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A note from NoDragons

Thanks to Cheshireccat, Ullyr, and ducksoup for their kind review.

I'd like to ask everyone who hasn't already to leave a rating. Ratings are how stories grow in their early days, so it really does matter quite a bit.

Silence ruled the air until they arrived.

The salt farm was a place of strange beauty. The sand had been packed up into low walls, arranging the desert into long rectangular pens. Salt-pans. Heavy water poured down into the pens from a series of geyser-lakes, where it slowly dissolved away under the desert sun, leaving behind a jagged white crust of salt.

From the salt-fields grew trees. Pale, sky-blue trees, their branches skeletal with whorling blots of translucent fire clinging to the boughs in place of leaves. Cracks split the trunks, and luminous energy poured out. That energy collected against metal spines and dripped into clay jugs.

Mana harvesting.

Jasper only understood a little, but with enough mana, you could create elixirs and form artificial Shards.

But apparently, it also drew monsters like moths to a flame. Something about mana-consistency and the law of attraction. Jasper didn’t really ask, and Thorn didn’t offer an explanation.

As they drew closer she got down off the horse and unslung her new bow. It was made in the style of the desert hunters, formed from the black chitin of a giant cricket’s leg. The inside curve was ridged with thorny hooks.

“What are we hunting?” Jasper asked as he hopped down.

“Wart-Horns. They like the water and don’t mind the salt.” She inspected her arrows, testing them with the point of her thumb. Blood dripped from the calloused pad at the tip of her finger. “They’re mean and they’re fast but they think in a straight line. Whatever you do, dodge left or right. Your instincts will say to move back. But they have the reach.”

“And how do I kill them?”

“You don’t need to. You’re the bait, I’m the hunter.” She nodded to him, and towards the salt-pans. “Try to stay in motion.”

Jasper scowled, but nodded. It did make a kind of sense– and it was still safer than trying to get close enough to actually fight. He drew his blade, taking a moment to let the instincts that came from holding the sword wash over him, and began to walk.

The sun made the air ripple and shake–

But he could see them now.

Huge, dark-brown lizards, well-adapted to the desert’s harsh sun. Thick armored scales warted with enormous horns covered their sluggish bodies. They had immense, soft underbellies, and overbuilt back legs that stayed folded up, ready to jump.

Half-lizard. Half-frog. All ornery.

Jasper took out the two Shards from his pocket and pulled them into his core. If he had to do this, he wouldn’t be doing this unarmed.

 

(2 Link)

Thirst - Fortune


Fate-Eater

Curse a living creature. After a brief delay, the target’s next attack against you is doomed to fail, and your next attack will strike true; the greater the enemy’s fate the longer the delay.

 

One of the basking lizards turned to him. Its yellow eyes narrowed. Its face was dominated by the thrumming, vibrating meat of its swollen throat, and by the curved horns that ran down its head in twin ridges, meeting in a single massive spike.

RIBBIT.

It lurched forward, a wave of water rising over Jasper’s ankles as he waded into the salt-pan.

“Hey! Hey you!” He tilted up his head and called– his eyes darting sideways to make sure Thorn was still covering him in the distance, lining up the shot. He began to circle towards her, letting her get a clean aim on its eyes and its throat. “Yeah, you there. Hey.”

RIBBIT?

“Is it true your mama was a pig and your dad liked a fist up his keister?” He felt the dagger form in his grasp.

The frog’s eyes bulged out, and it kicked forward. Jasper knew what was coming, he remembered Thorn’s advice, but all the same…

It was too damn fast.

The wart-horn kicked off, the water exploding upwards into a shockwave as its webbed feet slammed down– kicking through the thin layer of salt and the mud beneath and impacting the earth with cannonshot force to launch itself forward. Jasper saw that single massive horn aimed down for him–

And flung himself aside in time to only be clipped across the shoulder by its outstretched foot.

Even so, the impact spun him to the ground. Behind him, the wart-horn crashed into the wall of the salt-pan, tearing through the rampart of packed earth. Water began to flow free into the desert as it flopped onto its back.

An arrow landed in its gut.

Then another, then another, piercing its soft underbelly. By the time it rolled onto its feet it was moving drunkenly, stirring the water into a blood-frothed pink with each woozy step.

He pushed his knuckles against the salt layer and stood back up, shaking himself off.

But the rest of the herd had noticed now. They grunted and snorted, shifting closer, closing in on Jasper as he stumbled to his feet. The salt water had gotten down his boots and into the small, rough blisters and cuts on his hand. His skin was burning like a cold fire was devouring him.

Fate-Eater…

He reached a hand towards the nearest Wart-Horn, unsure of how else to focus the spell. A gray bubble appeared over its head, beginning to fill with white in the motion of a ticking clock.

Right.

He cast again, snaring another frog. The timers were fast but the beast's patience was already up. He saw the legs brace and–

Ran.

He was faster now, even weighed down by the water. He stomped onto one of the tall banks of crystallized sand dividing the salt-pans and began sprinting across it–

They were slow turners. Those bulky, awkward back legs were really only meant for kicking off in a single burst of speed. As long as he kept running at angles, they were left grunting and trying to line up the shot–

Like he was the buzzing fly and they were the hand trying to swat him.

