The scavenging crew trampled over tall grass as they trekked across the plains beyond the city. Even here, looking back, they could see all Helesia’s splendor cresting the horizon. Ahead of them, however, lay only barren, forbidding dunes.
“Well, what happened this time Mazen?” A middle-aged scavenger had picked up his pace to match with that of the group’s leader.
The leader—a tall, muscular man—turned his head to his crew member. “Just another mining accident. They were supposed to be quick enough to get out of there if they caused any damage.”
The older scavenger shook his head. “Shame. More for us, I suppose.”
Mazen led them to the base of a stone pillar jutting out from the ground. A staircase was dug into the earth, leading lower than light could reach. Mazen lit a torch and stepped down into the cavern, the other scavengers quick to follow.
“Looks like the cave-in was here,” Mazen said, pointing to a side path that was filled with boulders only a few steps beyond. He passed his torch off to the older scavenger and stepped through the small entryway. With inhuman strength, Mazen gripped a boulder and pulled it from the blocked path, throwing it aside and creating a slim path into the cavern.
“Shin. Abel.” Shin perked up at the call of his name, running his fingers through his short brown hair as he stepped forward from the compressed group. Mazen towered over him, the leader’s daunting strength making him seem even larger to the boy.
“You two are coming with me today.” The older scavenger, Abel, nodded in response. Shin was quiet, still wondering about Mazen’s strength.
When did he find a ruby? Shin thought. Such rare gems almost never found their ways into scavenger groups.
“Try to stay in small groups,” he said to the few dozen other scavengers that had been with his crew. “Make sure there is at least one quartz Augment per group, or drifting between groups. We’ll have too many casualties otherwise.” With that, Mazen turned and walked into the tunnel, his torch held aloft by Abel. Shin followed close behind, taking a right with them into a deeper section of the tunnel.
Shin instinctively turned his head away from the dimly lit hallway. He had already caught sight of the countless bodies crushed by boulders or killed by head trauma. Shin had seen incidents like this before, but he still hadn’t exactly gotten comfortable with it.
Mazen rolled a boulder off of a miner’s limp body and pulled out a dagger, cutting carefully into the dead man’s chest. Shin moved forward to find a body that hadn’t been crushed by a boulder, and pulled out his own dagger. No blood seeped from the opening—evidence enough of how long these bodies had been left to rot. He pried open the body’s chest and used the dim light to look into the cavity through his fingers.
A dull gray object was embedded in the center of the man’s chest. It was shaped like a crystal, with its flattest side facing out toward Shin. Sitting within a depression on the flat side of the crystal was another, smaller gem.
Score, Shin thought, pulling the man’s crystal soul from his motionless chest. As soon as it was separated from its body, the soul began withering away, leaving only the small gem in the palm of Shin’s hand. He looked over the gem’s color and texture, trying to identify what it was.
A garnet, he concluded, slipping the gem into a pouch on his hip.
Another basic gem. He’d come to expect finding those within these bodies; miners like these never had access to anything pricier than the three base-level Augments. Shin’s mind drifted back to Mazen’s displays of strength. They were feats only accomplished by those with ruby Augments, one of the three precious gems. Rubies were the rarest of the three precious gems, and Shin knew that Mazen had no kind of money to be buying such things.
Must have just been luck, he thought, moving on to the next body.
Shin’s first find had been luck, as well. Dozens of dead miners later, Shin only managed to find three more basic Augments. He wiped sweat from his brow, leaning against the wall of the cave. Shin let topaz come to life within his chest, and he felt a warmth pass through his body, returning strength to his limbs. In an instant, all his fatigue left him.
Shin shuffled to the next body with renewed vigor and cut into his chest. When Shin reached in to pull out the body’s soul, he instead felt an empty space where it should have been.
Damn, Shin thought, pulling his hand away. Probably burned his soul out trying to escape.
A glint of light caught Shin’s eyes, and he peered back into the dead man’s chest. The Augment gem had survived, despite the destroyed soul. Shin reached in and pulled the gem out, and was immediately captured by its unmistakable color.
An emerald. Shin stared at the tiny, beautiful gem in his palm. An Augment like this would sell for a fortune in the city.
