“I have some mixed feeling about this essence,” Jason said, turning the translucent cube over in his hands.
They were still in the ritual room. Hiro's essences had been done and they had moved onto Ian. It was the third essence for Ian's combination after they had already imbued him with the first two.
Jason had kept the renewal essence that Taika declined, and given that Ian was a doctor, healing seemed the obvious power set to aim for. There were many potential healer combinations, each one fitting a specific niche. As Ian was not looking for the role of combat medic but a more traditional doctor role, Farrah had suggested a specific combination.
“There’s a popular combination that is the first choice for a behind-the-lines healer for anyone who can get their hands on a renewal essence,” she explained. “You don’t see adventurers using it because it largely avoids combat powers unless you pick the right kind of awakening stones.”
The renewal essence was first, then the life essence. The third was one that gave Jason pause.
“The pure essence,” he said, continuing to stare at it as he turned it over again and again in his hands. “It has some specific connotations for me.”
“I know,” Farrah said. “I’ve seen your recordings. The church of Purity turned out to be evil.”
“There was something not in the recordings,” Jason said. “It was right near the end and I didn’t put it in. The others didn’t see her because it was before I started recording, but you remember Anisa, of course.”
“Yeah,” Farrah said.
“Who’s Anisa?” Erika asked, looking up from where she was running her fingers over her skin. After recovering from ranking up to iron, she was revelling in the new sensations of being a magical being. Hiro was still in the shower room, while Erika, Ian and Emi had been joined by Ken, who had arrived to watch for himself. He was still uncertain about getting in on the strange magic powers.
“Remember I told you about when my team first met Jason,” Farrah said. “The priestess guiding us was named Anisa and she was part of the church of Purity.”
“You shouldn’t trust people who talk about purity too much,” Erika said. “Take your eyes off them and suddenly they’re rounding people up into camps.”
“That’s what I said,” Jason agreed.
“I didn’t care for Anisa,” Farrah said. “I’m not sure Rufus needed to kick her out, but she was not a good person to work with. Did she turn out to be one of the bad ones when the church of Purity turned out to be corrupt?”
“Yes,” Jason said, sparing a glance at Emi while deciding whether to continue. “She turned out to be a chief henchwoman and we ended up fighting her in the astral space.”
“What happened?” Farrah asked.
“We won,” Jason said. “She was with her boss at the time, who was a silver-rank essence user. We knew he’d be very hard to deal with, so we decided to… handle Anisa first.”
“Oh no,” Emi said. “I’m only twelve and have no idea what an obvious euphemism is.”
“Emi,” Jason said, “there’s a time for being serious.”
Everyone in the room turned to look at Jason.
“What?” he asked.
“You fought the silver-ranker, after?” Farrah asked. “How was that?”
“Hard,” Jason said. “Nothing like the chump they sent after me here and even that guy beat me. He was a healer, so between his silver-rank toughness and his powers, he was damn near immortal. That did mean he didn’t have as much attack power to throw at us and even then our front liners had trouble holding on. We’re getting sidetracked, though. The point is this pure essence, not some dead archbishop of Purity.”
“It’s not a divine essence,” Farrah said. “It’s got nothing to do with the god, despite the name.”
“I know,” Jason said. “I can’t help but hesitate, though.”
“Okay, I’m starting to feel concerned,” Ian said. “If you were going to hesitate, I’d really prefer you’d have done it before we were halfway through.”
“I’m sorry,” Jason said. “This is completely the right choice; it’s just my hang-up. I don’t normally know the people I…”
“Enough of that. Let’s get you some more magic powers!”
Ian’s essences were soon complete and he made a beeline for the shower room, Hiro already having left.
“How much crystal wash did you put into the flask?” Farrah asked.
“Enough to last a few years, so long as I’m careful,” Jason said. “Dad and Emi get to rank up here, but the others can use their own showers.”
“That gunk will be hard to clear off with regular soap and water.”
“That’s a fair point,” Jason said. “I’ll buy them some steel wool.”
Jason and Farrah’s phones simultaneously bleeped with messages. They both looked at their screens, then shared a glance.
“We’ll have to postpone the rest of the magic talk,” Jason said to Erika and Hiro. “I know that the timing isn’t great, but it’s a category three, which means all hands on deck. In the meantime, stay on the boat and take a rest. There’s a big lunch spread set up in the lounge.”
