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The adventurer accommodation had a dozen bedrooms, with three bathrooms shared between them. Jason found the bathrooms strange in their familiarity, tiled surfaces and magical plumbing. Jason was fresh out of the shower, with a towel around his waist. He was standing over a basin, looking into the wall mirror as he washed cream off his face.

“Stash!” Humphrey’s voice yelled from the hall outside. It was followed by the door handle turning, the bathroom door opened from the other side by some kind of chimp-like creature. It then turned into a bird that flew up and perched atop Jason’s head, chirping triumphantly at its reflection in the mirror.

“Sorry,” Humphrey said from the door.

“No worries,” Jason said. “Just so long as the bird he turns into is a small one.”

“What’s that on your face?” Humphrey asked, standing outside the half-closed bathroom door.

“Shaving cream, kind of,” Jason said. “You just leave it on for a few seconds, then any hair washes right off with the cream. An alchemist friend gave it to me. You want to try?”

“I have a magic crystal that you rub on your face,” Humphrey said. “Anyway, I shaved yesterday. I don’t need to do it every day.”

Jason frowned. In the midst of a monster-hunting expedition, it was easy to forget that his fellow candidates were all sixteen or seventeen years old. Jason was only a half-dozen years their senior, but the idea of killing and dying at that age made him grateful he wasn’t forced to grow up young.

“Seems like it would be easy to accidentally take off hair you wanted to keep,” Humphrey said, oblivious to Jason’s thoughts.

“I have some ointment that causes hair to grow,” Jason said. “That’s the one you want to be careful about applying. It works everywhere, whether hair is meant to grow there or not.”

“That makes sense,” Humphrey said. “I was wondering why you didn’t have eyebrows when we met, but a couple of days later you did.”

***

In the final days of the field assessment, some of the candidates began to realise the results weren’t as decided as Vincent may have implied. Recognising that coasting on what they thought was a done deal wasn’t the best strategy, there was increased competition for each new monster they went after. Jason didn’t push himself forward as the others vied for additional chances to prove themselves, as he was still considering his approach to fighting monsters.

Compared to even the most mediocre of his fellow candidates, Jason’s abilities were slow and weak. A fire blast or magical sword strike could take down an ordinary monster in a fraction of the time it took Jason to apply his various afflictions. Worse was that in the time it took them to overcome the afflicted monster, it could well have ravaged any companions Jason had with him in the fight.

His first thought was of his eight unawakened essence abilities, but they would not help him in the remaining days of the field assessment unless he stumbled on a cache of awakening stones. Even if he did, his new abilities would likely be similar to those he already possessed.

Jason’s revelation came while watching Humphrey dispatch a group of monsters. They were dog-headed humanoids, with physiques like bodybuilders heavily into steroid abuse. Their jaws could produce a powerful bite, but their most dangerous feature was the sickle-like claws at the end of their arms. Combined with the crude clothing they fashioned for themselves with the flayed skin of their victims, they were an intimidating sight.

The monsters were called margolls. Despite their appearance, they were not very dangerous individually, at least to a fully trained and equipped adventurer. The problem was that they always appeared in groups. As many as a dozen could appear at once, and they were highly aggressive, even for monsters. They were one of the monsters most dreaded by normal people. Every resident of the delta heard stories of a margoll pack descending on a farm or ranch, or even attacking villages.

Humphrey had not put himself forward often since the early days of the field assessment, but he didn’t hesitate to step out for the margolls. Rather than rely on his abilities, he used his combat skills to deal with the group. His martial techniques were most useful against humanoid enemies, and beyond summoning his sword and armour, he fought the monsters without powers.

Jason was reminded of the way combat styles of his new world differed from those in his old one. Brazilian jiu-jitsu might be practical in an MMA fight, but have limited application against a crab the size of a delivery van. An acrobatic kick may get punished by a skilled human fighter, yet perfectly deliver a special attack to an inhuman monster.

In all the time Rufus and the others had been training Jason, they devoted very little time to Jason’s essence abilities. Outside of aura training, they largely left him to practise them on his own. Instead, they worked on his physicality, mentality and skill; everything but essence abilities. Rufus had been especially unrelenting in driving Jason to master the martial techniques that came from the skill book he used.

Jason had sparred many times with Humphrey over the last few weeks as part of Rufus’ ruthless regimen, and as he watched Humphrey dismantle the monsters, he realised that he had been far too focused on his essence abilities during the assessment. What worked perfectly against a bark lurker was pushing a square peg into a round hole against a small, quick ratling.

***

The last day of the field assessment would close their looping path through the delta, arriving back at Greenstone in the evening. They had spent the night in a barricade town, whose high walls and expansive lodgings were designed to be a safe-haven during monster surges. Jason had stayed in a similar town in the desert with Rufus, Gary and Farrah, except this one had a sprawling stockyard in which to keep herds.