“Shin!” Mazen’s voice echoed from the entrance of the cavern. Shin quickly slid the emerald Augment into the back pocket of his work pants. He ran through the tunnel, hopping over dead bodies, and found the entrance where the stairwell had split off. Mazen was waiting for him.
“We’re leaving,” Mazen said, grabbing Shin’s wrist and pulling him aside with his incredible strength. “And you kept us waiting.”
“It’s been that long already?”
Mazen had already released him, however, and was heading up the stairs.
He seems angry, even more so than usual. Shin looked up at the leader of the crew, a silhouette in the sunlight. Maybe I’m just imagining it.
The scavengers held their arms over their eyes as sunlight poured through the entrance, and they stepped back out onto the grass. When everyone was accounted for, they turned back to Helesia.
Shin brushed over the gem in his pocket, ensuring that it was still there. He took a deep breath and let the topaz within his soul come to life. It returned strength to his limbs and gave him wakefulness. It didn’t bestow any added strength to his muscles like ruby, its counterpart, but gave him increased endurance that allowed him to work longer.
He could feel the Augment sucking away at the energy of his soul—topaz, like all Augments, required fuel. Shin let his fuel burn away at a slow, steady pace, so that his soul would be readily empty when they returned to Helesia. Until then, he had to carry a hollow, heavy feeling in his chest as he used up more of his soul’s energy.
A figure appeared on the crest of a hill a few leagues away, overshadowed by Helesia looming in the distance. The figure approached the scavengers with incredible speed, and Shin raised an eyebrow as he watched. Quartz, he thought. Another basic Augment. Shin could count the number of scavengers who bothered with quartz on one hand—it tended to not be incredibly useful when ripping bodies apart.
The figure quickly reached the group and pulled Mazen aside, speaking in hurried tones. His breath was labored. He must have run all the way here. Shin stepped closer to try to catch what they were saying, ignoring the glare he earned from Mazen. He couldn’t catch much of the conversation, but saw flashes of surprise in Mazen’s eyes as the scout relayed the information. When the scout finished his report, Mazen waved him off and returned to the group.
“What was that?” Abel said, waiting with the crew as Mazen walked back.
“Something happened back at the guild.”
Abel looked at Mazen quizzically, though he wasn’t going to be able to pry any more information from him.
When the crew returned to Helesia, the scavenger’s guild was bustling with activity, as most work crews tended to arrive at the same time. Shin poured the contents of his pouch onto the counter in the back of the main hall, and the man waiting behind the counter swept the Augments into a box at his side. The man took the pouch and filled it with the appropriate amount of coins and returned it to Shin, who retired to the living quarters.
The hollow feeling in his chest had deepened. He had continued to let topaz suck at his life force—his soul needed to be nearly empty to be able to re-Augment. The process made Shin feel drowsy, though the strength brought to his limbs kept him mobile enough to make it to his bunk. By the time he settled in, legs crossed and back against the wall, his vision was starting to fog.
With a deep breath, Shin pulled the emerald from his pocket and pressed it into his chest with his thumb, breaking the skin. Blood ran from the wound down his stomach, tainting the perfect beauty of the gem. Shin poured his last strains of energy out of his soul, reaching out for the emerald. His soul pulled the gem through his skin. It slipped into his chest, leaving a slim entry wound as it attached to his soul. The topaz was expelled in turn, and was pushed out of Shin’s body. It fell onto the bed, covered in blood.
Shin released his soul and groaned. The topaz’s strength had left his body altogether, leaving a dull ache in his muscles. With his near-empty soul, his head throbbed, and his vision was a blur. The pit in his chest was even greater than before.
Shin reached into his trunk beside his bed, fumbling through his belongings, unable to see with his blurred vision. He managed to find a tub of green dust—soul dust—and hastily grabbed the cup of water he had left on the floor the night before. Shin choked down a mouthful of the soul dust and washed it down with the water.
Almost immediately, Shin felt the energy return to his soul, filling in the cavity in his chest. His headache passed and his vision cleared. The absence of topaz left a continuous ache in his muscles, and he felt a stabbing pain in his chest where the gems had passed.
