Jason knew from his map that the expedition had been portalled to somewhere in the north of Colombia, which in this world was in the southwest of the Storm Kingdom. They headed south, on the same wide, well-maintained roads Jason had travelled on during his delivery contract.
The group experimented with the chat features of Jason's party interface, the guild team clearly having used similar abilities before. They explained them to the unaffiliated after some basic functionality tests, so Jason remained silent and let them.
- Party member [Zara Rimaros] wishes to open a private chat channel. Accept Y/N?
Jason declined, not so much as casting a glance at the princesses. Zara was on a cloud, similar to that of Jeni, but instead of ice, hers was a volatile roiling of air and water. It looked like she was standing in a small, very contained tropical storm. Vesper rode a construct version of a heidel that looked like a two-headed horse made of sapphires. Of all the transportation modes, it was the most eye-catching. Some of the others didn’t bother with transport, using movement powers to keep up on foot.
Others in the group, especially the guild members who had been watching the royal members of the expedition, noticed her looking at him. Jason noted the resulting hostility in their auras but offered no more reaction than he did to the princess. The only one that interested him at all was Orin. As well as being the most steadfast of the group, he was fresh from a rank up. All of the guild team were in the earliest part of silver-rank, but Jason had met Orin just days earlier when he’d been at the peak of bronze. Orin was one of Kasper Irios’ friends, being the quiet member of that group as well.
It was typical of adventurers to push themselves to the peak of their current rank before a monster surge. Using the surge itself to cross the threshold and get a jump on the next rank was a practice Jason had been told about during his earliest days as an adventurer. With how delayed the surge was, he had no doubt that many people were prepared and either had or were about to join Orin in crossing the line. Vesper Rimaros, for example, was at the very high end of silver rank.
A dozen people moving through the jungle at a goodly speed did not go unnoticed and the expedition was attacked by a large pack of silver-rank monsters. They came from the rear but the expedition was ready, having been alerted by the guild scout trailing the main group. Jason had already sensed their approach when the warning came and was certain that the gold-rank expedition leader had as well. More than forty flying snakes with flickering insect wings came over the jungle canopy and into the open space above the road. With darting movements, like giant dragonflies, they spat poison globules before diving in to try and land venomous bites.
Auras erupted out from the dozen adventurers, an overlapping slew of powerful effects. Not all of them were useful to every person, like one that enhanced lightning-based damage, which did nothing for Jason. But there were also speed and strength enhancements, damage reduction effects and boosts to sensory powers; a cornucopia of augmentations demonstrating the advantage of essence users acting in concert.
Jason didn’t bother to act, sitting on his mount and watching the others. Jeni did the same, observing the team in action. Whenever a monster targeted either, they responded with a savage aura spike that persuaded the beast to move on to other targets.
The three unaffiliated adventurers were capable, acting quickly and decisively, but were outclassed by the others. Vesper was moving like a dancer, sword in hand as she chanted a sonorous song that disoriented the monsters. The effect was slight but telling, even the minimal advantage something the expert adventurers could capitalise on.
Zara used a combination of wind and water powers to attack the monsters and control the environment. She conjured walls and blades of water and slammed the snakes through trees with focused blasts of wind. With so many adventurers around, she left the monsters for more damaged-oriented allies to finish off while she set up the next monster for slaughter.
Most impressive was the guild team, their six members a chorus of power and synergy. When they all fired off abilities at once it was almost simultaneous, staggered just enough to land in the optimal sequence. Jason was forced to acknowledge that the famous arrogance of the guilds was not without basis as they took the monsters apart. The guild team was a well-oiled machine, and that machine was a meat grinder.
Jason might have it all over them in terms of adventuring experience, but their training regimens had started before they got their first essence and continued through iron and bronze rank. The results of that were playing out in front of Jason as he watched. If things went wrong, that’s when experience like Jason’s was valuable. In their element, though, even a relatively inexperienced guild team showed Jason adventurers as he'd never seen them.
Korinne, the team’s leader, sent orders swiftly, her efficiency only enhanced by Jason’s communication power. There was no sign of the unruliness she had demonstrated earlier as her training kicked in and she relayed orders that were followed to the letter. Once the fight started, her whole team showed the discipline that had been lacking as they fooled around back in the marshalling yard.
Monsters were pinned by control abilities, weakened by debuffs and hammered with a flurry of damaging powers. There was a clockwork precision to the process that had the guild demolishing the enemy at an incredible pace. Jason had never seen silver-rank monsters slaughtered with such speed and efficiency.
