’s in the box.’”
“Again, with this? How was I meant to know Vivienne would betray us?” Gary asked.
“Because it was really obvious,” Farrah said. “And we told you she would.”
“We did tell you,” Rufus agreed.
“You two have no sense of romance,” Gary said.
Late in the afternoon they came across a town, enclosed in massive walls made of tan-coloured, desert stone. It was laid out in a square with large gates in every wall. Inside was a town mostly built of the same bland bricks as the walls. The town’s layout was based around a huge central square, with wide, straight roads leading from the town gates right into it. The square was a bustle of activity, covered in wagons hauling the local green stone.
“This is the main distribution point for all the green marble in this region,” Farrah explained. “There are villages like the one we stayed in all through the region. From here it all gets taken south and shipped downriver on barges.”
“I figured there were more when they told me the name of the village was North East Quarry Village Four,” Jason said.
“No wonder they all just called it the Village,” Gary said.
“What’s with the huge walls?” Jason asked. The walls surrounding the town were at least seven metres high and almost three metres thick.
“That’s for the monster surge,” Rufus said.
“What’s a monster surge?” Jason asked.
“Every ten years,” Rufus explained, “there’s a massive increase in the spawn rate of monsters. All across the world, all at the same time. Whole villages evacuate to fortified towns like his one, which is why most of this town is actually empty. So long as there isn’t anyone left in the villages, the monsters largely leave them alone.”
“So how long has it been since the last monster surge?” Jason asked.
“Eleven years.” Rufus said.
“It’s never exactly ten years,” Farrah said. “It’s been as little as eight or as many as thirteen. The last few have all come pretty late.”
They didn’t need to find an inn to stay the night. Most of the town was composed of transient shelters that villagers used during the surges, which were available to anyone passing through. Mostly that meant teamsters hauling stone one way or food the other. Rufus led them to register in the square, where they were provided basic accommodation without cost. After they found the simple stone cottage to which they had been assigned, Rufus approached Jason.
“There’s still a few hours of light,” Rufus said. “Come with me for a little bit.”
Rufus led them in silence. They went to the edge of town and up one of many sets of stairs, arriving on the top of the west wall. There he stopped to look out at the horizon, Jason stopping beside him.
“So you’ve fought your first proper monster,” Rufus said.
“The shabs were certainly rougher than the potent hamster,” Jason said.
Rufus turned his head to glance at Jason.
“Your power to identify things extends to monsters?”
“Just their names,” Jason told him.
Rufus looked back out at the desert landscape.
“It’s time you learned how to advance your abilities,” he said.
“Actually, that reminds me,” Jason said. “I have a bunch of monster cores. Apparently they can raise abilities up.”
Rufus’ head snapped sideways.
“You didn’t use any, did you?”
“No, I was waiting to ask you,” Jason said. “I thought there might be side effects. After that reaction, I’m assuming there are.”
Rufus let out a breath.
“I’m glad. I should have thought to tell you, but I forgot you had an ability to loot monsters. You’re lucky; it’s a rare power.”
“It’s not just me that can do that, then?”
“No, but it’s a highly coveted ability. I’m starting to get envious,” Rufus said.
“Don’t humans have their abilities go up faster than everyone else?” Jason asked. “Everyone else including me, since I’m not human. Which still seems harsh.”
“Being human does have its perks,” Rufus acknowledged.
“Rub it in, why don’t you?” Jason asked. “How about you tell me how to raise my abilities so I can start catching up to you three.”
“That’s what we’re here for,” Rufus said. “There are two ways to raise your abilities. One is to use monster cores. Every core increases your abilities a little, but only a little. It takes hundreds of iron-rank cores to reach bronze rank, and that’s for humans. For everyone else, it takes even more. It takes iron-rank cores when you’re iron rank, bronze when you’re bronze, and so forth. But you should never, ever use this method.”
“Do you turn into a monster or something?”
“No,” Rufus said. “I said there were two ways of raising your abilities. Every time you use a monster core to raise your abilities, it makes the other method a little less effective. The impact is minimal, at first, but every core you use eats into your potential. If you used cores to get to where I am, the top end of bronze rank, then cores would the only thing that works anymore. And bronze rank isn’t that high.”
“Couldn’t you just hunt up more monsters for cores?” Jason asked.
“You could,” Rufus said, “and some do. In the city we’re going to, Greenstone, almost everyone uses cores. So long as you have the money to buy them you can reach bronze rank without ever facing a monster. But every rank requires more and more cores. By the time you reach silver rank, things slow right down as the costs go up significantly. Most core users don’t make it to gold.”