Jason made his way out of the mudbrick cabin he had shared with Humphrey, looking and feeling weary. His plan to put aside his slow essence abilities in favour of martial abilities hadn’t worked as well as he had hoped. He was still able to put down the monsters, but not in the domineering fashion he was aiming for.

“Just give it time,” Humphrey advised. “I’ve been training my whole life for this. You’ve been training for two months.”

The group was assembling around the wagon when another wagon came bolting into town, drawn by a four heidels that were panting from how hard they’d been driven.

“Is it just me,” Vincent said, “or do those look like some people in need of an adventurer? Everyone form up!”

Vincent approached as the driver pulled up the wagon.

“You need some assistance?” he asked.

A bedraggled driver glanced back into the wagon before dropping down, looking over Vincent. Most people, whether in Greenstone or the delta, wore loose-fitting, breathable clothes because of the heat. Adventurers, at least while on the job, wore more fitted outfits, often with overt protective properties. They carried arrays of weapons and other useful gear. This was also true for the candidates, making their occupation obvious. To dispel any doubt, Vincent wore his brooch bearing the Adventure Society emblem.

The driver explained that his family had escaped their nearby farm after a pack of margolls arrived. They only reason they got away was the margolls were caught up slaughtering their herd, giving the farmer time to load his family in the wagon and flee. This would make the fourth group of margolls the group had encountered in three days.

“Margolls again,” Mobley muttered. “Do you think it’s a sign the monster surge is starting?”

“Possibly,” Humphrey said, “but not likely. There hasn't been an increase in overall activity or a sharp rise in pack numbers. The first sign is usually when solitary monsters start appearing in groups.”

After getting details from the man, Vincent addressed the group.

“We’re looking at a large pack,” Vincent told them, “somewhere around ten to twelve margolls. Geller, are you comfortable handling that many?”

“I want it,” Jason said before Humphrey could answer.

Mobley looked derisively at Jason.

“We’ve seen you fight, Asano,” he said. “You can’t handle twelve. You can’t handle half of that.”

Vincent looked contemplatively at Jason.

“Why?” Vincent asked him.

“Because I know I’ve been falling short, even if I’ve been muddling along. If I’m going to break through, I need to be pushed harder. Put myself in more danger.”

Vincent considered it for a few moments.

“Geller,” he said finally. “You be ready to get him out when it goes wrong.”

“You mean ‘if’ it goes wrong,” Humphrey said.

“I know what I said, Geller.”

***

Rufus, Gary and Farrah had spent hour after hour, day after day pounding Jason's fighting skill into a usable state. He had come further in just a few weeks than he would have imagined possible, but it wasn't close to matching a dozen monsters. As for the essence abilities he had been relying on in the early days of the assessment, nothing had changed. They were still too slow for a fast-paced battle.

“You don’t have to do this,” Humphrey told him.

“Let him,” Mobley said. “I’d love to see that smug look frozen on his corpse.”

Humphrey glared at Mobley.

“What’s so great about him?” Mobley asked. “Sure, he handled the bark lurker and the rune tortoise, but against anything the rest of us could walk over, his powers are useless. So he gives up on the powers and starts just fighting them straight up? Sure, he’s got some skills, but how long is an adventurer going to last when he fights without using his abilities? He’s not even going to pass if he can’t use his abilities and his combat skills together.”

Jason’s eyes shot open.

Was it that simple? Had he really been that stupid?

Jason's mistake came to him as a revelation. Somewhere in his head, he had been putting his martial arts in a box belonging to his old world, and his essence abilities in one belonging to the new. He had been crippling both by subconsciously separating the two.

“I’m an idiot,” he said.

“I know,” Mobley agreed.

Jason spent the rest of the ride with a grin on his face, eyes flashing as a floodgate opened in his mind. He could suddenly see with perfect clarity how badly he had been hamstringing himself. By the time the wagon turned off the embankment road and down a slope towards the farm, he was itching to begin. He was the first to vault out the back of the wagon.

Vincent had stopped the wagon on the outskirts of the farm. In the distance they could see a clutch of mudbrick farm buildings, past fields of a low, leafy crop. Vincent, still in the driving seat of the wagon, tossed Jason a far-sight crystal.

“We’ll watch from here,” Vincent said. Margolls had poor vision and aura sense, but their smell and hearing were highly sensitive. The group would see everything through the crystal without interfering with Jason’s fight.

As Jason marched away without pause, Humphrey followed. He maintained enough distance that he wouldn’t interfere either, but could still intervene if necessary.

Jason neared the farm’s largest building, a big, square barn. As he did, a margoll came wandering out, chewing on the remains of what, to Jason, looked like the family dog. Somehow, the idea of a dog-headed monster eating a dog made it even more disgusting. The monster sniffed the air, then turned to Jason, dropping its meal in the dirt.

Jason had never been this close to a margoll before. It had the face of a pit-bull and the body of a power-lifter, with sickle-claw hands. Its arms were drenched up to the elbows in blood, as was its wide mouth. It threw its head back, letting out a wild howl.

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Shirtaloon

  • Australia

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