“I always wanted to fight you,” Fire Fist said to Sophie as they faced one another in the cage. “I was just starting out when you left. You were a legend.”
Sophie knew what he was doing. The audience like some banter before a match. Not the crowds who couldn’t really hear, but the big names in the viewing rooms would. They were the ones he wanted to impress.
“They don’t schedule legends to fight just after lunch,” she said. “You’re overestimating our value to them.”
“I’m going to earn more essences,” Fire Fist said. “I’m not a debt-slave like you were.”
“I’m no-one’s slave,” Sophie said.
“No?” Fire Fist asked. “Then why are you back here? Two years and no more essences than when you left.”
“Because the guy looking to enslave me doesn’t want me for fighting.”
“I can understand that,” Fire Fist, eyes roaming over Sophie’s body. “We have some time together, once I put you on the ground. Until I leave the cage, we can have all the fun we want.”
“I was just going to beat you,” Sophie said. “For that, I’m going to hurt you.”
“Think you have the skills, little girl?”
“I’ve seen you fight,” Sophie said. “It won’t take that much skill.”
Fire Fist lunged forward, leading with the burnings fists from which he took his name. Sophie swayed around his straight punch and grabbed him by the wrist. The flames on his arm seared into her hand but she ignored the pain, yanking his arm and forcing his balance onto his forward leg. He yelled out in pain as her palm smashed into his elbow, trying to bend his arm the wrong way. The yell became a scream as her boot tried the same on the side of his knee. He collapsed to the ground, where a swinging leg smashed him in the face. Disoriented, he rolled with the blow, trying to scramble to his feet. Halfway up he found a hand on either side of his head, pulling it down into a rising knee.
Sophie dragged Fire Fist to the side of the cage by the hair.
“You realise they call you Fire Fist because that’s all you have going for you, right?” she said. “You’re a mediocre fighter with a gimmick that makes people flinch. I don’t know what kind of ambitions you have, but I wouldn’t bother. This is the highest stage you’ll have any real accomplishment, and your reputation is about to take a big hit.”
The cage had both vertical and horizontal bars, like a mesh, with gaps barely large enough to fit a hand or part of a foot. That was to slow down climbing, so a downed opponent had time to recover and prevent an escape. Sophie hoisted Fire Fist up, forcing his hands through a pair of the small gaps before dropping him again. He was left dangling by the wrists as they caught on the bars. She raised an elbow up and smashed it down on one of his forearms, producing a loud crack and horrifying shriek of pain. She did the same to the other arm, then left him hanging as she climbed out of the cage.
The Adventure Society campus had a marshalling yard where larger groups could assemble. Rufus arrived to find a large group waiting for him. He had two employees of the Adventure Society with him; the paunchy functionary, Albert, and an official who, like Rufus, was bronze rank. Originally Rufus would be administering the field test alone, but the Society had assigned another person to assist. Seeing the almost twenty participants, he now understood why.
“Are the groups normally this large?” Rufus asked Albert.
“No, sir, they are not,” Bert said, handing over a clipboard. “Good luck sir, although I’m sure you won’t need it.”
“Why so many?” Rufus asked the Adventure Society official. He was a man in his late twenties, of rather distinctive appearance. He wore practical wear for the delta, tough but loose and breathable fabric. He had a bronze brooch in the shape of the Adventure Society emblem, which was standard for upper-tier officials. His practical clothes were topped with an impractical hat, broad-brimmed with an ostentatiously colourful feather. Overshadowing even that, however, was a moustache unlike anything Rufus had ever seen. Glistening with wax, it twirled its way out past the sides of the man’s head.
The official’s name was Vincent Trenslow. His appearance gave Rufus pause, but his manner in their short acquaintance had been nothing but professional.
“It seems there was some manner of grand administrative error,” Vincent explained unhappily. “More than half of these people already passed the field assessment and were admitted to the Society, but the records of their assessment were lost. Despite multiple copies of such records having been made and kept separately. It was decided that they should undertake the field assessment again.”
“In my experience, the Adventure Society is meticulous with their records,” Rufus said. “Even if they weren’t, what kind of solution is this?”
“The kind of solution you get when the error in question disproportionately affects members of the aristocracy,” Vincent said. “The kind of aristocracy looking to make a connection with an important adventurer visiting from distant lands.”
“I see,” Rufus said darkly.
“The Director asked me personally to extend her apologies,” Vincent said. “She is new to the role and has a long way to go when it comes to purging outside influence. She made rather a point of inviting you to assess these applicants with, and I quote, ‘punishing rigour,’”
“And what are your thoughts on this, Mr Trenslow?”
“I may have a few suggestions that would interest you.”
“Thank you so much,” the woman said, still shaking Jason’s hand.
“No worries,” Jason said, extricating his digits from the woman’s grip.
“Make sure you drink a lot of water when you go home,” Jory told her. “Eating some fruit would be good as well.
“Oh, I’ll be drinking, alright,” she said as she left the clinic.
“That’s not the kind of drinking I meant,” Jory called out. “And she’s gone.”
“Well, that’s the last one. How about you and I have a drink?”
“Sure,” Jason said.
“You have a good night, Janice,” Jory said to his teenage receptionist.
“See you tomorrow, Mr Tillman. Mr Asano.”
