With the bark lurker dealt with, the group completed the crossing of Bridge Road and mangroves gave way to marshland. Once again they were riding atop the embankment roads that were the main thoroughfares of the delta. Sitting in the back of the wagon, Jason looked out at the sun getting low over the wetlands, golden light shimmering on the water. The hour was fairly late, the summer causing the sun to linger in the sky.
Jason took out a red marble tablet from his inventory, the image of a bird etched into it in gold.
“What’s that?” Humphrey asked.
“Something I have to decide whether to keep or throw away,” Jason said.
“Why?” Humphrey asked.
“Probably best I don’t say,” Jason told him. “You know, Humphrey, my experiences in your little stretch of reality have been pretty extreme. I’ve had some rough moments.”
He looked out again at the sun setting over the wetlands.
“Some good ones, too. Whatever complaints I may have had, things being bland isn’t one of them.”
“Shut up, Asano,” Mobley said. “No one wants to hear your winsome prattling. You’re not profound.”
Humphrey was about to say something, but Jason waved him down with a gesture. Jason looked at Mobley but didn't say anything either, shaking his head as he returned the tablet to his inventory.
Vincent pulled the wagon to a halt at a junction where two embankment roads crossed one another.
“There’s a good size town beyond the marsh,” he told them, turning to look at the group sitting together in the wagon. “There’s a dedicated accommodation for adventurers on the road, so you can expect the nicest night you’ll have during this trip. Before that, though, there’s one last notice for the day.”
He panned his eyes slowly over the group. Humphrey and the three others who had already passed, Jason and the young woman who could still go either way. His gaze stopped at Mobley, the one member who had ostensibly failed.
“I won’t lie,” Vincent said. “This is a rough one. I’m willing to let any or all of you participate; you can sort that out amongst you. Mobley, you make a good showing, here, and I’m willing to reconsider your position.”
Mobley had been sullenly slumped in the wagon since his encounter with the rune tortoise that morning. Potions and ointments had healed him up, but his hair was still largely burned away. Jason had offered Mobley some hair-growth ointment Jory had given him, but he wanted nothing to do with Jason. On hearing Vincent’s offer, however, his head jerked up, hope lighting up his eyes.
“What’s the monster?” Humphrey asked.
“Trap weavers,” Vincent said.
Humphrey and some of the others took on serious expressions, recognising the monster by name. The others waited for the explanation, but Mobley was the first to speak.
“Are you trying to get me killed?” he asked wildly. “Did someone put you up to this? It was the Kilgane family, wasn’t it? They paid you to make sure I didn’t come back.”
The other candidates went as still as the suddenly frozen expression on Vincent’s face. There was a long period of icy silence before Vincent spoke.
"Mr Mobley," Vincent said. "I am willing to take that accusation in the manner I believe it was made, which is to say, thoughtlessly. So long as I have your apology, I am willing to consider it an outburst made in a moment of surprise, that we can put behind us and speak no more about."
Mobley visibly gulped. Jason could hear something dangerous lurking behind Vincent’s words as if his audibly controlled enunciation was trying to keep it from getting loose. Suddenly the man with the outrageous moustache didn't seem silly at all.
“You have my apology, sir,” Mobley said.
"Good," Vincent said. "Mr Geller, please inform the members of our group who are not aware as to the nature of trap weavers.”
“Perhaps we should disembark from the wagon first,” Humphrey suggested.
"Good idea, Mr Geller."
Leaving the tense air of the wagon seemed like an escape. The marshland was vast, reeds and copses of trees punctuating expanses of water. The air was heavy, wet and warm, even as the sun ducked out of sight. The sky was a mixture of dark blue and orange-gold, reflected on the still mirror of marsh water.
“Instructor Trenslow,” Humphrey said. “When you were collecting notices, I didn’t see one for trap weavers.”
“It came from the Adventure Society directly,” Vincent said. “They have provided the location of the nest.”
“Sir,” Humphrey said, “trap weavers are dangerous, and this half-light will favour them strongly. Perhaps it would be best to come back in the morning.”
"I asked you to inform the group of what trap weavers are, Mr Geller," Vincent said. "I did not ask your opinion on how I conduct this field assessment."
“Sorry, sir,” Humphrey said. “Trap weavers are a kind of giant spider. Their main body is around the size of a man’s torso, but they stand as tall as a man with their long legs. They can produce webs that are very strong and hard to see in certain light conditions, which is why they are most active during the pre-dawn and twilight hours. The webs can be used to create traps that can ensnare a person, or to directly attack and entangle. They are highly stealthy, and can hide their aura better than most monsters."