“First, though,” Farrah said, “You eat like an essence user.”
She handed Erika and Hiro a spirit coin each.
Monsters swarmed through the uneven, bushland scrub. They crawling out from gullies, over ridges and through dense patches of prickly vegetation. They took the form of bugs, from giant beetles to horrifying desert mantises to things with no Earthly counterpart. Millipede-like creatures, except that instead of a singular body, five bodies spread out from a central hub, like the limbs of a starfish. Each body-limb ended in an acid-spitting mouth with gnashing mandibles. They weren’t quick but they were the size of trampolines and hard to approach without being intercepted by acid spit.
The silver rank monsters were low, flat and dark-shelled, like scorpions. They lacked pincers, each instead boasting a trio of over-long scorpion tails that ended not in piercing barbs but raking claws. The tails could reach out twice the length of their bodies, which were roughly the size of a mattress.
They were not agile, but their raw speed was in the mid-range of silver rank, making them hard for Jason to pin down. Their hard shells made penetrating them difficult, so even if a hit landed, his special attacks only worked if damage got through. For this reason, he pulled his sword out rather than conjure his dagger.
The sword Gary made, Dread Salvation, was designed to help Jason in his most troubling fights. For every hit that landed, only for the target to be immune via impenetrable armour, the sword built up a charge of resonating-force. That damage type was ideally suited to getting through armour, doing extra damage and resonating through. Jason gave up the afflictions of his conjured dagger, but the numerous creatures were weak for silver-rank monsters.
Weak silver-rank fortitude was still silver-rank fortitude, however. It took every affliction he could lay on to deal with them, but his spells were fortunately much easier to land. With only a few ranged monsters spitting poison barbs or acidic bile, there was little to interrupt him.
Even with his sword, the trick was landing hits on the speeding swarms. Although their patterns were simple, their pace was a major threat to Jason as he faced them like a bullfighter. He took a number of brutal hits before he started to master the timing. The advantage of the burst attack nature of the creatures was that Jason had time to recover.
Now he was solidly into the mid-range of bronze, his toughness was much improved. More effective was the increased power of Colin’s regeneration and the health drain of his Leech Bite special attack. His power to drain afflictions and convert them into stamina and mana kept him going when other parts of the Network’s forces were forced to bow out.
Jason was only part of the response team. Farrah’s peak bronze-rank speed attribute and sweeping attacks with her telescoping magma sword gave her the edge to sweep through whole clusters. Although her reflexes were up to the task, her mobility was lacking and the monsters were left trying to overwhelm her powerful armour. Like Jason, they were ill-suited to punching through a hard shell.
Jason and Farrah each had their own challenges to overcome in the fight. Farrah's challenge was to hold as much mana in reserve as she could to last out the fight. This meant largely sticking to her sword, but her immobility would sometimes lead multiple groups of the silver-rank monsters to converge. At that stage, she was forced to spend as little mana as she could fending them off as efficiently as possible with her costly powers.
The outworlders were used to being the stars of the show, but in this instance, it was the Network teams that were truly stepping up. Their disciplined, focus-fire attacks surprised Jason and Farrah with their effectiveness against the silver-rankers. Against the hordes of lower-ranked monsters, the Network’s tactics demonstrated why the organisation put so much stock in them. The hordes were swept away with an efficiency that neither Jason nor Farrah could have matched, even with their whole teams present.
Jason had his shredded combat armour pegged up on the rear deck of the houseboat, hosing off the blood. The monster blood was long gone but Jason’s remained. It would disappear itself into rainbow smoke after being away from his body for an hour or so, but he’d rather have it gone from his outfit by then.
Ian and Erika found him, no shirt, hosing off the ragged remains of the outfit. The crest tattoo covering his back was in full display, as were his torso scars.
“I know girls like scars, Jason,” Erika said, her light tone not entirely masking her concern, “but that might be a bit much.”
“I know, right?” Jason replied. “I finally get some ab definition and it looks like someone scribbled all over them.”
“What’s that thing?” Ian asked, indicating the armour. “Is it the hide of some monster?”
“It’s made from monster hide,” Jason said. “It’s my armour. You’ve seen me wear it.”
“Wait,” Erika said. “That’s your armour?”
“The armour you wear?”
“That’s how armour works.”
