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An hour after they left the walled town, Rufus stopped. He took a piece of paper from his pocket, looked it over, then turned his gaze to the desert landscape around them.

“This is it,” he said and walked off, leaving the road behind.

“What’s going on?” Gary asked as they followed, and Rufus handed him the paper.

Gary glanced over it.

“Nice,” he said, handing the paper to Jason. It was a monster notification, with details and directions. Jason had seen something similar back in the waterfall village, but there was apparently a noticeboard for them in every town and village.

“Did you take this from the town we just went through?” Jason asked.

“That’s right,” Rufus said.

“Are you allowed to just take them?” Jason asked.

The location was listed by landmarks that Jason spotted by looking around their current location. A series of distinctively shaped rocky outcroppings.

“You can make copies,” Gary said. “When you kill the monster you mark the copy and it gets rid of the original. Then you just have to report next time you’re at an Adventure Society branch.”

“What if someone just makes a copy and destroys it without killing the monster?” Jason asked.

“Why would anyone do that?” Gary asked.

“Because people are terrible,” Jason said.

“Is that what you think?” Farrah asked. “I’m starting to worry about your world.”

“Really?” Jason asked. “Because when I came to your world people kept trying to eat and/or kill me.”

“He has a point,” Gary said.

“To make proper copies you need an Adventure Society badge,” Rufus said. “The Society can use that to track down who made the copy.”

“The badge also tracks the monsters you’ve killed,” Farrah said.

“And they can use it to find your body when you die,” Gary said.

“Very comforting,” Jason said. “So why are we going after this monster?”

“We’re not,” Rufus said. “You are.”

“I am?”

“You are,” Rufus said.


New Quest: [Adventure Notice: Giant Desert Maw Spider]

Local townsfolk have spotted a monster in the area that matches the description of a giant desert maw spider. Slay the creature before it becomes aggressive and starts attacking travellers.

  • Objective: Defeat [Giant Desert Maw Spider] 0/1.
  • Reward: Quintessence.

Jason took another look at the sheet of paper, which named the same monster as the quest.

“Giant desert maw spider,” he read. “How giant are we talking?”

“About Gary’s size,” Rufus said. “The size isn’t what you need to watch out for, though.”

“They have a huge mouth full of the nastiest teeth you’ve ever seen,” Farrah said. “It has a barbed tongue that will whip out, grab your limbs and try to drag them into that mouth.”

“Sounds delightful, but why are we doing this?”

“I haven’t seen you fight yet,” Rufus said. “I need to see what kind of level you’re at.”

“I can save you some time there,” Jason said. “My level is low. Very, very low.”

“You say that,” Rufus said, “but it could just be modesty.”

***

Jason cast his blood harvest spell and the remnant life force of the dead monster flowed into him, healing his wounds. The spell was strong, but not enough to completely recover his injuries. His wounds had closed but he felt carved up like a smallgoods platter. He tapped a finger on the remains.


  • Would you like to loot [Giant Desert Maw Spider]?

He limped in the direction of the adventurers as the monster dissolved into rainbow smoke behind him.


  • 10 [Spider Quintessence Gems] have been added to your inventory.

The others had been watching Jason’s fight from a distance. His clothes were in bloody tatters, his body painted red.

“So,” Rufus said as Jason drew close. “Not being modest, then.”


Quest: [Monster Notice: Giant Desert Maw Spider]

  • Objective complete: Defeat [Giant Desert Maw Spider] 1/1.
  • 10 [Earth Quintessence Gems] have been added to your inventory.

Quest complete.

  • 100 [Iron Spirit Coins] have been added to your inventory.

“I’m running out of intact clothes,” Jason said.

“You do seem to go through them,” Gary said.

Farrah drew her stone chest from the ground and took out a bottle of clear liquid with a glass stopper.

“It’s called crystal wash,” Farrah said, pushing the bottle into Jason’s hands. “Strip down and then pour this over your head. I don’t have a lot, so be appreciative.”

Jason stripped down to his underwear.

“All the way,” Farrah said.

Jason pulled off the silk boxer shorts he had taken from the Vane manor. Past caring, he didn’t even glance over to see if the others were looking at his naked body. There was enough blood on him anyway that it was effectively body paint. He pulled out the stopper and tipped it over his head. A clear, viscous liquid poured out and rapidly started spreading itself over him, thinning as it worked its way down. It excised the blood and filth from his body, cleaning it with an intimate thoroughness. An odd expression crossed his face as it cleared out the hard-to-reach nooks and crannies. He could smell a fresh fragrance coming off his body as the liquid evaporated into nothingness, its job done. He felt cleaner than he ever had in his life.