Humphrey gave Vincent an uncertain glance as he kept talking.
"Trap weavers roam in search of prey but return to a nest, usually in environments with water and dense trees. They use their webs to create traps that make invading their nests extremely difficult. This is especially true at the cusp of daylight where their webs are the hardest to spot."
Humphrey’s face went hard.
“Trap weavers usually spawn in groups, at least two or three and as many as twelve or thirteen. There have been some occurrences of higher numbers, although I’m not sure of the record.”
“Nineteen,” Vincent said. "Outside of a monster surge. No one's counted the size of the swarms during a surge, but dozens of them."
“Using environmental and numerical advantages,” Humphrey said, “trap weavers are responsible for more iron-rank adventurer deaths than any other monster in the Greenstone region. There is a standing advisory that they should be dealt with in groups, during daylight.”
"Very comprehensive, Mr Geller," Vincent said.
“I’m not done, sir,” Humphrey said. “Instructor Trenslow has asked us to decide for ourselves which of us will deal with the trap weavers. I strongly recommend we choose no one. Fighting these creatures, especially now, is a danger I don’t feel to be appropriate. There is a strong likelihood of some of us dying too quickly for instructor Trenslow to intervene.”
"I didn't ask for that, Mr Geller," Vincent said.
“With respect, Instructor Trenslow,” Humphrey shot back, “you instructed us to decide for ourselves who will participate. This is my contribution to that discussion.”
Vincent looked at Humphrey, his expression unreadable.
"What about you, Mr Asano?" Vincent asked.
Jason gave Vincent a long, assessing look before amusement crossed his face.
“Probably best I don’t say anything either way,” he said.
Humphrey looked at Jason, about to speak, but stopped at a slight shake of the head from Jason. Confusion crossed Humphrey’s face, but he stayed silent.
The other candidates who had already passed the assessment joined Humphrey in declining, leaving Mobley and the young woman who, like Jason, was yet to pass or fail. They looked at each other and also declined. Humphrey turned to Vincent.
“There’s our group,” Humphrey told him. “We choose no one.”
“Very well,” Vincent said, his face betraying nothing. “then I guess you should all get back in the wagon.
As promised, the town at which the group rested for the night had a large building for adventurers, with a common room, dining hall, and bedrooms enough for a dozen people. It was situated on the edge of a pond, with a covered terrace. They didn’t arrive until after dark, and most of the group were gathered in the common room.
Jason explored the sizeable kitchen, but the cupboards and cooler box had no food, only crockery and cutlery. Jason made a salad with ingredients from the market towns they had passed through. He left a stack of bowls and forks next to the big salad bowl, filling two and taking a fork for each.
He made his way through the common room, where the other candidates were discussing the day’s events. In the end, Jason had killed both monsters, aside from the trap weavers they had left alone. He had no interest in the circle of unwelcome looks, instead making his way out to the terrace. The night lit up by a bright pair of moons, shining high over the surrounding wetlands.
There was patio furniture on the terrace, Vincent casually reclined as he looked out into the night. Jason put a bowl and fork down on the table next to him, before taking a seat himself. He pulled a couple of glasses from his inventory, along with a bottle. He poured a little bit of blue liquid into each glass.
“I think you’ll like this,” Jason said. “It has a fresh, crisp flavour that should go nicely with the salad.
“Thank you,” Vincent said.
“For being so handsome?” Jason asked. “It’s attached to my face, so I had to bring it with me.”
Vincent shook his head.
“Rufus told me you’d be trouble,” Vincent said.
“He told me you were worth showing respect,” Jason said. “Sounds like disparate treatment, to me.”
Vincent nodded at the door Jason had emerged from.
“What are they doing in there?”
“Talking about the trap weavers,” Jason said. “Humphrey’s idea, of course.”
“He’s a diligent young man,” Vincent said. “Have they figured it out, yet?”
“That we were never meant to fight them? They might get there, they might not. The rest are more interested in clamping onto the Geller family’s leg.”
“You haven’t given them much of a chance,” Vincent said. “He seems to value your judgement, for reasons that escape me.”
“My judgement is excellent, thank you very much," Jason said. "Also, I think his mother wants him to learn something from me.”
“You mean ‘what.’” Jason corrected.
“No, I meant ‘why.’” Vincent said. “Has she actually met you?”
“Yes, as a matter of fact, she has. You really do think my judgement is suspect, don’t you?”