They wandered into Jory’s office, sitting down on either side of Jory’s desk. He pulled out two bottles, and two glasses. He poured a bright green liquid into a glass and pushed across the desk to Jason.
“This stuff is a bit more potent,” he said, “so it should get past that poison resistance of yours. It’s also horrifyingly sweet , the way you like it.”
He took a sip, nodding appreciatively, at the taste.
- Special attack [Plime Fruit Liqueur] has inflicted [Alcohol] on you.
- You have resisted [Alcohol].
- [Alcohol] does not take effect.
- You have gained an instance of [Resistant].
“No?” Jory asked.
“No,” Jason said. “Tastes good, though.”
“That’s not what booze is for,” Jory said, pouring himself something amber from the second bottle.
“You look kind of tired,” Jory said “I thought feeding on the sick freshened you up. Which is still creepy, by the way.”
“I’m not tired,” Jason said. “Or creepy. Weary, maybe. That woman had cancer, and I just took it away like it was never there.”
“Isn’t that a good thing?” Jory asked.
“Of course it is,” Jason said. “But back where I come from we don’t have essences. Or alchemy, for that matter, although we have something similar, I guess. We just call it pharmacology.”
“You don’t talk about where you’re from, much,” Jory said. “I remember you said there wasn’t a lot of magic. No monsters, right?”
“Never even heard of a monster surge until I came here,” Jason said.
“That’d be nice,” Jory said. “Like most things, the poor take the brunt of a monster surge. What happens when people get sick in your homeland?”
“We have medicine,” Jason said, “but without magic it has limits. Recovery can take a long time, and a lot of the options are bad. Take cancer, for example. Now I can just suck it out of people, but back home it isn’t that easy. They slice people open, try and cut it out of them. Poison them and hope the cancer dies before they do.”
“That sounds barbaric.”
“We don’t have better options,” Jason said. “I think about what I could do with the power I have now. All the people I could help.”
“Are you going back?” Jory asked.
“If I can,” Jason said. “Home is very far away, and I have no idea how to get there.”
“How did you get here?” Jory asked. “You said something about a magical accident?”
“A summoning spell went awry,” Jason said. “It reached into my magically desolate home and plucked me right out of it. That’s how I met Rufus, Gary and Farrah. I got dumped right into the middle of their mess.”
“Have you tried the goddess of knowledge?” Jory asked. “If anyone knows the way home, she does. There’s no guarantee she’ll tell you, but anyone can go to her temple and ask questions.”
“I don’t know,” Jason said. “I’m not really the religious type.”
“Even if there might be a way home?” Jory asked. “What will it cost you to try?”
“That’s the sort of question someone asks right before they bury you in debt.”
“That’s fair,” he said. “But give it some thought.”
“I will,” Jason said. “Thanks.”
“I can’t believe you hid it from me,” Belinda said.
“It’s not a big deal,” Sophie said. “I had gloves on.”
“Heat goes through gloves. Your hand is the wrong colour.”
“It does feel a bit weird.”
They went through the door of the Broadstreet Clinic to find the receptionist packing up to go.
“Didn’t this place used to be full of people?” Belinda said. “I remember coming in here of an evening and was still packed to the door.”
Janice looked up at the pair.
“Since Mr Asano started coming we get through everyone quicker,” she explained, “even with all extra people.”
“Why are there extra people? Belinda asked.
“We just need some healing unguent,” Sophie said.
“That shouldn’t be a problem,” Janice said. “I’ll go see if Mr. Tillman is available.”
After a few moments they heard a voice loud with drink.
“Janice, why are you still here?”
“I wanted to finish up the records before I went home,” they heard Janice reply as she led Jory out from the back. His unsteady gait and expression of general bewilderment said he was well on his way through a bottle.
“I should pay you more,” Jory told his receptionist.
“You just started paying me more, Mr. Tillman.”
“Yeah? Good on me, then.”
He looked up at the two women.
“Ladies!” Jory greeted. “It’s been a while. Hello, Lindy. What brings you to my door?”
“Sophie’s fighting again,” Belinda said.
“Well, that’s no good,” Jory said.
“It is what it is,” Sophie said.
“Then I suppose I’ll be seeing more of you,” Jory said, beaming at Belinda. “That’s nice.”
“We just need some ointment,” Sophie said.
“Here,” a voice said. A tin was sailing through the air, Sophie reaching out to catch it. The man who threw it was human, but neither woman recognised his ethnicity, meaning he was unlikely to be local. His frame was narrow and his features were a little too sharp to be handsome. His dark hair had a silkiness to it, but it was hard to see cropped short as he had it.
“That’s not one of mine,” Jory said to the man. “Where did you get that?”
“From a monster,” the man said.
“You can’t just give random monster goo to two beautiful women.”
“It’s healing ointment. I’ve used a lot of it myself.”
“Sounds sketchy to me,” Jory said. “Janice, find me a jar of the good ointment.”
Sophie pulled the lid off the tin and sniffed at the contents.
“It’s fine,” she said, putting the lid back on. “What do we owe you?”
“On the house,” the man said. “It lets Janice go home instead of updating the inventory.”
Sophie nodded and walked out the door.
“Soph, wait…” Belinda said. “And she’s gone. Bye Jory. Thanks, person I don’t know.”
“Bye Belinda!” Jory called out with a wave as the door closed behind them.