As the fight played out, Shade notified Jason that his long-deployed scouts had found the target site. As Shade relayed that information, Jason slowly and carefully diminished his aura, so as not to alert the gold ranker.
Once the last of the monsters were finished off, Jeni realised that someone was missing. She had seen Jason staying out of the fight at the start, but hadn’t pushed him. She was worried enough about his stability that she might have even preferred if he did nothing during the whole expedition. This was reinforced when she realised that he had slipped away during the latter part of the battle. Despite her gold-rank senses, in the mess of overlapping auras, Asano’s had smoothly vanished. He and his mount had disappeared with it.
“Did anyone see Asano go?” she asked.
The rest of the group all looked around, blank-faced. Jeni closed her eyes and winced.
“I knew I was going to hate this job.”
She spoke to Jason through voice chat.
“Mr Asano, what are you doing?”
- Party leader [Jason Asano] has set his incoming voice chats to mute.
She shot a flat glare in Vesper’s direction.
“I hate politics so much.”
Shade, scouting ahead, had found the aperture and the Builder cult force guarding it. Jason had shadow-jumped directly to his familiar and was now observing the cultists from hiding, crouched in the thick jungle growth.
The aperture was inside a small cave, little more than a deep indent in a stone outcropping. Outside the cave, the cultists had cleared a huge section of jungle. The resulting fallen trees and scrub was still in the process of being burned away. The tools being used were whirling saw blades and flamethrowers incorporated into the bodies of hulking construct creatures and people converted into half-construct abominations.
The constructs were a wild mismatch of designs, from crabs to centaurs to humanoids. The centaur constructs had two heads, despite the top half being humanoid and Jason realised they were based on half-heidels instead of half-horses. The semi-construct converted were downright disturbing, with much of their bodies replaced with artificial parts like magical cyborgs.
There were centaur variants among the converted as well, although these were single-headed because the top halves were all living celestine torsos. They were grafted onto construct bodies for the lower halves and not just heidel bodies. Others were in the form of large cats, scorpions and spiders.
Other flesh abominations had artificial limbs replacing or in addition to their own, emerging from almost any part of the body. It would have been comical if it hadn’t been so grotesque, filling Jason with revulsion. These weren’t prosthetics used to help people overcome injury or disability. These people had been butchered to create monsters, many quite likely against their will. That was how the Builder had done it when Jason and his team fought them in the astral space and there was no reason he wouldn’t do it again.
The constructs and the magic cyborg converted were the bulk of the force, some eighty at bronze rank and another twenty at silver. Although their numbers were high, they needed to be, as individually they were no match for an essence user. That might be less true in Greenstone, but the guild team Jason had just observed would land on them like artillery fire.
The key to creating both the construct creatures and the converted were the clockwork cores inside them. The purpose of the clockwork cores was to rapidly expand the Builder’s forces, producing constructs and converted at a greater pace than any equivalent power could be assembled. As invaders, the ability to rapidly expand their initial forces was of incredible value.
The sources of the cores were clockwork kings, which Jason had only seen one of. It was an ancient and crippled one, dug up on Earth by the Engineers of Ascension. They had used the damaged cores it could still produce as part of their human augmentation project.
Before his death, the EOA leader, Noreth, had given Jason access to a vault filled with EOA secrets and resources. The clockwork king counted as both and Jason had destroyed it himself, making sure no one would be able to use it again.
Clockwork kings were gold rank and Jason didn’t sense any auras on that level. The kings weren’t built for stealth and, even if they were, it was very hard for the Builder’s power to escape Jason’s attention. As such, any clockwork king in the vicinity would have to be on the other side of the aperture, inside the astral space. Jason turned his attention to the forces he was certain of.
Leading the small army of constructs and abominations was a cadre of essence users. Jason could sense the star seeds worming through their bodies and souls. There were five silver-rankers and a dozen bronze.
“Mr Asano,” Shade said, next to Jason in the undergrowth. “While I fear the answer is obvious, I am obligated to ask if this is truly the approach you wish to take. I know you wish to assess the effectiveness of your ability to influence objects related to the Builder. My concern is that, in another state of mind, perhaps, you might come to regret using people – even these people – as subjects of weapon experimentation.”
Jason turned his head to look at the shadow creature beside him, then back out at the enemy.
“At this point, what’s one more regret?”
