Jason and the margoll faced off outside the mud-brick barn. The margoll’s howl called out more, who emerged from in and around the building to join it. As they assembled, Jason and the first one remained where they stood, gazes locked. Jason was the first to move, walking closer to the wall of the barn.
That first step was like a starter’s pistol, the monsters lunging into a sprint. Jason kept walking casually as the creatures closed the distance, pounding over the dirt. When they were almost upon him, he dropped into the shadow of the building like falling through a manhole.
He rose up from the ground behind the monsters, silently emerging from one the margolls’ own shadows. In the brief but crucial moment of confusion, Jason noticed the margoll in front of him had loose skin at the back of its neck, like a dog. He grabbed a fistful of skin and yanked back, pulling the monster off-balance.
The creatures were already wheeling on Jason, so when his dagger tore the throat out of the monster in his grip, blood sprayed over the others.
- You have defeated [Margoll].
- Would you like to loot [Margoll]?
He shoved the dead monster forward as it dissolved into rainbow smoke. The stench was horrifying, but bearable for Jason, but he lacked the powerful sense of smell the margolls had. For them, the smoke was like tear gas, the closest ones staggering away with dog-like yelps of misery.
The group of margolls was large enough that those furthest from Jason weren’t disabled, although they were scattered and distracted. Jason moved right into their midst, making full use of his martial skills in the chaos. Another margoll dropped dead, throat slashed open. A forceful kick to the side of the knee sent one dropping to the ground. Jason’s flashing dagger inflicted more injuries, non-lethal, but distracting enough to keep the monsters off-balance while they were still reeled from the smoke.
- Weapon [Night Fang] has inflicted [Umbral Snake Venom] on [Margoll].
- Special attack [Punish] has inflicted [Sin] on [Margoll].
- Aura [Hegemony] reduces the resistances of enemies for each instance of [Sin].
The margolls started to recover from the stench. Jason moved out of the encirclement he had placed himself in but was only a step away from the reach of those razor claws. One such claw swiped at him and he lifted a forearm to take the strike. The claw raked through his cloth armour like it wasn’t there, cutting deep gouges in his arm. Then, like a burst balloon, leeches erupted from the wound to spray out over the margolls.
The monsters panicked, yelping in horror as leeches dug into any available patch of exposed skin. Leeches buried themselves into the monsters’ arms, bodies and even faces. The margolls scrambled to tear them off, but every leech tossed aside took with it a chunk of flesh in its lamprey-like teeth. One margoll pulled a leech from its eye, which burst into goo as the leech came away.
- [Sanguine Horror] has inflicted [Bleeding] on [Margoll].
- [Sanguine Horror] has inflicted [Leech Toxin] on [Margoll].
- [Sanguine Horror] has inflicted [Necrotoxin] on [Margoll].
The leeches that didn’t land directly on the margolls started accumulating in a pile, lurching toward the margolls at the back who had been missed in the initial spray. Jason raised his arm at the margoll that had cut into him and chanted a spell.
“Your blood is not yours to keep, but mine on which to feast.”
The margoll's life force started glowing dark red from within its body, before siphoning off in a stream toward Jason's extended hand. As it sank into Jason's skin, the claw marks on his arm closed. It didn't heal completely, but open wounds became bright red welts. By the time the margoll's life force retracted into its body, it looked weak and pale. Jason kicked it into its fellows and once again launched himself into the stricken pack of margolls.
Jason danced through the chaos, dagger flashing, elbows and feet lashing out.
- Special attack [Leech Bite] has inflicted [Bleeding] on [Margoll].
- [Bleeding] already in effect, [Bleeding] is refreshed.
- Special attack [Leech Bite] has drained health and stamina.
He did not go for quick kills, instead working to keep the large group distracted and panicked. Yelps and wails came from the margolls as they thrashed about. The stench of the smoke was still in the air and leeches dug into their flesh. Afflictions turned their blood black with poison, even as it leaked from their bodies.
Through it all moved Jason, like a demon conducting an orchestra of the damned. The margolls followed his direction, their screams of misery his music, until the last monster was dead and the air fell silent. Every part of Jason not shrouded in his cloak of shadows was painted red and black with the tainted blood. At his feet, the leech swarm surged, gorged to bursting. Jason reached down, slicing his hand on a claw for the leeches to clamber back into his bloodstream.
Humphrey watched as Jason walked back. Behind him, the rainbow smoke of a dozen monsters drifted into the sky. It also rose up from his body as the blood of his enemies burned away.
The rest of the trip back to Greenstone was almost entirely silent. Although a bottle of crystal wash had cleaned away the residue of the fight, it was as if the other adventurer candidates could still see the blood painted over Jason. Through the far-sight crystal, they had watched him play the creatures to a screaming, suffering demise.
Even Humphrey was shaken. He could tear through a pack of monsters better than any of them, but the worst he could do was burn a creature to death with his fire breath ability. He had never seen anything like Jason’s symphony of horrors, shrieks of despair made into unholy music.