“It’s perfumed?” he asked.

“No, crystal wash is completely odourless and clears off everything,” Farrah said. “If there’s any stink left behind, that’s just you.”

Gary walked over and sniffed at Jason.

“Why do you smell like flowers?”

The other two crowded around Jason and started smelling him.

“Still naked,” Jason said, boxed in by the trio.

“We’ve seen Rufus naked,” Farrah said. “No one cares about your scrawny body.”

“Hey…” Rufus and Jason said together.

“You do smell like flowers,” Farrah said. “What’s up with that?”

“I think it might be an outworlder thing,” Rufus said. “I knew an outworlder who smelled quite similar.”

“Did you now?” Gary asked.

“Did someone have a little outworlder fling?” Farrah asked.

“Still naked,” Jason said.

“It wasn’t like that,” Rufus said. “I was young and she barely even looked at me.”

“WILL EVERYONE BACK OFF SO I CAN PUT ON SOME CLOTHES?”

“We’re right here,” Gary said. “You don’t have to shout.”

***

“If you had that bottle of cleaning stuff the whole time…”

“Crystal wash,” Farrah said.

“Right,” Jason said. “If you had the whole time, why didn’t you give me some after I purged all those toxins?”

“Purging your toxins is like a rite of passage,” she said.

“So you didn’t use any when you went through it?”

“Absolutely not,” Farrah said, unconvincingly.

“She had a whole case of bottles on hand,” Gary said.

“If you didn’t learn the value of crystal wash, then you wouldn’t appreciate it,” Farrah said.

“Meaning you thought it was funny that I smelled so bad,” Jason said.

“It was pretty funny,” Gary said. “I’ve never seen that much sludge come out of a person. It’s like you were keeping extra in your storage space.”

They passed through another village near the middle of the day. Its astral space aperture was small, producing only a large pond. It had a quarrying operation, but much smaller than the waterfall village.

“Are apertures the only water sources around here?” Jason asked.

“No,” Rufus said, “but more of the green stone appears around the apertures. The bigger the aperture, the higher grade stone you’ll find.”

They only stopped long enough for Rufus to select another notice from the village’s adventure board.

“We’re on track to reach the river by nightfall,” Rufus said. “We have time for another one. Hand me a blank sheet from that box.”

Jason spotted the box of blank paper under the noticeboard, taking out a single sheet and handing it to Rufus. Rufus took a bronze medallion out of his pocket and touched it to the notice on the board. The medallion started glowing faintly until he touched it to the blank sheet Jason had retrieved. The glow faded and text started appearing on the paper, matching that of the notice.

“This is the Adventure Society badge,” Rufus explained. “You’ll get your own when you join.”

“I would have thought you got enough from the last monster,” Jason said. “Wasn’t I underwhelming enough?”

“There are always more lessons to be learned,” Rufus said, handing over the paper.


New Quest: [Monster Notice: Lesser Earth Elemental]

Local townsfolk have spotted a monster in the area that matches the description of a lesser earth elemental. Slay the creature before it becomes aggressive and starts attacking travellers.

  • Objective: Defeat [Lesser Earth Elemental] 0/1.
  • Reward: Crafting material.

“Earth elemental,” Jason read. “That’s like a pile of rocks and dirt that roams around and punches people?”

“That’s the one,” Gary said. “They have those in your world?”

“Just stories,” Jason said. “So let me guess. I fight the thing and find out my abilities don’t work on it because you can’t poison or bleed out a pile of rocks. I get the snot kicked out of me, you step in to save me and I learn an important lesson about failure and picking your battles. Is that more or less the idea?”

“I think he’s got your number, Rufus,” Gary chortled.

“Um, yes,” Rufus said, reaching to take the paper back. “It’s fine; you don’t have to do it.”

“No, I’m doing it,” Jason said, keeping the paper. He marched off in the direction of the village gate.

“I know you want to teach him to be a proper adventurer,” Farrah said to Rufus, “but I don’t think he’s like the spoiled rich kids at your family’s school.”

“That’s becoming clear,” Rufus said.

***

The earth elemental looked like a snowman made of packed earth and sand, but with thick arms instead of frail sticks. It was only around two thirds of Jason’s height, throwing off dust and dirt as it slowly moved. Jason rammed his dagger into its head.


