He Who Fights With Monsters

Chapter 155: 155

Jason and his team descended through the water as the daylight shining through the surface of the lake above grew increasingly dim. They stood close together on the platform as the sphere around them held off the water, encapsulating them in a perfect orb. As it grew too murky for anyone but Jason to see, Humphrey took out a light crystal, tossing it up to float around his head. In the dark around them, other teams took similar steps. The result was a rain of light, plunging down through watery depths.

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“This is awesome,” Jason said, looking at the lights descending through the dark. “I know I’m from another world and maybe you all get to see things like this all the time but I’m loving this.”

“It’s certainly impressive,” Humphrey agreed. “We may not get to see such things all the time, now, but we’re only beginning our time as adventurers. We have lives of wonder ahead of us.”

Jason looked at Humphrey’s handsome face and broad shoulders as Humphrey gazed winsomely out of their bubble.

“Damn, Humphrey,” Jason said. “You must be beating the ladies off with a stick.”

“I do alright,” Humphrey said. “Things didn’t end well with Gabrielle, but the start and middle were good. I don’t regret our time together and it gave me some important perspective.”

“Listen to you all mature,” Jason said. “What happened to that nervous guy from half a year ago?”

“He got a friend who pushed him into trying new things. Even if those were sometimes poison soup.”

“Oh, that was one time,” Jason said. “How was I meant to know they swapped out the regular cook instead of closing for the day? And it wasn’t poison soup, it was just… improperly prepared.”

Jason glanced at Sophie, looking around as wide-eyed as the rest of them.

“If you’d decided against being an adventurer right now, where would you be?” he asked her.

“No place good,” she said. “I’m glad Belinda talked me into it.”

“This is just the beginning,” Humphrey said. “We’ll have many days like this.”

As they neared the bottom of the lake, they saw domes of air over dark ruins lit up by cheap magic lamps.

“Those domes are big versions of what we’re using, right?” Jason asked Clive.

“I’m not sure,” Clive said. “I’d like to take a look for myself.”

“Which one do you think Emir was talking about?” Jason asked. “He said the middle dome but there’s a whole cluster of them.”

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“There’s meant to be tunnels connecting them,” Clive said. “Just pick one and we’ll figure it out.”

Jason directed the orb of air they were floating in to the base of one of the domes. The dome held out only the water, so once the dome and their bubble connected they could easily step into it and off the platform, without getting wet. As Clive put the platform away, they saw plenty of other adventures were likewise finding their way in.

Looking around at the inside of the dome, their surroundings were an ancient stone village. Long claimed by the lake’s water, the village was once again dry from the dome holding back the lake. The borders of the village were an exact match for the dome of air. Slimy growth was everywhere, fortunately giving traction to what would have otherwise been slippery cobbles underfoot, worn smooth by water. As the others looked over the buildings, Jason and Clive turned their attention to the dome. In what looked to be a circle around the entire village, a stone ring engraved with runes was set into the ground.

“Look at this,” Clive said, pointing it out to Jason. They crouched down to examine it more closely.

“The cobbles end right at this ring,” Jason said. Outside the stone ring and the dome of air that followed its curve around the village, the lake bed was all silt, rock and submarine growth. On the inside of the ring was cobbled ground.

“I’d say this ring was once used to keep this dome up permanently,” Clive postulated as he examined it. “See these repairs? I’m guessing the domes collapsed when this place was abandoned and Emir’s people used the ring as a platform for these new domes. They’ll only be temporary, though. Re-establishing permanent domes would be prohibitively expensive, even using the existing infrastructure.”

Now Jason was working more on grasping magical theory, he was becoming more interested in the functionality of magic. Clive was more than happy to play the role of mentor.

“We might want to get moving,” Neil suggested. “If we stop to examine everything we see, we’ll never get anywhere.”

“He’s right,” Humphrey said. “We need to find our way to the right dome because I don’t think this one is it.”

“Do you all feel that?” Sophie asked. The rest of the team looked at each other and collectively shook their heads.

“Outside the dome,” Sophie said. “A half-dozen iron-rank auras.”

As the only team member with an aura sense power, Sophie had detected the approaching monsters first. She pointed and the others looked, spying a group of monsters moving along the bottom of the lake. They were large with shark bodies and crab legs, all covered in shell plating. They were heading straight for the dome.

“Shabs,” Jason said. “How nostalgic.”