As for Jason, he was eerily still in the back of the wagon, staring out at the delta landscape. The horrors he had wrought played out again and again in his mind, but they did not horrify him. For the first time since arriving in his strange new world, he didn’t feel like a helpless pawn of fate. He was in control. He had the power. What troubled him wasn’t that his moment of catharsis was marked by the screams of the dying. It was that he couldn’t ignore the part of himself that wanted more.
The sky grew darker as the wagon passed through cut-down flatland around the Old City wall and through the city gate. After the sprawling delta, everything felt pushed together in Old City, from the narrow streets to the buildings crammed against one another. The wagon rolled through up Broadstreet Esplanade which, in spite of the name, would barely pass as a laneway on the Island. Stalls were packed away and storefronts were closing with the setting sun. Jason noted Jory’s clinic as they passed it by.
The Broadstreet Bridge was the same one Jason had crossed on his first day in Greenstone, the wagon getting waved straight into the rich people lane. The pace picked up on the wide, Island streets and the wagon soon pulled up at the Adventure Society’s marshalling yard.
The sun was completely gone by the time they arrived, but Jason’s mood had lightened. He hopped free of the wagon feeling a different man than the one who climbed on a week earlier. He had a sense of power about him, of control over his own fate.
“And here we are,” Vincent said as the candidates decamped from the wagon. “Results of the assessment can be collected from administration individually as of tomorrow afternoon. If you wish to challenge or query the results, you may do so with administration at the time you collect them.”
The marshalling yard was thoroughly illuminated by magic lamps, and a small crowd was awaiting their arrival. The other group had apparently just arrived as well, already being greeted by waiting family. Humphrey spied his mother, fending off several would-be social climbers, and headed in her direction. Jason spotted Rufus standing next to her, but also spied Thadwick Mercer. From the body language, he guessed Thadwick was being met by a household servant rather than a family member.
Jason walked over in that direction, calling out Thadwick’s name.
“What do you want, Asano?” Thadwick asked, warily.
“I wanted to apologise,” Jason said. “There are some flaws in my character that sometimes lead me to be smug, childish, and a little too impressed with myself. Last week, I subjected you to all three.”
Jason held out a hand.
“I’d like to apologise, and start fresh.”
“You think I’d even touch your hand?” Thadwick asked. “You went out of your way to make me look like a buffoon, and now you think I’ll take your hand? You aren’t worthy to breathe my air.”
Thadwick stormed off, leaving Jason standing there, holding out his unshaken hand.
"Ah, well," he said and turned in the direction of Rufus, Humphrey and Humphrey's mother. Vincent had already moved to join them, and they were all looking in the direction of Jason’s encounter with Thadwick.
“Danielle!” he called out with a wave as he approached. He flashed Humphrey a grin, and Humphrey’s shoulders lost some of the tenseness they had been carrying since Jason’s fight with the margolls.
“Nicely done with young master Mercer,” Danielle replied with a smile. “I do hope you’re paying attention, Humphrey, dear.”
“What?” Humphrey asked.
“Jason,” Rufus scolded, “stop making a spectacle of yourself.”
"Oh, do leave him alone, Mr Remore," Danielle said. "He knows what he's doing."
“I think I might have missed something,” Humphrey said.
“Same here,” Rufus said unhappily.
Danielle sighed, giving Jason a sympathetic look.
“You’re wasted in this city, you know that?” she asked him.
“I do,” Jason said, shaking his head with mock sadness. “But you can’t help where some lunatic cultist summons you to.”
“What?” Vincent asked.
“Would you please not provoke Thadwick Mercer?” Rufus asked.
“Or weirdly flirt with my mother,” Humphrey added.
“Humphrey, dear. Mr Remore." Danielle said. "You have to remember that Jason wasn't born on top of the pile like you two. He has to make his own place in society, which is why he's playing around with poor Thadwick.”
“Then why humble yourself in front of him?” Humphrey asked Jason.
“Because then I’m the reasonable one,” Jason said.
“But he stormed off,” Humphrey said. “Doesn’t that make you seem below him?”
“It isn’t about what Thadwick thinks,” Jason said. “It’s about all these nice people here. The people who saw me seem perfectly reasonable in front of a member of the Mercer family, then wander over here to where I’m on a first name basis with Danielle Geller herself. Where does that put me, in their eyes?”
“Right at the top,” Rufus realised. “But why bother? You’re already appearing in high social circles.”
“As an adjunct to you,” Jason told him. “What all this is really for is the people who recognise what I’m doing and why.”
“Wait,” Humphrey said, “I thought it was about all the people here. You’re manipulating Thadwick, and all these people, for the benefit of the ones who see through it all anyway.”
“Now you’re getting it, dear,” Danielle said happily.
“I’m fairly certain I’m not,” Humphrey said.
“Dear boy,” she said to him. “The people who know what he’s doing recognise and respect his ability to do it. That's how you earn a place in the backrooms, not just the ballrooms.”
“I still don’t follow,” Humphrey said.
“Sometimes I think you and your sister are a little too much your father’s children. Come along, everyone; I have a carriage waiting and dinner prepared. You will join us, won't you, Mr Trenslow?”
“It would be my honour, Lady Geller.”