The group, now reduced to seven, made their way through the desert sand. This was proper desert, with blistering sun scouring any life out of the rolling dunes. There were no landmarks, so Jason checked his map from time to time. It unveiled nothing but empty desert as they passed through it, but he saw they were travelling in a dead-straight line. Leading from the front, Phoebe Geller knew exactly where she was going.
Jason had prepared thoroughly for the trip, even though it was expected to only last the day. Aside from the juice he picked up, he had ample supplies of food and water. He could get what he needed from spirit coins, but he had once found himself in the desert, benefiting from Farrah having packed bottles of water.
His oasis bracelet protected him from the heat, and he had plenty of spare water quintessence to fuel it. He also had his new boots, which were already paying off. While others were trudging through the sand, the magic of his boots made every step light and easy.
He'd also brought along some combat items, as open desert was not an environment that played to his strengths. His belt had loops containing vials with various utility potions, along with the usual health and mana potions. The magic on the belt was designed to protect the vials from incidental damage. The belt also carried the sword Gary made, in a scabbard on Jason's left hip. His snake tooth dagger was sheathed on the right.
He wore a bandolier diagonally across his chest, with nine throwing darts sheathed into it. Each dart had a small, corded grip, in different colours. Three had a black cord, three had dark orange, with the last three being green.
It quickly became clear which members of the group had joined Jason in making appropriate preparations. Humphrey, Phoebe and Gabrielle were easily chatting as if strolling through a garden. The other three struggled with the sand underfoot and the sun overhead. They repeatedly used spirit coins to replenish their reserves.
“This contract will cost us more coins than it gets us,” one of them complained.
“Then you should have prepared,” Phoebe said. “Look at how comfortable Jason is.”
All eyes turned to Jason, sipping on an icy fruit drink.
One of the exhausted adventurers narrowed her eyes at Jason.
“Aren’t you that guy with the evil powers?”
Jason shot a withering look at Phoebe, who gave him a wink and a cheeky smile in return.
Jason returned the drink to his inventory. One of his favourite things about the inventory power was that anything he took out was in the same state he put in. Food stayed fresh, drinks stayed cold. His food supply included bread straight from the oven that would stay warm and fresh until he took it out again.
One of the adventurers Jason didn’t know suddenly called out.
“What is it?” Phoebe asked.
“There’s something under the sand ahead of us,” the adventurer called out.
There were many kinds of perception powers. Some saw through darkness, like Jason's ability, while others had superior aura perception, or could see magic. Common to the earth essence was a tremor-sense power, able to detect things in or on the ground over large distances.
“Jason,” Phoebe said. “You cost us our healer, so you’re the bait.”
Jason nodded, walking ahead of the others as the starlight cloak formed around him. He kept a quick but measured pace, ready to react at any time.
“How close?” he called back.
“About a dozen metres in front of you.”
Jason stopped, drawing one of the green-corded darts from his bandolier. It was a single-use magic item that would manifest a false aura on impact. He threw it into the ground, a dozen metres ahead of him, where it struck the sand.
Sand exploded into the air as a monster erupted from the ground. It looked like a giant, emaciated shark, but with shell instead of skin, spidery crustacean legs and huge pincers.
It looked similar to the shabs Jason had encountered in the past, but at least triple the size. Instead of the red and purple colouration, it was sandy yellow. The creature skittered about, as if confused, then seemed to spot Jason and moved towards him. Jason walked toward the creature, in turn, as he drew another dart. This one had a black cord and he tossed it at the creature.
The dart bounced off its shell, the impact triggering the dart. Darkness burst out of the dart, shadows engulfing the creature in defiance of the glaring sun. It wasn't complete darkness, instead, a murky region of roiling shadow. Jason continued forward, casually walking into the dark mass as if he hadn’t noticed it. The other adventurers looked on as Jason vanished into the shadows.
“What is that thing?” Humphrey asked.
"A sand shab," Phoebe said. "Bigger than the aquatic variety. Likes to drag victims under the sand instead of underwater."
“Should we help?” Gabrielle asked.
Alien shrieks of monstrous rage came from within the darkness.
“I wouldn’t bother,” Jason said, suddenly next to them.
Phoebe looked between Jason and the darkness into which he had vanished.
“Teleport?” she asked.
“Shadow teleport,” Jason said.
Jason looked down and she followed his gaze to see he was standing in her own shadow.
“The monster isn’t dead,” Gabrielle pointed out. Angry cries were still emerging from the patch of shadow, which was fading away. They could see the outline of the monster within.
“The darkness fades over time,” Jason said. “It’ll last about thirty seconds, total.”
He casually restocked his bandolier darts from his inventory. In his other hand was his dagger, blade slick with yellow ichor. He took out a rag and started wiping it clean.
“What about the monster?’ Gabriele asked.
“It’ll last about fifty seconds, total” Jason said. “That’s a guess, since I’m going to try a new ability.”
