The bottom of the gorge had a small river running through it, with a wide road running alongside it. The road was stone-paved and well maintained, its purpose being for bringing people into the fort from the surrounding towns and villages, along with their provisions and whatever herds the fort could manage to squeeze in. The bottom of the deep gorge was filled with shadow, which would make it a playground for Jason’s shadow jumping.
Descending through the air, Jason absently wondered how all the people and their belongings were brought into the fortress buried high into the gorge wall. It was a question to be put off for later as he landed amongst the monsters swarming over the ground below.
The bone feasters were thin monsters with dark purple flesh and toothy mouths for faces. Their signature power was to rapidly grow hard and sharp bones from their bodies in all manner of shapes. Currently, they were all but encased in bone armour to shield them from the wind blades being fired from the fortress above, although the blades had, at Jason’s request, been stopped. He didn’t want them chasing after him as he descended.
Jason had completely restrained his aura as he dropped, so as to avoid the attention of the monsters. They had neither eyes nor ears, so he knew their supernatural senses would be preternaturally sharp. He let gravity carry him down rapidly until his cloak slowed his fall as he neared the ground. A pair of Gordon’s eye spheres manifested and started orbiting around him.
As Jason alighted on the road, the horde of monsters all turned on him. Jason conjured his dagger as he unleashed his aura, taking the bone feasters aback. In the brief moment they paused, he sprang into action, his blade quickly finding a gap in the heavy bone armour of the closest monster.
A dagger worked well against the monsters and their bone armour, compared to a spear or sword. So long as he was willing to move close to the monsters, the short blade was ideal for finding the small gaps in the armour. Unless the monsters wanted to render themselves immobile, that exposure around the joints was a necessary vulnerability.
Jason wasn’t inflicting major wounds, but that had never been his style. As much as he might like to land powerful, fight-defining blows, he had always been the tortoise and not the hare. He chanted quick spells even as his special attacks bit in, leaving behind a monster suffering little damage but marked for doom.
There was no shortage of additional targets as the monsters moved in on Jason like the rising tide. He sent an orb at the first bone feaster he had dosed with afflictions, only for it to be stopped dead by the armour. Apparently the bones the monsters grew had significant magical properties to go with the physical resilience, which wasn’t especially surprising. The monsters weren’t physically powerful for silver-rank, making up for it with numbers and the quality of their abilities.
He tried directing the orb to a gap in the monster’s armour, but it was clearly aware of the threat. Bone filled in the joints as the orb sought a way in, rendering the monster safe, if immobile. The orb foiled, Jason brought it back to his side. As an exposed island with a hurricane of monsters bearing down, he had little time for experimentation.
The numbers weren’t an immediate problem for Jason because of the armour the monsters were encased in. Their only surpassing physical attribute was speed, which the heavy shells forced them to give up. Jason didn’t let himself be pinned down and the shadowy gorge allowed him to teleport essentially at will. He popped up in one spot then another, laying on afflictions and leaving before getting swamped.
He tried another approach as he was attacking another monster. He called out Gordon, who reclaimed his orbs from Jason as he manifested in the air over Jason's head, bringing four more orbs with him.
“Drill a hole,” Jason directed.
Orange beams blasted from all six orbs. The resonating-force of the beams was a specific form of damage, especially effective against rigid objects. It was prized for its ability to break through armour and the beams swiftly burrowed through the bone shell of one of the monsters. Gordon immediately slipped an orb through the rent in the armour before the monster had a chance to seal it off.
While Gordon was digging through monster armour, the monsters started throwing ranged attacks his way, all made from bone. Darts, needle clusters and arrows shot from compound bows with purple sinewy strings all came his way. Despite Gordon’s intangible nature, the magical bone projectiles were able to harm his ephemeral body.
As soon as he had shoved an orb through one monster's armour, Gordon turned the remaining five spheres into shields against the hailstorm of attacks. Much like the monsters and their bone shells, he took a turtling approach.
Affliction-spreading butterflies spread out from the affected monster, triggering a wave of change in the behaviour of the bone feasters. Sensing the threat, they started casting off their heavy shells, leaving behind partial armour that was not as protective but freed up their movement. It would expose them to the butterflies but they didn’t give the conjured blue and orange creatures the chance to reach them. Their speed restored, the monster backed away from their afflicted fellow, firing out needle clusters and heavy spears.
