Princesses Vesper and Liara were in a room with Trenchant Moore and Liara’s teammates, Jana and Ledev.
“Let’s start with you, Ledev,” Liara said. “What is your assessment of Asano?”
“He’s capable enough. Guild-level, and strong alone. His aura is… formidable. He excels in solitary action but would be harder to incorporate into a team. His methods are unconventional, for an affliction user.”
Trenchant Moore tossed the folder containing Jason’s file onto the table.
“This assessment is wrong,” he said. “It lists Asano as an affliction-using generalist. He’s a specialist.”
“You consider him focused enough to be considered an affliction specialist?” Vesper asked.
“He’s not an affliction specialist,” Trenchant said. “Not as that term is commonly used. What is now called an affliction specialist used to be known as an affliction mage or affliction spellcaster. This is the commonly known approach of standing behind a wall of allies or summons and blanketing the enemy with afflictions from a safe distance.”
“That isn't anything like what Asano does,” Jana said. “We saw him go through several encounters and while he does use familiars, it’s never to put them between himself and the enemy.”
“He’s an affliction skirmisher,” Trenchant said. “Hit and run tactics, high mobility, high efficiency. It’s a specialisation that rarely appears and those that have it tend to die early, so it's one you don’t often see. Affliction skirmishers have a low margin of error and their survival is all about how well they expand that margin.”
“How do they compare to traditional affliction specialists?” Vesper asked. “Are they better? Worse?”
“Like every specialisation, it's a matter of circumstance. The right tool for the job. Since the job is usually standing there and killing a bunch of monsters, I’d judge Skirmisher to be the less useful specialisation. Affliction spellcasters employ much safer strategies and, unless someone takes them out, are obnoxiously effective. They need a team built around them, but they’re worth building around. You keep a good affliction spellcaster safe and it doesn’t matter what or how much you’re up against. They’ll take it down eventually. The lead-in time hurts but their efficiency and overall damage output is unparalleled.”
“The skirmisher can’t match that?”
“Partially, yes, but they need a broader array of powers, which leaves them with shortfalls. This is why Asano was pegged as a generalist. The biggest weaknesses of a skirmisher are being less effective against large numbers and the need to get in close. That is a high-risk proposition when you aren’t quickly dropping targets like an assassination specialist. That’s the low margin of error I mentioned.”
“There have to be advantages,” Jana said.
“Of course,” Trenchant said. “When what you need are skirmish tactics, a skirmisher is obviously better. A caster is better in standing fights, but not every enemy is so accommodating. Also, solitary hard targets. In the higher ranks, any monster that spawns alone is a significant threat. An affliction caster’s team needs to stand their ground, but dragon or garuda will take them apart before the afflictions do their job.”
There were nods around the table. Rimaros adventurer culture was centred on specialist teams and they all knew the results of sending the wrong team against the wrong threat.
“An affliction skirmisher is fine – and perhaps even best – operating alone,” Trenchant continued. “They can work in teams but are a bad fit for conventional ones and are a bad choice to build a team around. They do best in misfit groups that focus on versatility; the exact opposite of the team-building ethos in Rimaros.”
“Then, their main advantage is survivability?” Vesper asked.
“Yes, although it’s not just about the kind of powers they have. Mentality is key. Affliction skirmishers are used to balancing on a sharp edge, so when things go wrong, they know how to handle it. Everyone at this table knows what to do if you find yourself up against a traditional affliction specialist.”
“You get past the team and hit them,” Ledev said. “Then they’re done.”
“Exactly,” Trenchant agreed. “You know what I'd do if I was up against an affliction skirmisher? I'd run like the goddess of Pain was chasing me. I wouldn't stand and fight unless I had a full team with me and, even then, I'd want a damn good reason. It's common knowledge that you have to kill an affliction specialist before they dose you or you'll die even after you kill them. Skirmishers don't die easy.”
“So, in short,” Vesper said, “they're evil bastards.”
“Yes,” Trenchant chuckled. “If you ask me which affliction specialty is more useful, I'll pick caster every time. It's low-skill, which means reliable. Just churn through your abilities in the right order and don't go further forward than the guy with the shield. Affliction skirmishers are like evasion-type defenders. It's all about judgement, skill and margins of error, and if they get it wrong, they die. The ones that make it into the higher rank are very, very hard to kill.”
“I believe that,” Ledev said. “I do not like Asano. I don’t like his arrogance and I don’t like his disrespect. But when they made that man, they forgot the part that knows how to quit. We watched him in a fight he couldn’t win. A fight we set him up for, so they knew his powers and they were ready, but he never stopped struggling. Not for a single moment. It wasn't just blind stubbornness, either. He looked for every edge, seized every advantage that would keep him alive for even a moment longer. I have to respect that kind of determination and resolve. If he fixed his attitude, he could be a fine adventurer.”
“A lot of things have tried to kill Jason Asano,” Liara said. “You can see it in the way he fights. In his aura and his scars.”
“You’ve seen his fully unleashed aura?” Trenchant asked.
“We saw him disable someone just with his aura,” Jana said. “It wasn’t just shock from aura suppression, either. It was like some kind of soul attack. I’ve never felt anything like it.”
“I know the phenomenon you’re describing,” Trenchant said. “Have any of you worked with Amos Pensinata?”
They all shook their heads, although they had all heard of the prominent gold-ranker.
“He’s also suffered soul damage, and he can do things with his aura that other people can’t.”