The last vestiges of the magic shadow faded, the shab scrambling around in confusion. It spotted the adventurers and headed in their direction.
“Uh, Jason?” Humphrey said.
“It’s coming this way.”
“Shabs aren’t very quick,” Jason said. “I just need those afflictions to stack up a little more.”
He finished cleaning his dagger, returning it to its sheath. He glanced over at the approaching shab. It wasn't built for forward movement, skittering side to side as it came. He raised an arm in its direction, chanting out a spell.
“Suffer the cost of your transgressions.”
Black spread out across the shell of the monster as if it were passing into shadow. Its hectic skittering slowed to an uneasy stagger. When one of its shell-encrusted legs crumbled like dry, stale bread, it collapsed to the ground. More of its shell broke apart to reveal blackened, withered flesh. It didn’t get back up.
Ability: [Punition] (Doom)
- Cost: Moderate mana.
- Cooldown: 30 seconds.
- Current rank: Iron 0 (01%).
- Effect (iron): Inflicts necrotic damage for each curse, disease, poison and unholy affliction the target is suffering.
“Uh, Jason?” Humphrey asked.
“What just happened to that monster?”
“Massive necrosis,” Jason said.
“I’m not sure what that means.”
“Well,” Jason said, “you know what happens to a body when it dies? A regular body, I mean. Not a monster body.”
“I’m roughly familiar,” Humphrey said.
“I convinced its body to do that,” Jason said. “Just very quickly, and while it was still alive.”
“Are you that guy with the evil powers?”
“I hope you get eaten by a shab.”
The seven adventurers continued their trek through the desert. The three Jason didn’t know were bringing up the rear, sweat pouring out of them as they were still forced to replenish themselves with spirit coins. Phoebe and Gabrielle were together, glancing over at Jason and Humphrey talking loudly.
“…how did so many people even see it?” Jason complained. “It was just that archer distributing copies, right.”
"Actually, my mother started to help," Humphrey said. "Our people have a lot of family pride, which is good, but she doesn't want us veering into… let's call it Thadwick territory."
“So she started showing people a recording of some random guy no one has heard of going one-versus-five with a bunch of your family members?”
“That’s the basic idea, yes.”
“She could have asked,” Jason said.
"I thought the whole point was to intimidate people."
“Yeah, well that was my chuuni tendencies getting away from me. Now everyone thinks I control monsters. How would I not be the strongest iron-ranker in greenstone if I could control hundreds of trap weavers?”
“What are chuuni tendencies?” Humphrey asked.
"My powers aren't evil," Jason said. "You breathe fire. Burning to death isn't exactly a fun way to go."
“You do have a leech colony living inside you.”
“Lots of people have summoned familiars!”
Humphrey’s familiar, Stash, was happily walking along next to Humphrey’s feet. He barked happily, like a dog, which was a little odd given that he was currently a lizard.
“Who’s a good boy,” Jason said, prompting stash to transform into a small bird and fluttered up onto Jason’s shoulder. Jason took a biscuit from his inventory and held it up for the bird, who turned into a puppy and snuffled it out of Jason’s hand. Jason used the empty hand to stop the enthusiastic puppy from falling down.
“You spoil him,” Humphrey said.
“He deserves it.”
Stash yapped his agreement, spilling crumbs.
From where she was walking beside Phoebe, Gabrielle looked on unhappily.
“Why does he like Jason more than me?” she asked.
“Which one?” Phoebe asked. “Humphrey or Stash?”
That earned her a sharp elbow. As Gabrielle had the might essence, it sent Phoebe reeling.
“Sorry,” Gabrielle said with a wince.
Phoebe regained her balance, shaking her head.
“Maybe you should carry biscuits around,” Phoebe suggested, nodding at Jason feeding the puppy another one.
“Biscuits for who?” Gabrielle asked. “Humphrey or Stash?”
“I actually did try that,” Gabrielle confessed. “I think Jason has better biscuits than me. He makes them himself.”
“I didn’t think you knew Jason that well,” Phoebe said.
“The goddess told me.”
“The goddess told you he makes his own biscuits?”
“She seems strangely interested in him.”
“I saw them together, briefly. It was a weird atmosphere.”
“You don’t suppose she’s, you know, interested interested?” Phoebe asked.
“Dear gods, no,” Gabrielle laughed. “I think it’s because he’s an outworlder. He doesn’t act the way other people do. She said he’s dangerous.”
“How can that guy be dangerous to a goddess?”
"Not to her," Gabrielle said. "To me. She thinks he's a threat to impressionable young minds."
"She'd know, I guess," Phoebe said.
Suddenly, the adventurer with the tremor-sense called out in alarm.
“What is it?” Phoebe asked.
“There’s something around us. All around us.”
Everyone went on alert, scanning the empty desert terrain.
“Is it in the sand?” Humphrey asked.
“I think it is the sand.”