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The Zila’s Promise departed Rimaros airspace, heading west. It ascended to an altitude where only the most exotic or dedicated monsters would encounter them. Trenchant Moore ordered the adventurers to stay out of the way of the crew and most stuck close to where the gold ranker stood at the stern of the vessel.

Jason had a happy grin as he watched the city fall away and the Sea of Storms spread out below them. Once they moved into the clouds, he joined some of the other adventurers in sitting cross-legged on the deck, using the travel time to meditate.

The more ambitious adventurers stayed close to Trenchant, trying to engage him with very little success. Some of them threw looks at Jason, wondering why he had warranted extra attention from the gold-ranker. Most of the other passengers were experienced professional porters, either part-time adventurers or not adventurers at all. Autumn was counted in that number and joined them in heading below decks where they played card and dice games.

Several hours into the trip Jason opened his eyes and turned to look at Trenchant, who was already looking at him. Jason raised his eyebrows inquiringly and Trenchant gave a short nod. Jason got to his feet, walked to the side of the skyship and casually dropped himself over the side. No one noticed one of Shade’s bodies move from Jason’s shadow into one of those on the ship.

Jason threw his arms out, revelling in the sensation as he plunged through the air. Black mist shrouded his body, looking like a dark comet as he continued to drop. The mist dissipated quickly to reveal Jason in his conjured blood robe and starlight cloak. A pair of nebulous spheres that looked much like his own eyes orbited around his body.

Being a conjured item, Jason’s robes were an adaptable item able to accommodate his newly purchased gear. Most prominent were the throwing darts sheathed diagonally across his chest.

Rising from below was a flock of flying dinosaur fish, more than two dozen in number. Something between a swordfish and a pterodactyl, the beaks of the silver-rank monsters were long, narrow spikes. Their wings were huge and leathery with an array of bony spines running along their forward edge.

The monsters were rising toward the airship at an angle with powerful flaps of their large wings, propelling them rapidly upward. Jason’s cloak flared out around him as he descended on the reverse angle, rushing down to meet them. As he drew close, a storm of spines rushed ahead of the monsters, shot from their wings to pepper Jason. These were no ordinary projectiles and the monsters were able to redirect them as they moved through the air.

Jason's cloak wrapped around him, shielding him from the small but numerous attacks. By the time he passed through the squall of spines unharmed, he was almost upon the monsters.

Jason didn't avoid a direct confrontation, diving straight at the monsters. He aimed right for the vanguard creature but was startled by its long head shooting forward on a tether of flexible tendons, its beak stabbing out like a spear. It missed Jason entirely. The sharp beak shot past him, to the monster’s confusion, before the tether snapped back like a bungee cord and the monster’s head returned to its body.

For adventurers and monsters both, higher rank meant an increasing reliance on supernatural senses. In the disorienting chaos of combat, even magically enhanced eyes and ears had their limits and could be deceived. Avoiding attacks that couldn’t be seen and noticing enemies that couldn’t be heard became increasingly important as enemies gained more exotic powers with each increasing rank.

Aura was critical in fooling supernatural senses, requiring far more finesse than a silence ability or invisibility power. An expert using their aura to feint created a dissonance between the ordinary and supernatural senses but, even amongst high-rankers, few could execute such refined manipulation in the chaos of combat. It was rarely considered worth the effort for a technique that was occasionally useful but never completely reliable. Only combined with the right ability did that change.


Ability: [Cloak of Night] (Dark)

  • Conjuration (darkness, light, dimension).
  • Base cost: Moderate mana.
  • Cooldown: None.
  • Current rank: Silver 4 (03%).
  • Effect (iron): Conjures a magical cloak that offers limited physical protection. Can generate light over an area or absorb light to blend into shadows. Cloak can reduce the weight of the wearer, allowing reduced falling speed and water walking. Cannot be given or taken away, but the effect can be extended to others in close proximity, with an ongoing mana cost rising exponentially with each affected person.
  • Effect (bronze): Cloak reflexively intercepts projectiles. Highly effective against rapid, weaker attacks, but less effective against powerful, singular attacks. Cloak allows gliding.
  • Effect (silver): Cloak passively manipulates physical space, slightly shifting the trajectory of incoming attacks. Manipulation can be actively managed for more directed effect or to allow passage through spaces normally too small to physically traverse. Cloak allows flight for a low ongoing mana cost, increasing to a moderate ongoing mana cost while in direct sunlight.