“Take a three-two formation,” Humphrey instructed and the team moved into position. Humphrey, Sophie and Jason formed a line behind which were Neil and Clive. Clive had his hands up in front of him, where a magic circle appeared vertically in the air. He was feeding mana into it, ready to trigger. Humphrey conjured his large sword and waited while Sophie stood, relaxed, beside him. Jason's cloak was already in place and he conjured his dagger, looking between it and Humphrey's giant dragon wing sword.

“Ready?” Neil asked as the shabs neared the dome.

“Go for it,” Sophie said and Neil immediately chanted a spell.

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“Let your power fulminate.”

Sophie started shimmering slightly with silver-gold magic.

Ability: [Bolster] (Growth)

Spell (magic, boon)Cost: Moderate mana..Cooldown: 30 seconds.Current rank: Iron 6 (19%)Effect (iron): The next essence ability used by the targeted ally has increased effect. This can affect parameters including damage, range and number of targets, depending on the affected ability. Cannot be used on self.

Sophie sliced her leg upward in a vertical kick that demonstrated impressive flexibility. A blade of wind slashed out, passing through the dome unimpeded and striking one of the approaching shabs. It exploded in a wash of red liquid and a storm of bubbles that obscured the others.

“You weren’t kidding about that explosive effect in water,” Humphrey said.

“Split, please,” Clive requested, Humphrey and Sophie moving aside to give him an unobstructed line to the enemy. The remaining five shabs passed through what was left of the first and Clive chanted a spell.

“Feel the power of reality remade.”

A beam of rainbow light passed out of the magic circle floating in front of Clive’s hands, locking onto the next-closest shab. The red faded from the rainbow, which then vanished. The shab stopped dead, fluid boiling out from under it shell plates.

“I figured heat would be enough,” Clive said. “I didn’t want to burn through too much mana.”

Ability: [Wrath of the Magister] (Magic)

Spell (fire, magic, curse, poison, wounding, ice, dimension)Cost: Moderate mana plus additional mana per effect.Cooldown: 1 minute.Current rank: Iron 5 (38%)Effect (iron): Lock a prismatic beam onto an enemy. Expend additional mana to alter the target’s reality, using any combination of the available colour effects. This cannot be used in conjunction with the other variant of this spell, which requires an alternate incantation.Effect (iron): Lock a prismatic beam onto an enemy. Expend additional mana to unmake reality in a localised area, creating an annihilating void sphere inside the target. This effect requires magic to be channelled into the target at an extreme mana cost until sufficient mana has been channelled to trigger the effect.[Red] (high mana): Target’s temperature is significantly increased (frost burn if combined with blue).[Yellow] (high mana): Target’s abilities have increased mana cost.[Pink] (moderate mana): Target’s resistances are reduced.[Green] (moderate mana): Target’s blood is poisonous to itself.[Purple] (very high mana): Expending mana harms the target.[Orange] (very high mana): Target suffers increased damage from all sources.[Blue] (high mana): Target’s temperature is significantly decreased (frost burn if combined with red).

Humphrey and Sophie slid back in front of Clive and Neil. Three shabs were down before they even reached the dome.

“What’s that?” Neil asked, pointing at another shape approaching through the water. It looked something like an octopus made of thorny vines. “It looks nasty,”

“That’s Stash,” Sophie said, who could sense the shape-shifting dragon’s aura. Humphrey had let his boisterous familiar make his own way through the wake. Jason’s summoned familiar had many advantages over a bonded familiar like Humphrey’s, but a bond had its own advantages. Where Jason could only sense Colin while the leech swarm was subsumed into his body, Humphrey and Stash could always sense one another. They would each know the other’s general condition and could find one another over any distance.

Stash wrapped his thorny tentacles around the rearmost shab, seeking out vulnerable crevices between shell plates. The other two shabs finally reached the dome. One was met by a huge sword swinging down, cutting through the front half of the monster and leaving a ragged split.

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In a more competent version of his very first shad fight, Jason rolled under the monster, coming up and slitting his dagger through the monster’s vulnerable underside. Ichor splattered down over his cloak and he extracted himself as the monster fell dead. He tossed away the despoiled cloak which then vanished. The ichor that had been on it was suddenly unsupported and fell to the ground.

“That was good,” Humphrey said, right before Stash splashed through the dome, his giant octopus from drenching Jason and Humphrey with shab guts and water. Sophie vanished before being struck, reappearing nearby. Stash turned into a puppy, looking up at Humphrey with innocent eyes.

“Ew,” Jason said unhappily.

“I guess we know which of us is going out there to loot the monsters,” Neil said. “No point me getting all messy if you’re already like that.”

Jason groaned, taking out his necklace of the deep, a series of round, colourful stones strung on a sinewy cord. Clipping it around his neck, he closed his eyes and mouth, holding his nose as he stepped through the dome.