“It’s cut to ribbons,” she said.
“It was a rough one,” Jason acknowledged. “Farrah’s already meditating on it to consolidate her gains. I’ll join her, once I’m done here.”
“Were you wearing the armour when that happened to it?” Ian asked.
"I'm fine," Jason said. "Look at me; no new scars."
“Isn’t armour meant to withstand attacks like that?”
“Yeah,” Jason said, “but so am I.”
Erika looked over her brother, who was, himself, dripping wet. The water at his bare feet was stained red.
“I’m not foolish enough to try and make you stop,” Erika said. “I don’t want Emi catching you all bloody and hurt, though.”
“Me either,” Jason said. “Not until she’s older, has essences of her own and needs a lesson in the dangers of what I do. Shade is entertaining her at the other end of the boat.”
“Are you going to survive until Emi is that old?” Erika asked.
“This is the way I fight, Eri. It’s bloody and grim and you want no part of it.”
“But our daughter will,” Ian said.
"She won't fight like me," Jason said. "I'll make sure her powers reward her attentiveness and quick-thinking. She'll be all about keeping herself and others safe."
“I do like the sound of that,” Ian said. “The sound I like better is her finding a nice man to stay home and raise our grandkids while she’s a high-flying doctor, overpaid economic consultant or whatever else she wants.”
“You might find she’s better off in the other world,” Jason said. “All of you may be. The other world has its dangers, yes, but that danger is a known quantity. This world will soon be going through a period of upheaval and we don’t know what dangers we’ll be dealing with.
“Who knows,” Jason said. “What I do might seem exciting, but maybe something else will capture her imagination.”
“More than being an interdimensional superhero,” Erika said. “Sure.”
“That’ll do,” Jason said, turning off the hose. “It took bit of a beating, so it probably won’t come right until tomorrow.”
"That thing self-repairs?" Ian asked.
"All good light armour self-repairs," Jason said. "It costs more but savings in avoided repairs more than pay it back. Heavy stuff is harder to make self-repair, and mine does operate faster than normal because it’s partly made from hydra skin.”
“Like the twelve tasks of Heracles hydra?”
“Heracles fought a river hydra,” Jason said. “My armour has marsh hydra skin, but they’re very similar breeds. A river hydra was actually the first monster I fought after coming back to earth.”
"As I recall," Ian said, "even Heracles had some trouble with that," Ian said. "It was one of the tasks that were discounted because he had help."
“I don’t know what to tell you,” Jason said. “I did it solo, so I guess Heracles is a scrub.”
“He was the son of Zeus.”
“Well, I’m the son of Cheryl, and I know which one I’d bet on in a scrap. I mean, Zeus, obviously; the bloke chucks lightning. But still, Mum is quite stern.”
“Zeus isn’t real, is he?” Ian asked.
“Nope,” Jason said. “I was talking to this…”
He trailed off as he sensed a surge of magic from above, where Farrah was meditating. He chortled as he used his bronze-rank prowess and parkour skills to swiftly clamber up the outside of the houseboat. From the roof deck, silver light was already brightly shining.
“Congratulations,” Jason said, tossing Farrah a bottle. As Farrah tipped the crystal wash over her head where it started methodically coating her body, the foul ichor splattered over the top deck was already being absorbed and cleansed by the houseboat.
“That is a foul smell, even by rank-up standards,” Jason said. “I don’t know if that’s a higher-rank thing or a first rank-up after becoming an outworlder thing.”
“You did pump out a lot of foul muck that first time,” Farrah said. “How was bronze-rank for you?”
“I know we’re meant to be teaching your family about aura senses and the rest of the things a new iron-ranker needs to know,” Farrah said. “I need to meditate and consolidate this rank, though, so I’ll have to leave that to you.”
Farrah was talking with a huge grin on her face. Despite saying she was going to rest and meditate, what she did was throw her hands up and out in front of her, aimed out over the side of the roof deck.
“Burning heart of the world, show your might.”
A stream of lava spewed out of her hands and over the water, throwing up steam as it splashed down and cooled. She kept the stream going as she let out a victorious whoop.
“I’m not sure that’s safe,” Jason said. “Also, you just ranked-up. You’re going to be short on…”
The stream of lava stopped and Farrah fell over, unconscious.
“…mana,” he finished. “I hope no one saw that.”