Prior to reaching silver rank, Jason had long anticipated the personal flight promised by his cloak power. In practice, it was actually of limited use. Far more often, Jason used some combination of leaping with weight reduction, gliding or Shade's travel forms.

The second aspect of the power allowed Jason to manipulate the space around himself. He could shift the trajectory of attacks without actually affecting the attack by magically manipulating the space between them to constitute a greater distance. The power could, in theory, allow him to dodge without dodging.

While the power was ostensibly strong, the effect proved quite minimal, making it extremely difficult to use. It had taken months of fighting through astral spaces and transformation zones, along with significant self-healing from failed feints and dodges before Jason learned to unlock the power’s potential.

The result of combining his exhaustively practised skills, vision-obscuring and space manipulating cloak and his aura manipulation formed a formidably deceptive defence. Even so, the technique lacked the reliability of an essence power that just did a thing and worked. It was Jason’s most skill-intensive technique, where he matched his proficiency against the perception and skills of his enemies. While it was working more and more, only in the still-inconsistent combat trance state had Jason truly felt like the technique was mastered.

Even so, Jason continued to practise, fight after fight. Rufus had taught him to push himself to the limits and Jason has enough self-healing that his limits were pretty far. So, when faced with his first batch of monsters since returning to Pallimustus, Jason continued to push.

In this instance, the technique worked and the strange springing neck attack passed by Jason as he plunged into the flock. He reached out with a shadow arm, grabbing the creature that attacked him and pulled himself heavily into a standing position of its back. The monster went into a frenzy, thrashing in the air and shooting out more wing spines that twisted in the air to turn on Jason. He ignored the projectiles as his cloak intercepted them and he conjured his dagger into his second shadow hand while casting a spell.

“Bleed for me.”

Blood started seeping from the eyes of the monster, which only made its frenzied thrashing worse and it stopped climbing in altitude. Maintaining his grip using one shadow hand, he used his dagger in the other to leave a pair of shallow cuts on the monster’s back. As he did, he cast a second spell.

“Carry the mark of your transgressions.”

A brand was marked in the monster’s flesh by a wisp of transcendent damage. The creature’s flailing was no longer allowing it to maintain flight and it started to drop. The other monsters arrested their ascent, swooping around to assist their stricken flock-mate. They all fired their wing spines, which danced around Jason like a living cloud. They still failed to penetrate Jason’s cloak as it swirled around him, the attacks revealing that the article of clothing it appeared to be was a lie. It shrouded him in the magical darkness that was its true nature.

The other monsters continued to wheel around Jason and his unwilling mount, angling for a shot at Jason with their strange head-projectiles. As they jostled for position, Jason blasted out his aura at full strength. The raw power of it spooked the monsters, causing them to falter in their flight. They recovered immediately but were left in disarray.

***

One the skyship, some of the adventurers had noticed Jason’s casual departure and were wondering amongst themselves why he’d jumped off the ship. Some of them asked Trenchant but he just told them to keep their attentions to their own affairs. They went back to muttering amongst themselves until every essence user on the ship felt an aura explode below them like a bomb.

***

Jason launched himself from the back of the stricken bird while casting another spell.

“Your fate is to suffer.”

As he did, one of the eye spheres around Jason left his orbit and sank into the wounded monster. At the same time, Shade’s bodies swarmed out of Jason’s cloak to float amongst the birds in their disarray. The familiar was unaffected by the spines still flying around as they passed through his insubstantial bodies.

Jason fell into one of Shade’s bodies and emerged from another, on the far side of the flock. Again he used a shadow arm to grab a creature and pull himself onto its back. With his shadow arms as a tether, he stood astride the creature even as it bucked under him, surveying the state of his new mount’s companions. They were starting to panic as radiant butterflies spread amongst them, bestowing their deathly payload and multiplying. It wouldn’t be long until he was ready to take the extermination to the next stage; he just needed time for the afflictions to propagate and do their work.