“If people know this, why would anyone use cores?” Jason asked.
“Because its easy and you can buy the cores instead of risking your own neck.” Rufus said. “Most aristocratic families only have a few truly powerful adventurers, while the rest use cores. Do you have aristocracy in your world?”
“Sure,” Jason said. “We’re slowly phasing it out in favour of wealth-based oligarchy, but it’s still around.”
“So, what’s so bad about the second method that people would use these cores?”
“Because it requires danger and hard work.”
“I bet it isn’t the danger that stops them,” Jason said. “It’s the hard work, right?”
“Probably,” Rufus said with a chuckle. “The other path to developing your abilities, the real way, has three elements.”
Rufus raised three fingers, counting them off as he explained.
“The first element is training. You have to practice pushing your body to its limits, and not just the physical ones. You have to strain against the boundaries of what your four attributes are capable of. Exhaust yourself, body and mind. Pushing yourself to the limits prepares you to go beyond them.”
“Yes, but not just physical exercise. You have to train the mind, as well. Perception is part of your spiritual strength, and we will teach you how to exercise it.”
“Observation training, which is a practical skill as well as a good training technique. Memory games, puzzles. Anything that tests the mind can work.”
“That actually sounds a little fun.”
“That’s good,” Rufus said. “Training, done right, will leave you feeling satisfied and empowered. The second element is also about pushing yourself, but in a much more dangerous way.””
“Fighting monsters?” Jason guessed.
“Fighting monsters,” Rufus said. “To truly break through your limits, you must truly push up against them. Only with genuine danger can you go further and do more than you ever thought possible.”
“That’s simple enough to understand, if mildly terrifying. What’s the third part?” Jason asked.
“Meditation,” Rufus said.
“Meditation? As in… just sitting there?”
“Yes,” Rufus said. “Meditation is crucial. The other two elements are about breaking through your own limits. Meditation is about consolidating that gain. It’s where you take the fleeting moments in which you were better than you’ve ever been before, and making that your new normal.”
“Is there a mantra, or something?” Jason asked.
“The key is concentrating on the magic flowing inside you. You can feel it, right?”
“I can,” Jason said.
“It feels unruly, doesn’t it? Like some wild creature inside you.”
“Yeah, it kind of does,” Jason said. “Using an ability feels like throwing out a piece of meat for it to run out and devour.”
“That’s the sensation after you reach a new rank,” Rufus said. “You’ll slowly bring that beast under your control as your abilities grow. Then you’ll reach a new rank and have a new beast to contend with, more powerful than the last.”
“How does that work with core users?” Jason asked.
“For them it’s like feeding the beast drugged meat to make it compliant. The beast still has its strength, but the owner can’t make use of it properly.”
“So core users aren’t just hampering their future, but also making themselves kind of crappy in the present.”
“That’s exactly what they’re doing,” Rufus said.
Rufus directed Jason to sit cross-legged, looking out over the landscape. He spent the remaining daylight guiding Jason through his first meditation, until the sunset lit up the sky with orange and gold. Jason opened his eyes to watch.
“You know,” Jason said, “I think I’m starting to like it here.”
That night, as he lay in the small bed in their assigned accommodation, Jason checked his character screen.
- Race: Outworlder.
- Current rank: Iron.
- Progression to bronze rank: 0% (0/4 essences complete)
- [Power] (Blood): [Iron 0].
- [Speed] (Dark): [Iron 0].
- [Spirit] (Doom): [Iron 0].
- [Recovery] (Sin): [Iron 0].
Racial Abilities (Outworlder)
- [Quest System].
- [Astral Affinity].
- [Mysterious Stranger].
Dark [Speed] (3/5)
- [Midnight Eyes] (special ability): [Iron 0] 14%.
- [Cloak of Night] (conjuration): [Iron 0] 02%.
- [Path of Shadows] (special ability): [Iron 0] 00%.
Blood [Power] (4/5)
- [Blood Harvest] (spell): [Iron 0] 01%.
- [Leech Bite] (special attack): [Iron 0] 01%.
- [Feast of Blood] (spell): [Iron 0] 01%.
- [Sanguine Horror] (familiar): [Iron 0] 01%.
Sin [Recovery] (3/5)
- [Punish] (special attack): [Iron 0] 01%.
- [Feast of Absolution] (spell): [Iron 0] 00%.
- [Sin Eater] (special ability): [Iron 0] 02%.
Doom [Spirit] (1/5)
- [Inexorable Doom] (spell): [Iron 0] 01%.
Looking over his abilities he saw they had barely increased. Some he hadn’t even used yet.
“I have to try out that shadow teleport.”