Clockwork cores and star seeds were the two kinds of artefacts the Builder used to invest power into its minions. Clockwork cores were the lesser, being produced by other minions rather than the Builder itself and not direct conduits to the Builder. Because they were not, it was even possible to use them outside of the Builder’s influence.
Jason had already tested his power against the damaged, modified variants that the EOA salvaged. The effects there had been extreme and lethal. Now, he was going to test his influence over the undamaged, unmodified variant.
He didn’t bother to hide, stepping out of the jungle, shrouded in his starlight cloak. His aura washed out like a flood over the Builder’s minions and Jason used it to reach into the constructs and abominations.
Jason had hoped his influence over the clockwork cores would allow him to shut them down entirely. What he found was that he could do far more than that, at least with the weaker bronze-rank enemies. He had experience erasing the Builder’s imprint from the dimensional door and absorbing it for his own, plus the power the door gave him in influencing other Builder artefacts with his aura. This allowed him to seize control of the bronze-rank constructs entirely, erasing their Builder’s imprint and making them his own.
As for the silver-rank constructs, he lacked the strength to take them over. The best he could do was impede their coordination and speed while directing the bronze-rank ones to attack them.
The results with the cyborg-like converted were different and much more horrific. Seizing control of the artificial parts of their bodies through the cores inside them left the flesh fighting the steel. The abominations started ripping themselves apart, the artificial parts yanking themselves off the flesh to which they were macabrely welded. Whirling saw-blade limbs and flame-spitting orifices turned on the very bodies they were attached to.
Like their construct equivalents, the silver-rank abominations were more resistant to control than the bronze-rankers. The fleshly part of them resisted Jason’s efforts, but that flesh also made them vulnerable. The freakish bodies of the abominations were kept alive by the magic of their artificial parts. Rather than try and take full control, Jason focused on shutting off the magic in the artificial parts that kept the living parts alive. The converted were soon gasping for air and bleeding from their eyes and the points where flesh met steel.
Within moments of his appearance, and without so much as raising a hand, Jason had turned the construct army into a gruesome and chaotic spectacle of death. He walked slowly across the torched clearing, stepping over smouldering logs and around still-burning brush that threw smoke up and out over the jungle.
The essence users escaped the sudden and gruesome chaos, fighting their way free of the army that, moments ago, had been under their control. Their attention locked on Jason, whose aura was unhidden and obviously the source of the madness. As the essence users moved towards him, the five silver-rankers tried exerting suppressive force with their own auras to negate Jason’s influence on their army. The attempt was a miserable failure as their auras shrunk back from Jason's as if stung.
The auras of the essence users were thick with the Builder’s energy, shaped by the star seeds in their souls. Jason knew that power, which was scored onto his soul in the Builder’s attempts to torture Jason into accepting a star seed. As a result, there was no power that Jason knew better how to fight back against.
Jason poured his rage onto the essence users, smashing their auras to nothing. He didn't stop there, attacking their very souls the way their master had once attacked him. In doing so, the Builder had invested in Jason the very same ability, effectively handing a powerful weapon to his enemy.
Their souls were as inviolable to Jason as his own had been to the Builder. Unless they opened themselves up to him, which they never would, he could only do what their master did to him and scour their souls, inflicting a pain that transcended the physical.
Pain, as it turned out, was enough.
The bodies of the bronze rankers were unable to handle it, collapsing to the ground. The silver-rankers were stronger, but not strong enough, stopping dead in their tracks. That was when the Builder stepped in personally.
Star seeds had two elements: the physical element in the body and the spiritual element in the soul. Jason felt the Builder's power flood through the spiritual element and into the physical element, allowing it to take control of their bodies, bolstering them with power. Jason had once fought such a vessel and knew how strong they were, but to become one was a death sentence.
Any unprepared vessel could only embody a greater astral being for minutes before burning out. The vessels Jason had seen in the past, like Thadwick, had gone through weeks of preparation and even they lasted only so long. The vessels also embodied the Builder’s power, meaning they were no longer allowed to take action. Even before Dawn had gained concessions from Shako, The Builder had conceded to the World-Phoenix and the Reaper that it would no longer use vessels on Pallimustus. By embodying the essence users through their star seeds, he had rendered them unable to act. Like Dawn representing the World-Phoenix, Builder vessels could do no more than talk.
The bronze-rankers got to their feet and the silver rankers moved forward, forming a line in front of Jason. Their synchronized voices were cold and mechanical as they spoke in a perfect chorus.