The routine for the field assessment was to stop in a town or village each night. In the morning they would collect monster notices from the adventuring board and set out to deal with them. Vincent took an approach where the would-be adventurers who met his standards were no longer called on for the monster hunts. Starting with Humphrey, the first three days saw four of the seven candidates move from participants to onlookers.
On the third morning, they were delayed in one of the towns Jason had passed through on his original journey to Greenstone. Vincent wasn't willing to turn away the quickly-growing crowd of earnest sick people, so the town constable once again turned his office into a makeshift clinic.
Stopping to help the locals delayed the group's monster-hunting activities until the end of the morning. As Jason healed the sick, the grateful locals pulled out tables and benches, laying out a cornucopia of food for his companions. Some of the aristocratic candidates turned up their noses at a rustic feast until they started to smell the food. Once Humphrey started filling his plate with enthusiasm, the others followed his lead.
Liana Stelline was one of the adventurer candidates who was acquainted with Humphrey. Their families moved in similar circles, and they had both failed the previous assessment together. Like Humphrey, her family wanted her to pass on merit, rather than privilege. Sitting next to him on a bench, she asked Humphrey about Jason.
“How did you end up friends with him?” she asked. “Don’t you find him insufferably smug?”
“He can be… challenging,” Humphrey said. “He’s a long way from home and I think he likes to put people off-balance because it’s how he feels all the time. He can be difficult, and oblivious, but I think there’s a kindness and generosity under it all. Look at what he’s doing right now.”
“Tell Thadwick Mercer about kindness and generosity,” Liana said.
“That’s fair,” Humphrey said. “He can be mean and self-impressed when he’s trying to prove how clever he is, which maybe isn’t quite as clever as he thinks. He certainly won’t get along with everyone. But look around us.”
He gestured around at the villagers and all feast laid out for them.
“How many adventurers get this kind of reception?” he asked.
“He gets along with common people because he’s common,” she said. “That, and he’s giving out free healing. My sister has healing powers; she could do the exact same thing.”
“But does she?” Humphrey asked.
In the constable’s cottage, the last person shuffled out.
“That’s everyone?” Vincent asked.
“I think so,” Jason said.
The constable nodded.
“You know,” he said, “it would make my life easier if you’d warn me you’re coming through instead of just turning up.”
“That’s on the boss man,” Jason said, jabbing a thumb in Vincent’s direction. “He sets the destination. Did I hear something about lunch being put on?”
That night they were stopped in another little town where they had taken up all four of the inn’s twin rooms. Humphrey and Jason were sitting on their beds because there wasn’t space anywhere else in the cramped twin share. Jason was going over the clothing in his hands, examining the ragged claw marks in the light of a magic lamp.
“This cloth armour doesn’t hold up so well,” Jason said.
“Well, it is cloth,” Humphrey said. “If you want real protection out of it you need to spend more on the magic. Or you could try something heavier.”
“I didn’t like the leather I was finding,” Jason said. “It was either too stiff and restrictive, or too expensive for what it did. I have a good amount of money, but that doesn’t mean I’m alright with being ripped off.”
“All the best armour is bought and sold at the Adventure Society trade hall,” Humphrey said. “Once we pass the test you can buy something there. How well does that cloak power of yours protect you?”
“I did some testing with Gary,” Jason said. “It doesn’t hold up to bronze-level attacks at all, which was no surprise. It’s really good against cutting attacks, so that’s a lot of swords, knives and claws.”
He looked down at the claw marks in his magically-treated cloth.
“So long as they actually hit the cloak, anyway. Stabbing attacks punch through a bit better, like those spines that monster shot at me yesterday.”
“And blunt attacks?” Humphrey asked.
“The cloak doesn’t cushion them at all,” Jason said.
“That’s a shame,” Humphrey said. “A lot of monsters are just big, tough, and try to batter you to death.”
“That’s where the unrestricted movement comes in,” Jason said.
“Maybe you can show that off tomorrow,” Humphrey said. “I went with Instructor Trenslow to take the notices from the board, and we’re going after a bark lurker.”
“I think it’s some kind of troll,” Humphrey said.
“I’ll look it up.”
Jason pulled a tablet of white and blue marble from his inventory. At Farrah’s suggestion, Jason had purchased the active monster registry from the Magic Society. It contained all the information the Magic Society had about monsters and was updated along with the Magic Society's own archives. There was an index on the tablet, seemingly engraved in gold script, but the engravings shifted as Jason touched his finger to the inscribed letters.
“You’re right,” Jason said as he read from the tablet. “It is a form of troll. Less intelligent than most troll varieties, but has the usual troll resilience and rapid healing. Vaguely human-shaped, but stands twice as tall. Usually dwells in swampland. Has a hard, bark-like shell, but due to its thickness, the shell-plates leave exposed areas around the joints. Usually slow and uncoordinated, but can demonstrate bursts of rapid movement. It can breathe water and likes to hide near the water’s edge, mimicking a submerged log.”
“What about numbers?”
“Almost always manifests alone,” Jason read, “except during a monster surge.”
“There you are,” Humphrey said. “Big and slow, only one to deal with. Sounds perfect for an affliction specialist.”
“If I see it coming,” Jason said. “I’ll need to bait it out, somehow.”
“Maybe after this, Trenslow will finally pass you,” Humphrey said. “I don’t understand why he hasn’t already.”