The needles struck down the butterflies before they could reach any more of the bone feasters. That triggered explosions as the butterflies were destroyed, but the disruptive-force damage was most effective against magical protections and did little to the monsters. As for the spears, they slammed into the bone harvester spreading butterflies. It had cast off its armour and stood still, accepting the attacks. They had turned on one of their own to shut off the production of butterflies, with the monster making no attempt to avoid the spears that left it riddled and dead.
Jason guessed that the bone feasters' ability to sense magic was their strongest sense, clearly identifying that Gordon and his powers were the biggest threat to their numerical superiority. They were also smart, decisive and committed to the welfare of the group as a whole, the afflicted monster accepting its demise without hesitation.
Jason saw that the monsters would be too wary to allow the butterflies to be effective. He could serve as a distraction, but with so many of the monsters, distracting some of them wasn’t enough to risk subjecting Gordon to a storm of attacks.
Jason could have made another attempt at using the butterflies but he had other options. He wasn’t averse to doing things the long way, which had been his lot ever since iron-rank. He started by spraying leeches like a fire hose, scattering them over the monsters. Colin had no trouble crawling past the armour to find flesh to bite into now that their armour was less comprehensive.
The monsters plucked leeches off themselves and crushed them but Colin used the life force he was draining from them to self-replicate. At silver-rank, the leech swarm familiar could replenish himself as fast as the bone feasters could destroy individual leeches, using the monster’s own vitality as the fuel. In addition, for every leech they crushed, they suffered an instance of the sin affliction from Jason’s aura. This made the necrotic poison Colin inflicted all the worse.
The battle entered a new phase as Jason was pushed harder by the monsters. Their less comprehensive armour coverage made landing hits on the move easier but they were no longer awkward and sluggish. Where he had been dancing around them with near-impunity, they were now faster and more dangerous. They reacted to his attacks not just with evasion but retaliation, quickly growing weapons made of bone and purple sinew. They had all manner of weapons, from swords, spears and axes to brutal bladed whips. Ranged weapons were of little use when Jason was always surrounded.
Jason’s attributes were into the mid-range of silver-rank. That made him stronger than the monsters, whose physical power was at the bottom of what could be expected from a silver-rank monster. This was not unusual for monsters that spawned in such large numbers. Their reflexes, however, were a match for Jason’s or better. Their skills were mundane and lacking technique, but those reflexes and overwhelming numbers quickly put Jason under pressure. If not for his ability to teleport around the shadowy gorge, he would have been swiftly ploughed under.
The battle continued at length, Jason a fleeting shadow, dancing through the monsters as he drizzled afflictions amongst them. Colin continued to crawl through the bone feasters, moving from one to the next. They kept futilely yanking off leeches to little effect, although their numbers were so great that it was little help to Jason in terms of a distraction.
While Jason was swift, unpredictable and evasive, the fight was anything but one-sided. For all his powers and skills made him devilishly elusive, avoiding every attack in a sea of monsters was trying to swim without getting wet. The sheer number of monsters carpeting the gorge was an inescapable reality.
The entire battle took place with an eerie quiet. For all that their entire face was a mouth, the bone feasters let out no cries of rage or pain. Neither did Jason, silent as the darkness in which he shrouded himself, even as he suffered wound after wound. The only sounds were the dull scrape of metal sliding on bone as Jason slid his dagger into a gap or the magical hum as Gordon’s shields intercepted a bone weapon.
The bone feasters had stopped climbing the wall, leaving the fort for after they had dealt with the shadowy interloper. Even using two of Gordon’s orbs as shields, he was struck by weapons from all sides. Slashed by swords and stabbed by spears, the humanoid monsters and their weapons brought Jason’s martial prowess heavily into play.
As it had in the past when fighting monsters in massive groups, Jason was eventually able to fall into a combat trance. It was not an unconscious or unthinking condition but a state of profound focus that drew out every scrap of his power, training and experience. He avoided strikes by a hair’s breadth with deft and subtle movement. Acrobatic leaps made the most of his superhuman agility and strength, creating space and time to act as one acrobatic kick led into another, treating the monsters themselves as if they were solid ground.
Even at the peak of his prowess, however, it could only take him so far. For all his capabilities, not every blow could be dodged and not every weapon deflected. Blades still cut his body and spears still pierced his limbs. Pain was an old friend that he had no time for, plucking weapons from his flesh without so much as a pause.
One of the bone whips managed to catch him out, wrapping around a leg still extended from kicking away a monster. It dug into the limb, grinding flesh and arresting his movement, exposing him to further attack. The two orbs switched from shields to beam attacks, severing the bone whip and freeing Jason, although at a cost. Even being momentarily stuck in place, especially without the shields, opened him up to attack. He was quickly on the move again, but with a bevy of fresh lacerations and puncture wounds.