  • Special attack [Punish] has inflicted [Sin] on [Lesser Earth Elemental].
  • [Lesser Earth Elemental] has no motive spirit and is immune to curses.
  • [Sin] does not take effect.
  • [Lesser Earth Elemental] has no living tissue and is impervious to necrotic damage.
  • Additional necrotic damage from special attack [Punish] does not take effect.

As expected, Jason’s abilities had no effect. What he hadn’t anticipated was that even the hole from the knife closed up as soon as he pulled it out. He stabbed it again and again, being struck in turn by the elemental’s crude, heavy arms. The elemental showed no signs of waning. For every chunk of earth he dislodged with his knife, more entered the hole to fill it

Desperate, Jason crouched down and wrapped his arms around the elemental, gripping it tightly as he heaved back with all the might he could muster. His strength may have paled in comparison to Gary, but it was still improved over what it had been just a few days ago. With a wild roar of effort he strained to raise his legs, staggering, but successfully standing up.

The creature was lifted completely off the ground. He staggered as he leaned back for balance, but managed to stay upright under the weight. He clenched the monster with one and a half arms, stabbing at it with as much force as just his forearm would allow. It wasn’t powerful but he kept stabbing, with the repetition of a sewing machine. As he did, the creature brought its crude limbs down on Jason’s shoulders and back. He tucked his head in, shielding it as best he could.

Dirt crumbled away under Jason’s knife as he struggled to stay upright under the creature’s weight and the pounding blows it rained down on him. He stumbled, almost collapsing, but more and more of the creature crumbled away in larger and larger chunks. Jason’s breathing was a death rattle as earthen fists hammered force through his back and into his lungs. His arms burned as they barely kept the creature in their air, his shoulders beaten until they felt like pulp. Finally, the creature crumbled away all at once, spilling though Jason’s arms in clumps.


  • You have defeated [Lesser earth Elemental].

 

Quest: [Adventure Notice: Lesser Earth Elemental]

  • Objective complete: Defeat [Lesser Earth Elemental] 1/1.
  • 10 portions of [Pure-Heart Sand] have been added to your inventory.
  • Quest complete.
  • 100 [Iron Spirit Coins] have been added to your inventory.

Jason collapsed onto all fours, air escaping in hacking coughs that spat droplets of blood onto the ground. The others all ran up.

“I’ll get you a potion,” Farrah said, but Jason held up a hand to stop her, then put it back down so he wouldn’t fall.

“No,” he croaked. “Familiar… heals.”

“It heals slowly,” Rufus said.

Jason turned to look at him, slowly pushing himself to his feet. He staggered, legs almost giving out again, but he stabilised, defiant. His breathing slowly lost its wheeze, each breath no longer agony. He crouched down and ran his fingers through the dirt.


  • Would you like to loot [Lesser Earth Elemental]?

He walked up to Rufus as the dirt behind him dissolved into smoke with a sizzling hiss.


  • [Monster Core (Iron Rank)] has been added to your inventory.
  • 10 [Earth Quintessence] have been added to your inventory.
  • 10 [Iron Spirit Coins] have been added to your inventory.

“If the familiar heals me, that ability gets better, faster, right?”

Jason’s voice was still raw and gravely.

“Yeah,” Rufus said.

Jason nodded and started a stumbling walk back in the direction of the main road. Gary followed behind Jason as the other two looked at each other.

“What was all that about?” Farrah asked.

“Jason has a lot of lessons to learn,” Rufus said. “This was him pointing out that I do too.”

“Like what?” Farrah asked.

“Like determination. That being in a losing position doesn’t mean you lose, so long as you’re willing to pay the price of victory. In that sacrifice chamber, Jason was the weakest of all of us, collars or no. But he was the one who kept beating the odds.”

“He had some luck on his side,” Farrah said.

“My grandfather says the great adventurers are the ones who turn luck into fortune. And adventurers don’t come much greater than him, so he’d know.”

Farrah shook her head.

“The whole thing smells of male posturing, to me,” she said. “Why can’t you have a conversation, like normal people?”

“You may be right,” Rufus acknowledged, “but I think some things we can only show with our effort.”

Farrah made a distasteful groan.

“Little boys and their posturing.”

Jason was sorely meandering back toward the road when Gary caught up at a jog.

“How did you know to get it off the ground?” Gary asked.

“There’s a myth from my world,” Jason said hoarsely. “There was a guy who was invincible while he was touching the ground, so the guy who killed him did it by lifting him into the air. I thought maybe the elemental was healing itself by taking in more earth from the ground, so it seemed worth a try.”

“You know,” Gary said, “once we train you up a bit, you might actually be good at this.”

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Shirtaloon

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