Jason looked at the dead rune tortoise.
“Sorry, mate,” he told it. “Can’t have you going berserk and wandering into town shooting lightning bolts at people.”
“You’re apologising to a dead monster?” Vincent asked.
“It might just be a congealed blob of magic, but it was still alive, and died trapped in its own shell. It might have only had an animal’s intelligence, but it could feel helpless and afraid. It’s a rough way to go.”
“You’re an affliction specialist,” Vincent said. “It’s always a rough way to go with you.”
“You know Humphrey breathes fire, right?” Jason said. “Burning to death can’t be great, either.”
Jason tapped a finger on the dead creature’s shell.
- Would you like to loot [Rune Tortoise]?
Jason walked away before mentally accepting the loot.
- [Monster Core (Iron)] has been added to your inventory.
- 5 [Lightning Quintessence] has been added to your inventory.
- 5 [Wind Quintessence] have been added to your inventory.
- 5 [Water Quintessence] have been added to your inventory.
- 5 [Fire Quintessence] have been added to your inventory.
- [Intact Rune Tortoise Shell] has been added to your inventory.
- [Shell-Skin Potion] has been added to your inventory.
- 10 [Iron Rank Spirit Coins] have been added to your inventory.
Behind him the rune tortoise started dissolving into rainbow smoke, rising up into the air. The colourful display was as beautiful as the stench of it was horrifying, which was why Jason had learned not to loot monsters until he was some distance upwind.
Having a power to harvest monsters, Jason discovered, was a rare and useful one. For most people, they had to use a specialised branch of ritual magic. It was something many learned, however, due to the lucrative rewards. Getting lucky and looting an awakening stone or an essence, even valuable materials paid out better than the contract to kill the monster in the first place.
“One of the candidates from last month had a looting power,” Vincent said as he glanced back at the rising smoke.
“Oh?” Jason said. “Is he in the other group this month?”
“Actually, he passed,” Vincent said. “One of the Mercer boy’s lackeys, unfortunately. Damn waste of talent.”
They reached the rest of the group, where Mobley had only partially healed up through potions. This group of candidates included a few with self-healing, like Jason, but no one who could help others in the group.
“You ready for the next one?” Vincent asked, as he and Jason walked back to the group.
“I am,” Jason said.
“Good,” Vincent said. “We’ve got a few more to get through, today.”
The mangrove swamp was wet and hot, the air full of tiny bugs. The mangroves were large and dense, shrouding the areas within in darkness. Passage through the swamp was either by shallow boat, or along Bridge Road; an extended chain of low, flat bridges, spanning the distance between sporadic patches of solid ground. Most of the construction in the delta was either mudbrick or yellow desert stone, but Bridge Road was built from the region’s signature green stone. It reminded Jason of the impossible bridge that carried the Mistrun River over the massive gorge on its way down to the delta. He wondered if it had the same, mysterious constructor.
They were crossing Bridge Road in their wagon, which Vincent drew to a stop at a seemingly random point in the middle of the swamp. He turned back to address the adventurer candidates in the back.
“Undeveloped areas like this can be some of the most dangerous in the delta,” Vincent explained. “There’s a lot of territory for monsters to go unnoticed until they hit the berserk stage. You won’t need to deal with that today, though. We have two sets of monsters in this area; one single monster and one pack.”
Vincent dropped down off the wagon and the group clambered out the back. After half a week, even the more spoiled members of the group had stopped complaining about the basic transport. Vincent gathered the group together on the side of the bridge.
“When you get a monster notice, “Vincent said, “whether from a notice board or the Adventure Society directly, it has three pieces of information, so long as that information is known. The name of the monster, or a description. The number of monsters, and the approximate location.”
He panned a stern eye across the group.
“What I am about to tell is you is the most important thing you will learn during this assessment. It is the single greatest contributing factor to adventurer death, bar none. It’s a simple thing, but if you disregard it, there’s a very good chance you will die. If you routinely disregard it, your death is inevitable.”
Vincent held the notice in his hand.
“This information is not reliable. It usually comes from local residents, with limited understanding of monsters and who run the moment they see them. They may well recognise monsters common to their area, but monsters are misidentified on a regular basis. Descriptions are wrong. Numbers are vastly inflated or grossly underestimated. People even get the place they saw them wrong.”
He waved the notice in their faces.
“Do not trust these notices. Prepare as best you can, not the best you can be bothered, and always be ready for everything to go horribly wrong. Most importantly, do not hesitate to run for the hills if something seems wrong. If you have any ideas about the dignity of an adventurer, or a noble, or whatever, then throw those ideas away or they will kill you. Your first duty as an adventurer is to come back alive. You can always come back with more people to kill the monster later.”
Vincent took a cleansing breath.
“It is the responsibility of an adventurer to understand what they are walking into, as best they can. In this case, our monster is a bark lurker. I know Geller warned you about it, Asano. Are you prepared?”
“I am,” Jason said.
“Then you’re ready to go?”
“According to the notice,” Vincent said, “there should only be one, somewhere in the vicinity of bridge marker sixteen.”
He pointed to a stone marker on the side the bridge, on which the number 16 was inscribed.
“As that is all the notice says, that is all the information you’re getting. As I have just explained, however, that information is not reliable. Out in unclaimed territory, where the report was made by someone who fled off at first glance, there is every chance it is wrong. That said, most notices are fairly accurate. Which is why you have to avoid becoming complacent.”