“Like what?” vesper asked.
“If there’s nothing in Asano’s file about it, I’m not going to say,” Trenchant said. “It’s not my place to tell you other people’s secrets. All this holds true to what I know about affliction skirmishers, though. Traditional training methods hurt them more than help. I’ve only seen a couple of great affliction skirmishers, and that was a long time ago. Both of them fought their way up from humble beginnings, with not much more training than a few months mentored under another adventurer.”
He tapped the file in front of him on the desk.
“That’s what Asano had. Some bronze-rank adventurers showing him the ropes before he got plunged into deep water.”
“In your assessment, then,” Vesper said, “Asano can handle some high-profile contracts?”
“With respect, your highness, you’ve held a politician’s meeting to assess an adventurer. If you want to know if he can handle a contract, give him one. And I’d recommend that you take one or two yourself. There’s a monster surge on and I think you could use the perspective.”
On his way to the Adventure Society campus to see Liara, Jason accidentally opened a portal to the market district teleportation square, instead of the one on campus.
“Oops. Still, I need a few minutes before my portal is available again. I guess I’ll have to go check out the local cheeses.”
“I am uncertain of who that statement is directed at, Mr Asano,” Shade’s voice came from Jason’s shadow. “You know that you are lying, I certainly don’t believe you and even if anyone else were paying attention, I very much doubt they would care.”
“Someone’s cranky today.”
“Gordon made me watch Gymkata again.”
“Did you lose another bet?”
“I still think he’s using those eye orbs to look at my cards, somehow.”
“Then you should stop wagering. I thought you learned your lesson after he made you read the novelisation of Kazaam.”
“Mr Asano, your world has dark and terrible things.”
A short while later, Jason was feeding little chunks of fresh meat to the little leech on his shoulder as he moved through the market stalls.
“I want to do a baked brie,” Jason said. “I don’t know if they have an equivalent here, so I guess I’ll just have to buy all the local cheeses I can find and see what I can do with them.”
“Shouldn’t you restrict yourself to the cheeses that seem the most like brie?” Shade asked.
"Absolutely not. It's a magical world, full of surprises and wonder. What might look like dried figs could actually be some kind of magical brie. I'd best buy anything that looks like dried figs too, I guess. Or fresh figs. You can never be too careful."
“Mr Asano, what happened to going and seeing Princess Liara?”
“We’ll get there.”
“At the risk of screaming futilely into the void, Mr Asano, you are not being very sensible.”
“Shade, you’re totally right.”
“Shade, I’ve been a fool. I’m completely ignoring cheesemongers. I need to go to that boutique shop district where Alejandro’s tailor shop is.”
“This sucks,” Travis said. “They have flying ships but their long-distance communication is this bad? Don’t they have crystal balls or something?”
“Bro, maybe you could invent a magic phone. Could probably make some money out of it.”
Travis Noble and Taika Williams were on the porch of a guest cottage on a sprawling country estate. The rest of the group were in dormitories that normally held young Gellers in training, but their connection to Jason had earned Taika and Travis preferential treatment.
“I’m not going to be developing anything any time soon,” Travis said. “Most magitech is heavy on the tech and light on the magic because there was always so little magic to work with. Magic was always rough on tech-based comms, which is why people with communication powers were always so useful in proto-spaces. I didn’t expect it to affect purely magical communication as well.”
“Long-distance communication has been the dream of artificers for a long time,” a female voice said. They looked up to see a young woman with a swarthy complexion and short-cropped hair approaching them.
“If you do ever manage to pry open that nut,” she said, “your friend isn’t wrong. You’d earn yourself a fortune. In the meantime, we’re trying to arrange a time where you can talk to Jason using the water-link system. We have our own chambers here on the estate, but we aren’t allowed to use them without permission from the Adventure Society. Too many people use the system all at once and the whole thing fails.”
“Thanks, Henri,” Taika said. “Did you know Jason well?”
“Not very well,” Henrietta said. “He’s on my brother’s team and I did a short training tour with them once. It was long enough to see him do something insane, but that's never a lengthy wait.”
“What did he do?” Travis asked.
“You ever see that big scar running from his hip and across his abdomen?”
“No," Travis said.
"Yep,” Taika added.
“He decided to fight a silver-rank monster when he was still iron-rank, the idiot.”
“I've heard about this,” Taika said. “He talked about it in his recording crystals. The monster was attacking some village, yeah?”
“That’s right. That was when I learned that guy’s hero fixation was going to get him killed. Didn’t expect him to come back from it, but he always was a bit odd. After him, I thought all you outworlders would be strange, but you’re a pretty normal bunch.”
Jason was stepping out of a cheesemonger’s when he paused, tilting his head as if trying to hear a faint sound.
“Mr Asano?” Shade asked.
“I felt something,” Jason said. “A gold-ranker, maybe. They tried to take a rummage through my aura but backed off when they sensed me sense them.”
“Should I investigate?”
“If you didn’t sense them, you probably won’t find anything without an aura to track, but go ahead. If you find anyone shady, let me know, but don’t make trouble. That’s my role in this relationship.”
Several dark shapes slipped out of Jason’s shadow and disappeared into the shadows around him.
“Really, Mr Asano?” Shade asked, as several of his bodies discretely moved off. “Anyone shady?”
“I wasn’t trying to make a pun. If I was, I’d have done better.”
“There is no better with puns, Mr Asano. There is only worse.”