Shin slid the bloodied topaz into his pocket and stepped out of the bunk room, only to be met with Mazen’s stone-cold gaze. Without a word, Mazen pulled his fist back and swung for Shin.
Shin yelped in surprise, instinctively fueling his Augment. His reflexes snapped to attention, and he quickly sidestepped out of the way of Mazen’s punch.
“What the hell?” Shin said, stepping back.
A ring of scavengers was already forming around them. Mazen’s gaze hardened, and he swung again with a ruby-fueled punch that would have shattered bone. Shin’s increased reflexes moved faster than his mind, and he was able to dodge under the attack again.
So this is the power of emerald, Shin thought, amazed at the speed of his reflexes.
Mazen took another swing. Shin easily sidestepped it and dashed forward, thrusting both palms into Mazen stomach. Mazen had fury in his eyes as he stumbled back.
“You… did re-Augment, didn’t you? And with an emerald, too!” Mazen held a hand to his stomach. “You slimy rat. That gem belongs to me.”
Shin grit his teeth.
Mazen stepped forward, approaching Shin once more. His step was slow. Calculated. He watched Shin’s movements with a careful eye. Shin waited as his superior came to him. Mazen walked until they were no more than a foot apart from each other, and stared down into Shin’s eyes.
Shin attacked. He threw his fist into Mazen’s gut again and quickly slipped behind him, jumping up to slam his elbow into Mazen’s neck.
In an instant, Shin found himself crashing into the far wall, which cracked from the force of his impact. Mazen stood in his same position, his arm outstretched behind him. He had hit Shin with a viciously powerful backhand and sent him flying across the room.
“You’re lucky that was a backhand,” Mazen said, looming over Shin’s body sprawled on the floor. Mazen lifted his fist to strike again, death in his eyes.
At the last moment, Mazen’s blow was stopped short.
Abel had managed to step between them. He took the full blunt force of Mazen’s fist to his chest, though he didn’t seem hurt at all. Shin looked up at him. That’s right, he thought weakly, he uses garnet for an augment. Abel’s skin had become rock-solid.
Abel stepped towards Mazen. “That’s enough,” he warned. Mazen shook his head, seemingly in disappointment.
“The boy needed to be taught a lesson,” Mazen said. “He stole from me. He stole from all of us.”
Abel took another step towards Mazen. “A lesson isn’t the same as killing someone, Mazen. The boy wanted a new Augment. You never let us reap our own rewards.”
“Those Augments are what keep this guild standing,” Mazen spat. “He has no right!” The man clenched his fists, as if to strike at Shin once more. Abel, however, shoved him backward, jolting him back to reality. Mazen cursed under his breath, turned, and returned to his quarters.
Abel crouched beside Shin, who was struggling to stand. “You shouldn’t have tried to fight him,” Abel said. Shin finally stood, though he wobbled on his weak legs.
“I’m not used to feeling so tired. I relied too much on topaz before.” He looked to Abel. “Thanks for helping me. I’d be dead if you weren’t there.”
“That’s what garnet’s for,” Abel said with a warm smile. “Looks like he didn’t break anything, or you’d be in a lot more pain.”
Shin nodded. “Just hit my head pretty damn hard,” he said, feeling at the welt on the back of his head. He walked with Abel to the living quarters and crawled onto his bed, letting out a sigh of relief as he took the weight off his body.
“What the hell is wrong with him?” Shin asked through labored breaths.
“He’s a greedy bastard,” Abel said simply.
“Right, that much is obvious. Isn’t he a little more intense than usual, though?”
Abel rubbed his forehead with his thumb and index. “I think he’s found the location of the fabled gems.”
Shin shot upright, ignoring the spike of pain in his head. “What? Those are just a myth!”
“Well, I only know what I overhear,” Abel said,” but it’s worth being concerned about. If he found one of those gems, he’d use its power to cut down everyone in his way, even his own crew.”
Shin shuddered. The image of the entire crew, dead by Mazen’s hand, stuck in his head.
“Greedy bastard,” he agreed.
Abel met Shin’s gaze. “Don’t say a word about this. We don’t know if it’s real or if he’s even found it. If he tries to make a move against us, we’ll strike first.”