Vincent held something out for Jason to take. It was a crystal, like the one floating over Vincent’s head.
“A recording crystal?”
Vincent shook his head.
“A far-sight crystal,” he said. “As long as it’s active, we can see through it from here. It has a maximum range, but the monster should be well within it.”
“How does it work?”
“Just toss it in the air.”
Jason did as instructed and the crystal moved over Jason’s head. In front of Vincent an image appeared, showing the perspective from Jason’s crystal. The image looked a lot like the interface screens that appeared for Jason’s ability. Vincent adjusted the image with a flick of his hand, panning back for a wider view.
“Off I go, then,” Jason said, walking to the edge of the bridge. His cloak of shadows and stars appeared around him as he stepped off, drifting gently down to the water. He started walking over the surface of the water, his footfalls landing with a ripple.
Standing on the water, he concentrated on the auras around him. The strongest were on the bridge, Vincent’s bronze rank aura, the iron rank auras of the others. He moved his focus to the weaker auras around him. The swamp was teeming with life, inundating Jason with normal-rank auras. Animals were sensitive to auras and avoided him, even the ones that would normally view a human as potential prey.
Jason moved further from the bridge, still concentrating on the auras. He was looking for an aura dead zone, knowing the ordinary animals would give the unnatural monster a wide berth. He was out of sight of the bridge when he found what he was looking for. The normal auras, were avoiding something, much as they avoided Jason himself. He wasn’t close enough to pinpoint the source, as his aura sense was still limited.
Jason walked over to the mangroves at the edge of the water. He picked a spot where the trees weren’t too tightly packed, but still provided enough cover to make solid shadows. From his inventory he took out a slab of meat, something looted from a monster several days ago. He wedged it in between the mangrove roots, just under the surface.
The night before, Jason and Humphrey had pored over the monster archive entry for bark lurkers, looking for the best approach. What they had come up with was baiting the creature out with meat. Its ability to sense auras was weak, a trait common to humanoid monsters. Its sense of smell, on the other hand, was excellent, especially in water. Using monster meat made it less likely to attract normal creatures.
Jason waited, well away from the bait. He stood stock still in the shadows of another set of mangroves, his aura retracted as best he could. He sensed the monster beneath the dark water before he spotted the ripples on the water as something large moved within it. He could see the monster barely broach the surface of the water; if it wasn’t moving he would have mistaken it for a log. It moved slowly at first, before splashing wildly as it lunged onto the submerged bait.
It rose up out of the water, lifting the meat up in triumph as it let out a wild roar. It looked like a giant wearing armour made of swamp logs, water pouring off the pocked and craggy shell. Jason vanished into the shadows, emerging from those right next to the creature. His snake-tooth dagger easily found the gap between the thick sections of shell, cutting deeply into the flesh beneath. The creature’s roar of triumph became one of startlement and pain.
- Weapon [Night Fang] has inflicted [Umbral Snake Venom] on [Bark Lurker].
- Special attack [Punish] has inflicted [Sin] on [Bark Lurker].
- Aura [Hegemony] reduces the resistances of enemies for each instance of [Sin].
Jason danced away across the water, his boots moving lightly over the surface. The monster wheeled on him, wading sluggishly in pursuit. It was twice Jason’s height, but it was waist deep in water, leaving them face to face. The slow creature was impeded all the more by having to wade through the swamp. Jason knew it would move faster if it swam underneath, but it was too enraged and too stupid to think tactically. He led it toward another patch of mangrove trees.
Jason’s back came up against the trees and the monster thought it had him. It lurched forward with a sudden burst of speed as Jason stepped back into the shadows of the mangrove trees. The monster crashed into the space he had just vanished from, becoming entangled in the trees. Jason emerged from the shadows just to the monster’s side, again finding a gap in its bulky shell.
- Weapon [Night Fang] has inflicted [Umbral Snake Venom] on [Bark Lurker].
- Special attack [Leech Bite] has inflicted [Bleeding] on [Bark Lurker].
The trees were little impedient to the monster’s strength, whole root systems wrenched from the water as it thrashed about. It failed to find its attacker as Jason was already gone, emerging from the shadows of another patch of mangroves. The monster cast its gaze about, spotting Jason and resuming pursuit. As it did, Jason calmly watched its approach as he chanted a spell.
“Your fate is to suffer.”
- Spell [Inexorable Doom] has inflicted [Inexorable Doom] on [Bark Lurker].
With the spell taking hold, Jason’s victory became inevitable. The poison from the dagger would necrotise the creature’s flesh, while the sin curse would make the necrosis even worse. The spell would cause both curse and poison to accumulate over time. The combination resulted in exponentially escalating damage that would inexorably overwhelm the monster. It did have a rapid healing ability, but the bleeding effect Jason inflicted would absorb at least some of that. He could have unleashed his familiar, but wanted to see what his abilities could do against a tough enemy.
Jason led the creature along the edge of the mangroves, back in the direction of the road bridge. The creature continued its furious pursuit, slow wading interspersed with rushing bursts. Jason strolled casually over the surface of the swamp, shadow-hopping through the shady mangroves as necessary to stay ahead. The road bridge was in sight when the monster was finally overwhelmed and fell dead. Jason went back to loot as it sank into the water.
The candidates gathered on the bridge watched Jason, cloak of stars swirling around him on a breeze no one else could feel. He walked lightly over the water as a patch of swamp roiled behind him, disgorging rainbow smoke into the air.