There was a Shade body near each of the monsters and shadow arms burst out from all of them, entangling the wings of the monsters. The arms lacked the strength to bind the monsters entirely but could at least impede their ability to fly as they wished.


Ability: [Hand of the Reaper] (Dark)

  • Conjuration (disease, magic, unholy).
  • Cost: Low mana-per-second.
  • Cooldown: None.
  • Current rank: Silver 4 (02%).
  • Effect (iron): Conjure a highly flexible, semi-substantial shadow-arm that can extend or shrink. Conjured items can be conjured into the shadow hand. Can be used to make melee special attacks. Special attacks made using the arm inflict [Creeping Death] in addition to other effects.
  • Effect (bronze): You can conjure a second arm. Special attacks made using the arms inflict [Rigor Mortis] in addition to other effects.
  • Effect (silver): Special attacks made using the arms inflict [Weakness of the Flesh] in addition to other effects. Numerous additional arms can be conjured from nearby shadows but only arms directly connected to the conjurer can bestow afflictions and use melee special attacks. The rank of conjured arms not connected to the conjurer is one rank below that of the conjurer. Up to two arms may be directly connected to the conjurer.

 

  • [Creeping Death] (damage-over-time, disease, stacking): Inflicts ongoing necrotic damage until the disease is cleansed. Additional instances have a cumulative effect.
  • [Rigor Mortis] (affliction, unholy, stacking): Penalty to the [Speed] and [Recovery] attributes. Additional instances have a cumulative effect. Each time a new instance is inflicted, deals necrotic damage for each existing instance.
  • [Weakness of the Flesh] (affliction, magic): Negates immunities to disease and necrotic damage. This includes intrinsic immunities, such as from not having a biology or corporeal form. Cannot be cleansed while any disease affliction is in effect.

The frantic monsters were no longer controlling the spikes that had been flying through the air, which had fallen away as the monsters tried to flee. The shadow arms gripping their wings meant they struggled to remain aloft, let alone control their flight. They kept getting in each other’s way as they struggled to free themselves from the annoyance. Shade made sure to position his bodies to obscure the creatures’ vision, exacerbating the problem. All the while, Jason’s afflictions were marking their flesh with patches of dead flesh pustules seeping dark blood.

The damage was progressing faster than was normal for silver-rank monsters. They had sealed their fate from the outset by levying hundreds of attacks against Jason with their spines.


Ability: [Hegemony] (Sin)

  • Aura (holy, unholy).
  • Base cost: None.
  • Cooldown: None.
  • Current rank: Silver 4 (03%).
  • Effect (iron): Allies within the aura have increased resistance to afflictions, while enemies within the aura have their resistance to afflictions reduced. Enemy resistances are further reduced for each instance of [Sin] they are suffering from.
  • Effect (bronze): Inflicts an instance of [Sin] on enemies that make physical or magical attacks against allies within the aura. Instances applied in this way cannot be resisted.
  • Effect (silver): Aura can be extended over a larger area before aura strength becomes compromised. Transcendent damage dealt by enemies within the aura is downgraded to either resonating-force or disruptive-force damage, depending on the source.

 

  • [Sin] (affliction, curse, stacking): All necrotic damage taken is increased. Additional instances have a cumulative effect.

All the monsters that attacked Jason were drenched in sin as the price of their transgression against him. As a result, Jason’s other afflictions desiccated their life force with necrotic power as their bodies died for no more reason than Jason wanted them to. The afflictions continued to multiply with every passing moment, the damage rising at an exponential rate.

Jason didn’t want them to scatter too far but their suffering gave them powerful motivation to break away. The monster under him rolled and thrashed as Jason held on with his shadow arm and he let it go, his cloak taking the shape of dark wings, speckled with starlight. He cast another spell.

“Feed me your sins.”

The red glow of life force shone from each of the monsters, but every light was filled with black and purple taint. The taint drained away in streams to converge on Jason who absorbed it all. As the taint rushed out of the monsters, shining blue, silver and gold light was left its place. The glow of life force returned to the bodies of the monsters, taking the bright light into their bodies with it.