The necklace shielded him from the pressure of the depths and weighed him down as he walked blindly through the shab-tainted water. He held his breath in spite of the necklace's power to let him breathe water. Its fierce chill would have made it an unpleasant proposition in any case. Unwilling to open his eyes, he stumbled about until he felt he had touched enough shab goo to trigger three loot notifications. He kept his sense of direction enough to find his way back without opening his eyes.

Everyone backed off as he remerged, drenched in water and semi-liquid shab remains. Opening his eyes he saw the notices were there and accepted them, all the goo in the water and on Jason and Humphrey dissolving in rainbow smoke. Outside the dome, the rainbow smoke bubbled its way up towards the surface of the lake.

The coins looted from the shabs appeared in the dimensional storage abilities of Clive, Humphrey and Jason. Neil, experienced from his own looting ability, stepped back and neatly caught his own bag of coins as it fell from overhead. Sophie, less experienced, had it bounce off her skull.

“You could have warned me,” she told Jason.

“When you go wading into a freezing cold lake to fish out money for everyone,” he said. “We'll see how much your mind is on the little details.”

He pulled a vial of orange liquid from his belt and drank it.

“Ooh, spicy.”

Steam started rising off of Jason’s body and clothes. After a few minutes his skin, hair and clothes were all dry.

“Glad I bought those,” he said. “Remind me to thank Jory for suggesting them.”

Jory was actually participating in the event, although Jason hadn't seen him. The various crafting associations had decided there was a good chance of lost crafting secrets being found and had formed several teams to join in. To avoid conflict, each team was made up of different kind of magic craftspeople, from leatherworkers to weapon-smiths, engravers to alchemists.

They had no intention of seeking out Emir’s scythe, instead intending to scour the hidden astral space for item-making secrets. Jory had travelled with the craft association contingent and hadn’t run into Jason.

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After handling the shabs, Jason and his team went looking for the central dome. While they had been fighting, other teams had found the tunnel and they followed the other adventurers. The tunnel sloped down under the lake bed, leading underground between domes. The central area was obviously more important than the dome they had come from. The buildings were larger and more impressive, looking more like the central location of a city than the village of the dome they had come from.

Following the crowd, they found Emir standing near to archway of dark stone, right in the middle of a large square. This allowed the adventurers to spill in around it. Gary was present, along with Constance and some of Emir’s people who were drawing an elaborate ritual circle around the archway. Placed at various points within the ritual diagram were more than a dozen items, all long-weather stone artefacts. Emir’s people kept the adventurers back, warning them against using abilities that would interfere with the ambient magic. Just the presence of so many essence users and their magic items was bad enough.

There was a long wait as all the adventurers either arrived or were rescued from their poor preparations for underwater travel and returned to the surface, destined to participate no further. One of the main culprits was the difficulty of getting rituals right amongst all the adventurers. Without a power to smooth out the ambient magic, like Clive had, rituals could easily go awry. Emir had a ritualist with a similar ability on staff for that exact reason.

Once Emir confirmed it with his people, he addressed the crowd.

“And here we are at last,” he called out loudly. He wasn't using a voice projection circle this time, again to not disrupt the magic. “Here we have reached, together, the limit of what I can tell you. The door will open soon and my people will direct you through it. I ask that you are patient while waiting for your turn to enter, as my people will deal with anyone acting in a disorderly manner. Remember, the team that brings me the scythe is the team that wins the grand prize.”

Quest: [Legacy of the Reaper]

You have joined the mission to retrieve the Order of the Reaper’s legacy.

Objective: Pass the reaper trials 0/5Objective: Reach the centre of the City of Fallen Echoes.Objective: Obtain [Scythe of the Reaper] 0/1.Objective: Deliver [Scythe of the Reaper] to Emir Bahadir 0/1.Reward: Racial gift transfiguration.

“I’ve been waiting for that,” Jason said. “Oh, it’s a good one.”

It was not the first time the party had seen a quest appear, having cleared various contracts together. This was the first time they had seen a reward that wasn’t just spirit coins, however. Neil’s eyes were transfixed by the listed reward.

“Is that what I think it is?” he asked.

“I think so, yeah,” Jason said. “Should be for all of us, since we all got the quest.”

“How is that even possible?” he asked.

“Not sure,” Jason said. “My theory is that once you reach a certain threshold for handsomeness, it flows over and starts having weird effects.”

Despite the astounding quest window in front of them, the team all turned to look at Jason.

“What?” he asked.

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