Every so often, Jason would escape from the horde for a precious few moments. Sometimes he would disappear into the deeper shadows at the base of the gorge wall. Other times he would dash over the surface of the river, his cloak deflecting smaller projectiles and Gordon’s shields the larger ones. Jason took these moments to chant out a spell critical to his survival.
“Your blood is not yours to keep but mine on which to feast.”
Ability: [Feast of Blood] (Blood)
- Spell (drain, blood).
- Base Cost: Moderate mana.
- Cooldown: 30 seconds.
- Current rank: Silver 4 (03%).
- Effect (iron): Drain health and stamina. Only affects targets with bleeding wounds or who are suffering from the [Bleeding] affliction.
- Effect (bronze): Drains additional health and stamina for each instance of poison on the target.
- Effect (silver): Increasing the mana cost to very high and the cooldown to 2 minutes allows this spell to target all viable targets in a wide area.
The incantation was not strictly accurate, the spell draining blood-red life force rather than actual blood. It did look like streams of blood pouring through the air for Jason to consume, however. With so many bloodied and poisoned enemies, Jason’s life force skyrocketed past what he should have been able to hold, courtesy of his Sin Eater ability. This, along with his formidable regeneration and constant life-drain attacks, was how he could continue endure the constant rain of assaults.
After draining so much life force at once, Jason’s vitality reached levels comparable to that of large monsters. It was the advantage such monsters had over essence users, although it paled in comparison to possessing essence abilities. Even the most exotic monsters lacked the cornucopia of powers that essence users enjoyed, which was why a well-trained adventurer could handle many monsters of the same rank. Jason was amply demonstrating that exact principle.
What monsters did have was a vitality that exceeded that of almost any essence user. Even the superhuman endurance of a silver-ranker didn’t compare to that of a monster, although the bone feasters were far from the best example.
The bigger a monster was, the fewer powers they tended to have, but all the greater was their vitality. Even so, the small and numerous bone feasters outstripped ordinary essence users. They had killed one of their own by turning it into a spear porcupine. If it hadn't stood still and accepted the attacks, killing it would have taken far longer.
Jason was not unique in bolstering his life force, although it was most frequently found amongst guardian specialists. Like Jason, they tended to focus heavily on recovery powers, some even taking a secondary healer role. Jason’s goal was enduring so many attacks that he was painted in his own blood, although it was barely noticeable. It blended with his blood robe and was covered over by his ephemeral cloak, his face hidden in darkness.
Above the battle was the fortress town of Arcazitlan. In its military command post, the commander of the fort’s militia was watching a projection of the battle taking place below. There were magical sensors throughout the gorge and its surroundings that warned them of approaching monsters and allowed them to observe from safety. They could even deploy tiny magical drones that were an advanced variant of recording crystals.
The commander, Mordant Kerr, was surrounded by many of his militia officers as they joined him in observing the battle. With the monsters having paused their attack on the fort, its defenders were taking some much-needed rest. Even those that had not been operating the fort's defences had been on high alert since the first approach of the monsters.
Only the militia’s core leadership gave up rest to observe the combat on which the fate of their fort relied heavily. While the adventurer’s defeat did not mean the fall of their fort, it might mean the loss of their resupply. They watched the battle from a floating crystal, high above the fighting. Seen from overhead, the adventurer fighting with the monsters was a flickering shadow.
“This fight is weird,” said the logistics officer, Luis. “There’s barely any noise. It’s creepy. And no one is killing anyone else; there’s just fighting and fighting and nothing dies. The adventurer isn’t, which is good since they seem to be stabbing him a lot. He just seems to be running around, though. None of the monsters are falling over.”
“Take a closer look at the monsters,” Kerr said in his distinctive northern drawl. “They’re dying, sure enough; they’re just taking their time about it. Our new darkness-loving friend is an affliction user.”
“Since when do affliction specialists dive into the middle of monster hordes?”
“I said he uses afflictions,” Kerr said. “I didn’t say he uses the good sense the gods gave a plate of candied fruit slices. Ain’t many as would take on that many monsters. I don’t know what they’re thinking, sending guild folk our way, but I’ll take it.”
The first time that streamers of blood flew out of the monsters and into a shadow to be absorbed by Jason, the room stirred.
“You’re absolutely sure that this guy isn’t worse than the monsters?” Luis asked.
“You’d best hope that he is, logistics officer,” Kerr said. “He’s the one with the resupply you’ve been complaining about all week."