“He’s not satisfied with my performance,” Jason said. “That’s easy enough to figure out.”
“You’ve done just as well as any of the others who passed,” Humphrey said.
“Except for you,” Jason said. “You’re head and shoulders above the rest of us, yet Trenslow kept pushing before he passed you. He was holding you to a higher standard.”
“You think that’s what’s happening?” Humphrey asked.
“Rufus came out of last month’s assessment with a pretty high opinion of the instructor,” Jason said. “Now that Rufus will be around longer than he thought, he doesn’t feel the need to rush me along so much. It wouldn’t surprise me if it turned out Rufus had a little talk with Trenslow, to make sure he fails me if I’m not up to the standard Rufus wants.”
“You think he’s going to fail you?” Humphrey asked.
“Probably,” Jason said. “You’ve seen Rufus’ standards.”
“You shouldn’t give up yet,” Humphrey said. “Go all out, give it everything. You might impress him so much that he has to pass you.”
The group of adventurer candidates were assembled on a huge, grassy field while one of their members fought a monster. There was enough neatly-cut grass for a good-sized sports arena, and it was just as flat. There were a few buildings around the edges, some of which looked to be good-sized barns. With the scarcity of lumber-worthy wood, they were primarily constructed out of mud-brick.
“What is all this for?” Jason wondered.
“What do you mean?” Humphrey asked.
“Every part of the delta that isn’t underwater is being put to efficient use,” Jason said. “Except for the parts some rich people walled-off for themselves, anyway.”
Humphrey gave him a side-glance but said nothing.
“This is good grass,” Jason said, crouching down and rubbing some blades beneath his fingers. “Real good grass, like a St. Augustine. Someone’s been taking care of it, too. Is this a turf farm?”
“What’s a turf farm?” Liana asked.
“The Island is an artificial island made of stone,” Humphrey said. “When people want to landscape their grounds, they have much of the actual work done here in the delta, then transported over as slabs of earth. All that grass in the park district was grown in places like this.”
“I take it everyone cleared out when the monster showed up,” Jason said.
“They did,” Vincent said. “It isn’t the first time they’ve had monsters wander along. You seem strangely knowledgeable about grass.”
“My Dad’s a landscape architect,” Jason said.
“Is that what it sounds like?” Humphrey asked.
“Pretty much,” Jason said. “He designs big fancy gardens.”
“So he’s a gardener,” Liana said.
“Pretty much,” Jason said. “A well-trained, highly-paid gardener, but yeah.”
Vincent made an unhappy noise at the fight going on in the distance. It wasn’t going well.
Most monsters at iron rank did not boast exotic abilities. Some might shoot quills or rapidly heal, but they were largely reliant on their physical attributes. One of the rare exceptions was the rune tortoise, a creature with blue skin and a turquoise shell that was only around a metre long. The danger came from its shell, where every segment had a glowing rune, each of which could produce a different magical effect. The key challenge in facing a rune tortoise was that each one had a unique set of runes. The wide variety of potential abilities made it an unpredictable enemy.
As he had done with each of the more difficult creatures, Vincent took the time to explain the creature and the best way to fight it. In the case of the rune tortoise, its weakness was that after using an ability, it took time for that ability to become available again. The key to defeating it was baiting out the abilities, after which it was no more dangerous than a regular tortoise.
Looking out at the fight in progress, Jason saw several of its runes had dimmed after use. The tortoise had not spent them cheaply, however, as could be seen from the would-be adventurer trying to hunt it. His hair was blackened where it wasn’t burned-off entirely, his skin smeared and cracked. His armour had been shattered, his clothing reduced to rags.
“That’s enough, Mobley,” Vincent called out. “If you go back in, it will probably kill you.”
“I can take it!” the bedraggled candidate yelled back.
Jason observed that the tortoise was possibly withdrawing from the fight. At the pace it moved, it was quite hard to tell.
“You probably can,” Vincent called out to Mobley, “but being an adventurer is about dealing with monsters, not probably dealing with them.”
“I have silver spirit coins,” Mobley shouted. “I’ll make short work of it.”
Vincent shook his head.
“Putting aside that we are assessing you, not your wallet,” Vincent said, “look at the state of you. Do you really want to use something that will render healing potions worthless?”
“There’s only the one monster,” Mobley said.
“This time it’s only one,” Vincent said. “The next time it might not be. Come back over here.”
Mobley glared at Vincent.
“You’ll fail me if I don’t kill it, won’t you?” Mobley yelled miserably.
“Even if you kill it,” Vincent called back, “I’ll fail you on the spot for taking the risk. Otherwise, you have the rest of the assessment to prove yourself.”
“Risk is what adventurers do,” Mobley yelled, pleadingly.
Of the three candidates yet to pass, one was trudging a bedraggled path back to the group. The others were Jason and a young woman staring uneasily at Mobley’s charred state.
“Either of you care to volunteer?" Vincent asked. "Or do I send Humphrey?”
“I’m happy to go, unless you want it,” Jason said to the young woman. “It’s already gone through most of its abilities.”
She looked at the state Mobley was in and shook her head.
“No, you go ahead,” she told him.
“Think you can handle it, Asano?” Vincent asked.
Jason set off toward the tortoise at a casual stroll, which still outpaced the tortoise at full flight.
“I’ll muddle through,” he said.