Ability: [Feast of Absolution] (Sin)

  • Spell (recovery, cleanse, holy).
  • Base cost: Low mana.
  • Cooldown: None.
  • Current rank: Silver 4 (02%).
  • Effect (iron): Cleanse all curses, diseases, poisons and unholy afflictions from a single target. Additionally, cleanse all holy afflictions if the target is an ally. Recover stamina and mana for each affliction cleansed. This ability ignores any effect that prevents cleansing. Cannot target self.
  • Effect (bronze): Enemies suffer an instance each of [Penance] and [Legacy of Sin] for each condition cleansed from them.
  • Effect (silver): Increase cost to moderate to affect all afflicted enemies and allies in a wide area.

 

  • [Penance] (affliction, holy, damage-over-time, stacking): Deals ongoing transcendent damage. Additional instances have a cumulative effect, dropping off as damage is dealt.
  • [Legacy of Sin] (affliction, holy, stacking): Target is considered more damaged for the purpose of execute ability damage scaling. Additional instances have a cumulative effect.

Transcendent damage started burning the monsters from the inside out and they began falling from the sky, screaming. Even before they died, rainbow smoke trailed behind them as they fell. None of them struck the water, burned into nothingness before reaching the sea below.


  • You have defeated [Skyhunter Marlin].
  • [Skyhunter Marlin] has been wholly annihilated. It has been looted automatically.
  • [Monster Core (Silver)] has been added to your inventory.
  • [Skyhunter Needle] has been added to your inventory.
  • 10 [Silver Spirit Coins] have been added to your inventory.
  • 100 [Bronze Spirit Coins] have been added to your inventory.
  • 1000 [Iron Spirit Coins] have been added to your inventory.

As loot piled into Jason’s inventory, Shade’s bodies gathered around Jason and started vanishing into his shadow cloak.

“Mr Asano,” Shade said. “I will take the liberty of masking your enhanced mana and life force, since the adventurers on the ship may be able to sense them.”

“Thank you, Shade. Diligent and considerate as ever.”

Jason’s mana had already skyrocketed from draining the afflictions of the monsters. His life force was quickly climbing due to the passive power that worked alongside his Feast of Absolution ability.


Ability: [Sin Eater] (Sin)

  • Special ability (recovery, holy).
  • Cost: None.
  • Cooldown: None.
  • Current rank: Silver 4 (02%).
  • Effect (iron): Increased resistance to afflictions. Gain an instance of [Resistant] each time you resist an affliction or cleanse an affliction using essence abilities.
  • Effect (bronze): Gain an instance of [Integrity] for each affliction you resist or remove using essence abilities.
  • Effect (silver): Health, mana and stamina gained through your own essence abilities of the drain and recovery type can exceed the normal maximum. Excess health, stamina and mana deplete over time until the normal maximum is reached.

 

  • [Resistant] (boon, holy, stacking): Resistance to afflictions is increased. Additional instances have a cumulative effect. Consumed to negate instances of [Vulnerable] on a 1:1 basis.
  • [Integrity] (heal-over-time, mana-over-time, stamina-over-time, holy, stacking): Periodically recover a small amount of health, stamina and mana. Additional instances have a cumulative effect.

Sin Eater transformed the vast number of afflictions on the monsters into a healing effect on Jason. He hadn’t been injured, but the same power meant that Jason could exceed what would otherwise be his maximal life force, taking him from the range of an essence user into that of a large monster. The extra life force would allow Jason’s body to completely resist injury until the extra life force was consumed or drained away over time. For the moment, though, it was unnecessary. The monsters had failed to injure Jason at all.

Healers often awakened perception powers that let them sense life force, as did assassins and others with powers not unlike Jason’s. As for his excess mana, anyone with sharp enough magic senses would notice the massive excess Jason currently possessed. Shade’s ability to mask against various forms of detection would yet again prove invaluable.

Jason reflected, far from the first time, how precious his familiars were. Their companionship as they nestled within his soul even more so than their powers. Jason had spent some of his darkest days alone but for the three lovable death machines he carried inside him.

Jason sensed the last monster die out, its magic transformed into spirit coins and a monster core, deposited into Jason’s storage space. Jason vanished, leaving behind a shadow cloak drifting in the sky that soon dissipated into nothing.

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Shirtaloon (Travis Deverell)

  • Australia

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