Silence settled over the two as they sat in thought. Shin laid back in his bed, trying to shut out the throbbing in his skull. Abel eventually left the room, leaving Shin alone with his thoughts.
The fabled gems… they’re only a myth, aren’t they? Shin thought. That, or they were real, and Mazen had already found them. Shin rolled over in his bed and shut his eyes.
Mazen led them across the empty plains once again. They stepped over grassy dunes and into the small valleys they formed, the city growing ever distant on the horizon.
Shin watched Mazen walk in front of them, his suffocating air of confidence looming over the crew. The man had seemingly forgotten the fight they had gotten into two weeks before, but Shin wouldn’t let it go so easily. Not after Abel’s warning.
Yet, their leader never made a move. Shin sometimes questioned what Abel had warned him of. Perhaps, he thought, Mazen just lost his temper after all. The fabled gems were only ever a myth. Shin figured that was the safe thing to believe.
During the last two weeks, Abel had re-Augmented with a sapphire gem. It was a good find—rarer than the emerald Shin had found—and was quickly becoming a huge asset to the team when they were in the caves. Abel could protect other scavengers from falling rocks in collapsed mines, safe from feeling the pain of their blows, and the damage done to his body would be healed within minutes.
Despite the stroke of luck, Shin had become even more suspicious of Mazen. Before the day he had fought with Mazen, Shin had never seen him willing to give away a precious gem to one of his scavengers. Yet, just two days after, he hadn’t blinked an eye when Abel found the sapphire and used it for himself.
Maybe we’re not crazy. Why would he need precious gems when he could sell the second of the fabled gems for a massive fortune? He would be rich for the rest of his life. Shin let his concerns return to him as he contemplated the possibility that they were in too deep.
“Here we are,” Mazen said. His crew stopped behind him and looked ahead. A few leagues from Helesia there had stood a solitary temple, simple in belief and in culture. Now, the hall was littered with fragments of the crumbling walls and ceiling. The pews lining the hall were covered in stone rubble. Sunlight streamed in through the patchy stonework, lighting up a podium at the back of the hall. The entrance to a stairwell opened up behind the podium.
Shin squinted his eyes. In the center of the podium, a glint of red caught his eye. What is—
“Shin!” He jumped to attention at Mazen’s call. “Listen to me. You and Abel are leading the crew downstairs with me. Let’s go.”
The stairwell was covered in blood. It’s still fresh, Shin thought, a sign that the temple had been recently massacred. Shin’s gaze drifted to Mazen’s back. He suspected in the recesses of his mind that Mazen was to blame for the murders.
The crew reached the first basement floor. It was a large, barren stone room, littered with the bodies of dead priests. Another stairwell was waiting on the opposite side of the room.
“Start scavenging,” Mazen said to the crew, and led Abel and Shin down the next stairwell.
The room they found themselves in was a replica of the first floor, though its walls were solid and its pews clean. Mazen’s hand brushed against a pew as he stepped inside, breaking off a solid chunk of stone from the corner of the seat. He cursed under his breath.
Why is he using his ruby? Shin thought. His eyes widened in realization and he activated his own Augment, letting the emerald start burning away at his energy. It can’t be …
He looked forward at the podium. Even in the low light, he saw it.
A glint of blue.
Shin clenched his fists. Abel was on guard next to him.
“Do you know why I’ve brought you two here?” Mazen said, stopping in front of the podium.
“I can only guess,” Abel responded cooly.
Mazen reached forward and plucked the blue gem from within the stone base of the podium. He held it up to the dim light from the entrance. Shin could see Mazen’s clouding eyes as he released the rest of his energy.
“What a beautiful gem,” Mazen said. “So delicate, and so subtle… So similar to sapphire, yet only a diamond would have such a perfect cut, such unmatched clarity.”
He pressed the blue diamond into his chest. The gem slid through his skin, and a bloody ruby was emptied into his palm. Mazen stumbled, reaching for a vial on his belt. It was water, colored green by the soul dust mixed in with it. Shin saw the energy re-enter Mazen’s body as he poured the concoction down his throat.