As the timers over their heads filled and turned to a solid, monotone white, Jasper leapt down and began to run straight towards them. They flinched back, turning, turning, turning–

He slid to a stop between them, waited a single beat for their slow brains to process that he’d finally stopped running, and then ducked.

Fate was on his side. The two giant lizards kicked up, the water becoming a splashing, frothing wall of bubbles. Jasper squeezed his eyes shut and prayed as salt-water bit into his face…

They flew in wide arcs over his head. He felt something pull against his Mana-Core and then snap, as if a connection he’d bound to them had been pulled taut and broken.

And they crashed into one another without touching him, each going sprawling in a different direction.

Instantly, arrows began to arrive. They whipped past like hornets, making buzzing sounds as they vibrated through the air and quick, sharp little thuds as they struck into the armored bellies of the lizards. Jasper didn’t wait for her to finish the job. He darted back, flinging his dagger into an open, staring yellow eye.

The sight of it sinking into the soft vitreous jelly was enough to make him wince.

They were striking each other as they kicked about, slamming their legs into each other’s faces in awkward, clumsy attempts to roll back onto their bellies. In the background Jasper could see that the first toad-lizard was already down; it lay on its side, leaking tendrils of black blood into the blue salt pools.

“You look like snot got tired of hanging around and decided to hop away." Jasper snapped, backpedaling. The dagger formed cool and cold in his hand.

And a shadow just…

Drifted overhead…

As Jasper looked up he saw the fourth frog-lizard suspended in the air with legs splayed out mid-leap. It obscured the sun, a shadow in front of the blazing light.

Jasper could only pause and reflect on his life as it came crashing down.

He was hammered down underneath the water, flinging himself down for cover but still getting swatted flat by the toad’s belly. Its massive weight slammed him into the hard earth, the cracked salt. He felt his bones grind and his muscles bruise. He felt salt-water bite at his eyes, flood into his mouth. The blow had done the worst possible thing, short of killing him outright–

It had driven the air from his lungs.

He gagged, choking acrid water that burned his throat. His lungs cried out for air. He tried to rise–

But the weight of the lizard was on top of him. Its massive bulk pinned him to the ground, and he could only twist and writhe, getting dragged against the lakebed as the water singed his eyes and made every cut on his body scream.

FUCK.

FUCKER.

FUCKEST.

He slashed out blindly with his dagger, managing to hook the spear-tip blade into the soft meat of the lizard’s underbelly. Blood washed down his hand, slippery and sticky. He dragged down, carving the flesh apart…

And kept frantically cutting, slashing, stabbing in a total blind panic. Blood washed his face. It coated his teeth as he gasped and fought for oxygen. It was the purest, most utterly animal instinct Jasper had ever felt and it was growing, clawing at his chest like an animal as his lungs begged for air…

With a sudden croaking roar of pain, one that Jasper heard resonate through the water, the lizard kicked up again. Jasper was washed back by the flow of water, spun away through the salt bed and bounced off the ground by the crashing wave.

He rolled onto his feet and wearily lifted his head, choking and gagging up more water than he thought possible.

The wart-horn had crashed down nearby. Jasper’s tear-stained eyes saw a mass of red, visceral matter hanging from its belly.

Oh…

He had carved through its stomach in a bloody trail. His body was drenched in gore.

Four dead. Had there been five? Six? Jasper swung his head around, but he didn’t see anything else on the horizon. Except for Thorn, slowly picking her way towards him. He was drenched. Water and salt and blood clung to him in copious amounts. His hands were red to the elbows.

“You look like death.” Thorn said.

Jasper spat up blood and salt. “Yeah, it feels worse.”

“C’mon.” She strode past him. “We’ve gotta get paid.”

Sitting up with his arms slung across the top of his knees, Jasper tried in vain to wipe the blood off his face without digging salt deeper into his eyes. The world was spinning– his skin was blazing hot despite the cool water.

And then a hiccup of laughter pushed up, painful in his bruised lungs. He found himself smiling, his hair drenched and plastered to his face, granules of salt clinging to the matted black. The blood was already beginning to dry up sticky on his cheeks and between his fingers. It was all so gruesome he couldn’t help give in to the moment and laugh. What else was there to do?

Thorn looked back, giving him a blank expression.

“Sorry, sorry.” He rolled up onto his feet and followed.

The core of the mana farm was a series of squat, rounded white-stucco domes. They connected together by tunnels, their bodies sunk into a hillside to benefit from the natural chill of the earth.

As they stepped inside, Jasper called out, “Hello?”

The inside of the domes was… strange.

Dozens of exotic flowers grew in glass domes, twining up metal ladders. Dwarf trees grew in transparent enclosures. Within the glass, motes of sparkling light floated, moving like fireflies. As Jasper passed by the glass, flowers bloomed and the trees shivered.

A woman poked her head around the doorway, a frizzy mop of curls back behind her head. “And you are..?”

“We’re the adventurers.”

“Oh good.” She said briskly. “We can get you your pay and you can get out.”

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About the author

NoDragons

Bio: Author bios are for the mangy dogs who think they write literature. I write trash, and I am the king of the trash.

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