“You tried to start a fight with Thadwick Mercer the first time you met him.”
“If I tried to start a fight,” Jason said, “then there would have been a fight. What I was doing was getting you to prevent a fight.”
“For what conceivable reason would you do that?”
“Social advancement,” Jason said. “If I get into it with Thadwick Mercer, then people see me as someone who operates at that level.”
“Doesn’t wandering around with Geller do that for you?”
“No, that makes me look like a hanger-on.”
“I’m not sure outwitting Thadwick Mercer puts you any higher,” Vincent said. “He’s not one of the great minds of the younger generation.”
“The point was to engage with Thadwick Mercer. Just that much puts me above a certain threshold, socially speaking,” Jason said. “As for how far above, what do people see when they look closer?”
“They see you standing next to Humphrey Geller,” Vincent said, realisation dawning.
“Rufus has been very good to me,” Jason said, “but he takes a somewhat top-down view of society. Due to his upbringing, from what I understand. He wants me to reach a level of basic capability as an adventurer before certain facts come to light, but he’s rather oblivious as to building social standing.”
“I’m not sure your approach is the best way either,” Vincent said. “In fact, I’m confident it isn’t.”
“Is that so?” Jason asked. “Less than two months ago, I walked into Greenstone with no name and no background. Two weeks ago, I watched the symphony from the private viewing box of one of the city’s most prominent families. Two days ago, aristocrats were giving me death stares for my friendship with the son of the city’s most powerful adventurer. Two minutes ago, you and I started discussing my conflict with the nephew of the city’s ruler.”
“I’m not really sure what to say to that,” Vincent said. “You realise there will be consequences for the way you’re going about things.”
“Of course,” Jason said, “but nothing is more impressive than handling the consequences of one’s actions with grace and aplomb.”
“And you can do that, can you?” Vincent asked.
“I have absolutely no idea,” Jason said with a laugh.
“Rufus warned me about you,” Vincent said. “He said you were a man of malevolent intellect.”
“That may be the nicest thing anyone has ever said about me.”
“That’s the nicest thing?”
“What we find complimentary is often subjective,” Jason said.
“You are a very strange man.”
“That’s just cultural differences,” Jason said. “Where I come from, I’m perfectly ordinary.”
“And where is that, exactly?” Vincent asked.
"Maybe it is possible that I'm slightly unusual," Jason conceded, instead of answering the question.
“Thank you, in any case, for not interfering when I told you to go after the trap weavers,” Vincent said. “Pointing out what I was doing would have been easy points for you, socially speaking.”
“No worries,” Jason said. “It’s not the easy points that win the game.”
“You know why I haven’t passed you, yet, don’t you?” Vincent asked.
“I don’t care what you tell us,” Jason said. “You won’t pass or fail anyone until the assessment is over.”
“True enough,” Vincent said, “although I don’t see Humphrey dropping down this time. He did well, taking leadership today. He had a similar chance last month and second-guessed himself into silence.”
“Did Rufus ask you to fail me?” Jason asked. “Or did he just ask you to set the bar high?”
“If I was going to fail you arbitrarily, I wouldn’t have brought you along,” Vincent said.
“Professionalism,” Jason said. “I can’t ask for more than that. Wait, yes I can. What is it going to take to get a pass?”
“You’re an affliction specialist,” Vincent said. “Something like the bark lurker would be trouble for most adventurers, but you handled it easily.”
“So why put me up against it?” Jason asked.
“You tell me,” Vincent said.
Jason thought it over.
“To make sure I can actually use my own specialty?” he ventured.
“There you are,” Vincent said. “So what will it take before I pass you?”
Jason rubbed his chin thoughtfully.
“Affliction specialist is a niche role,” Jason pondered out loud. “Just the thing to deal with a certain flavour of monster, but against ordinary ones, I'm just a slower version of any middle-of-the-road adventurer.”
He glanced over at Vincent, whose expression gave away nothing.
“If I want to pass then,” Jason reasoned, “it isn’t about beating the unusual monsters, because that’s basic stuff for my ability set. It’s about showing I can dominate the ordinary ones as well as any other adventurer. Am I close?”
“You’ll find that out when the assessment is over,” Vincent said.
The door from the common room burst open.
“Jason,” Humphrey said, striding out onto the terrace. “We were never meant to fight the trap weavers, we were meant to refuse! The whole thing was a test of leadership and judgement.”
Shock and disappointment crossed Jason’s face.
“Is that true, Instructor?” he asked, turning on Vincent. “Is something that devious even ethical?”