“I brought you two here to kill you,” Mazen sputtered, letting the liquid stream down his chest. “You’re the only two who know about this precious little diamond in my chest, aren’t you?” He grinned as his body began to split apart. Shin stepped back, though Abel stood firm.
Mazen’s body became two, exact duplicates of the original. Then, they became four. Eight. And they all lunged for Abel and Shin, laughing simultaneously.
“So this is the power of a fabled diamond!” Mazen’s eight voices said together. Four of them attacked Shin, though his emerald-aided reflexes let him dodge with ease. Abel wasn’t so lucky. The Mazens that attacked him swung daggers, leaving deep wounds in Abel’s body. He showed no pain, however, and his sapphire quickly pulled his skin back together.
“Abel!” Shin yelled out, though he was occupied with dodging his attackers. What is he doing?
Abel’s eyes were closed. He looked as if he were meditating on the spot.
He opened his eyes for a moment and looked straight at Shin. Go, his eyes seemed to say.
They had both seen the glimmer at the temple’s ground floor.
I hope you’re right, Abel. Shin wasted no time dodging another four attacks, then dashed up the stairs. He brought his Augment’s slow burn to a raging fire within his chest, letting it sap away at all the energy he could offer.
Shin reached the top floor of the temple. The podium was directly behind him. The pit in Shin’s chest was growing quickly. He reached for the ruby-colored gem in the center of the podium and tried to claw it out with his fingers, but it was embedded deeply in the stone.
“Damn it!” he said, digging desperately at the gem.
Mazen’s duplicates were upon him. Their daggers were covered in blood.
They may not be ruby-Augmented anymore, but with four of them… It was the best Shin could hope for. Shin waited as Mazen approached him in four separate bodies. They each raised a dagger and brought it down on Shin’s body.
Each dagger slammed into stone as Shin dove out of the way. A glint of red flew into the air, freed by the four daggers carving into it at once. Shin leapt from the podium, fumbling for the gem in the air. His energy was almost gone. He could see the world becoming a blur as he pressed the red diamond into his chest and flared what energy he had left.
His soul grabbed hold of the diamond and pulled it through his chest, expelling the emerald. The world was still a blur, but as Shin’s soul latched onto the Augment, he could only think one thing.
He was going to die.
He felt himself tumbling and spinning through the air, and pain blossomed throughout his body. With his vision blurred, Shin watched silhouettes approach him. Four, or perhaps more.
Mazen must have finished off Abel.
The dark shapes bent over Shin, and he felt them press a cold object to his lips. Grainy water passed through his throat and settled in his stomach.
Suddenly, the world became solid once more. Shin squinted his eyes at the sudden clarity of vision, and he realized he was at the base of the stairwell, surrounded by his crew. The one kneeling over him held an empty vial.
Mazen stood at the top of the stairwell, sunlight streaming in from above. Fury was reflected in each of his eight eyes. The crew ran aside as Mazen descended, brandishing his daggers. Shin waited for him. He fueled his Augment.
He felt nothing. No strength, no reflexes, nothing.
Shin was defenseless.
The first Mazen brought his dagger down on Shin. All Shin could do was raise his hands in defense and squeeze his eyes shut.
A moment passed. Shin opened his eyes and saw the Mazen before him, taken aback in shock. He watched as another two Mazens attacked him again, yet Shin felt nothing. Their attacks had passed right through him.
Shin looked down at his hand. It was incorporeal, shifting like mists. His entire body had become like thin air.
Another Mazen swung. Shin simply waited, and the attack passed right through him. He stopped fueling his Augment for a moment, letting his body become corporeal again, and kicked the Mazen in the gut. When a third Mazen attempted to strike as well, Shin quickly reactivated his Augment to avoid the blow, before slamming his elbow in Mazen’s face.
This is amazing, Shin thought, watching each of the Mazens pick themselves up off the ground. His Augment made one into many. Mine makes one into nothing.
When the Mazens began to attack again, Shin dashed straight through them and headed down the second stairwell.
The other four Mazens were still beating on Abel. His blood covered the floor. The wounds on his body were still closing, but his eyes were clouding. As Shin stepped into the room, Abel finally fell to the ground.
“Abel!” Shin ran into the mix, tackling the first Mazen to the floor. He stood and ripped the dagger from his hand.
He swung viciously at another Mazen, who moved quickly to fend Shin off. As attacks were thrown at him, he activated his Augment and let their blades pass through his body before letting its power wane again. He swung his own dagger up at Mazen’s chest, earning a scream as blood spurted from the gash.
He raised his hand to swing again, but his arms were grabbed by two of the duplicates. He immediately fueled his Augment and released himself, jumping back as they each thrust their daggers at him. The Mazens groaned and cursed as each of their blades stabbed into the other’s guts.
Duplicates surrounded Shin. They had left Abel, leaving Shin in a ring of eight Mazens. Those he had damaged seemed to be unfazed by the damage he had done.
There must be one real one, he thought, scanning through the duplicates.
“Red may have been created to counter blue,” a Mazen said in front of him, “but my diamond can counter yours, too.” Shin twisted to find the voice of the Mazen who had finished the sentence. He looked into the eyes of every Mazen in the room, until he found one who stood out ever so slightly. His eyes burned with a fury unmatched by any of his duplicates.
The Mazens charged Shin as the original stepped behind them. He had begun spawning even more of himself. Shin was surrounded by nine now, slipping through all of their attacks at once.
A tenth duplicate joined the mix. Shin attempted to attack one, but was caught in the shoulder with a dagger, and he gasped in pain. He weakly reactivated his Augment, letting the dagger clatter to the ground as an eleventh duplicate appeared. The Mazens began to ferociously swipe at Shin’s incorporeal body. Twelve of them surrounded him now. Their swings passed through him like mist, but as they multiplied, it began to feel like he was slowly being ripped apart. A thirteenth duplicate came into being. The ripping feeling became unbearable. Shin screamed as he felt his entire being come apart.
The room became silent. Shin caught his breath as the attacks came to a halt, and felt his body come back together. He slowly lifted his head and looked up at the Mazens. They were all frozen in place, wearing the same blank expressions. Shin stumbled to his feet, bracing against the pain in his shoulders and side, and shuffled toward the real Mazen.
He stood in silence. His face showed the same blank expression as his duplicates. His eyes were cloudy. Shin stepped aside as Mazen fell forward and smashed into the ground.
His soul was completely destroyed.
The duplicates dissipated from behind Shin. He turned and went to the base of the stairwell.
“Help!” he yelled up, “Mazen is dead! Get down here!” With that, he turned and knelt next to Abel, who still seemed to be breathing.
“You’re gonna be okay,” he said, struggling for breath. Even as he released his Augment, he could still feel his vision fading. His mind was numb, and his arms blazed with pain. He collapsed next to Abel and let himself slip into darkness.
Shin awoke in his bed. His eyes fluttered open, and he immediately attempted to sit up, though he was reminded of his injuries as his body screamed in pain. He fell back onto his bunk and groaned.
“You’re awake,” he heard a familiar voice say. He turned his head to see Abel at his bedside, grinning from ear to ear. “We weren’t sure if you were gonna make it there.”
“I wasn’t gonna go down that easily,” Shin said, smiling. “Mazen doesn’t deserve that satisfaction.” He breathed in slowly, and shook his head. “He got me pretty damn good, though.”
Abel nodded. “Well, that’s alright, as long as you’re alive. Plus—check it out.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small object. A small, glimmering gem, its blue color almost that of a sapphire.
The sight of the diamond widened the smile on Shin’s lips. “We’re gonna be rich,” he said, grasping it from Abel’s palm. The city guard would buy it for a fortune, to ensure it stayed away from the hands of men like Mazen.
“We’ll be able to help these men out of poverty,” Shin said. With a smirk, he added, “And perhaps keep an extra portion for ourselves.”
Abel bellowed with laughter. He took the diamond back from Shin’s grasp and left the room with a nod, leaving Shin to rest further. Shin closed his eyes, and imagined the scavenger’s tavern remodeled, the scavengers themselves wearing new and proper work clothes, led by Abel and Shin himself. He drifted once more to sleep.