Jason looked at the vessels of the Builder arrayed in front of him. Yet again, the Builder was pushing the boundaries of its agreement with the other great astral beings, reinforcing their unreliability. It reminded him all over again that none of them cared about the welfare of one mortal. Their only concern was how he could impact their agenda or, perhaps, their pride as higher beings as they looked down on mortals.
Once again, Jason found himself in front of some vastly more powerful entity, and he was tired. Tired of ranting. Tired of anger. Tired of challenging powers he had no business standing in front of. He wondered what the Builder even wanted from him, this time. What did it get out of talking?
Jason looked towards the shallow cave with the aperture inside.
What the Builder got from talking to Jason was Jason talking back. While Jason made another speech full of threats he couldn’t possibly carry out, the Builder would have time to direct his forces within the astral space and converge on the aperture, waiting for Jason’s arrival.
Jason didn't say anything to the Builder's vessels, instead, sinking into his own shadow and reappearing in the dark mouth of the cave. The aperture was a glowing, circular portal, flickering like a television with bad reception.
“Keep an eye on it,” Jason said as a Shade body left Jason’s shadow and Jason stepped into the portal. Astral spaces were too stable for him to enter from anywhere, the way he could with a proto-space, but his power did allow him to ignore the seals on apertures.
The Builder's vessels turned in unison as Jason vanished from in front of them and reappeared in the cave, moving directly into the aperture. A shadowy figure moved out of the cave, slipping from shadow to shadow through the still-fighting constructs and semi-construct flesh abominations. It exited the melee unaccosted and approached the Builder’s vessels. They were already showing signs of breaking down, their skin turning stony and starting to flake.
“Reaper spawn,” the vessels chorused in perfect unity with cold, mechanical voices.
“Great being,” Shade greeted respectfully. “I have spent some time on Mr Asano’s homeworld, as you know. They do not have any gods that I am aware of, yet it is a world rife with stories of them. The gods in most of these mythologies are very mortal in their failings. They have story after story of petty, vain and cruel deities, using mortals as proxies in their conflicts, always to the suffering of the mortals. I had thought this a reflection of their own inadequacies; a collective social assertion of higher beings just as flawed as they, thus excusing their own shortcomings. Now I find myself wondering if I was incorrect. Many of these myths stem from a period in which one of your clockwork kings was entombed. I do not know what it was doing there, but perhaps whatever your involvement in that world inspired the pettiness, cruelty and vanity of their mythological deities.”
“You are impudent, spawn.”
“And you are thirteen billion years old, yet somehow the same sixteen-year-old boy who was ascended to his position. I do not know how you were chosen, but the great astral beings have made enough other mistakes that I know their decisions are not infallible.”
“You are limited, spawn. Measuring me by the time reference of this petty world only makes it plain.”
“Yes, that is what limits me,” Shade said. “The arbitrary value by which I chose to account for time. I shall take it as a lesson learned and consider myself appropriately admonished.”
Jeni Kavaloa was moving swiftly, rushing towards the aperture with the rest of the expedition. They had spotted the smoke in the distance and left the road, heading through the jungle towards it. Jeni had given up on any kind of delicate process, sending out a wild storm of ice blades to open a path. The fast-moving and razor-sharp cloud annihilated every obstacle in the group’s path as they dashed behind it on their various means of transport. Trees were smashed to splinters and undergrowth was sliced to confetti. The ice blades even went through a rock the size of a house, the group riding through a dust cloud as pebbles rained down on them.
Jeni was not straining her senses, since the aura projection required to do so could alert monsters at even greater range than the noise her demolition cloud was making. Even so, her gold-rank perception picked up what was happening in the clearing well before they reached it, although none of it made any sense. She had fought the Builder’s forces before and recognised the auras of their construct creatures and macabre converted. What she had not seen before was them fighting each other.
That barely entered her attention, however, compared to the other auras on the scene. Most were bronze-rank with a handful of silvers but there was something inside all of them that was more dangerous than their rank. It was a power like that of a manifested god, but also different and alien. She could only assume this was the presence of the Builder, as she had heard of it taking vessels, but none had been seen since the early days of the cultist conflict. Whatever the power was, she could sense it rapidly eating the people containing it from the inside out.
What she could not sense was Jason Asano.
Jason was moving before he had time to even sense his surroundings as he emerged from the portal. Even so, he was riddled with attacks. His cloak intercepted the weaker ones, but a flaming projectile seared through his robes to scorch his torso and a spear pierced through his gut and out the other side.
The astral space was some kind of sweltering, subterranean space and Jason easily disappeared into the shadows, even with a spear still lodged in him. He didn’t bother to look back, moving fast but silently through what turned out to be an ants’ nest of volcanic tunnels, complete with lava-spitting ants.
Jason lost his pursuers in a vast cavern containing a lake of magma. He was grateful that he didn’t need to breathe the scorching air because he wasn’t sure he could have. He could move stealthily past the many ants, and since they went after any Builder minions that encroached, he had time to stop and remove the spear impaling him. The corrosive lava spit of the ants was highly effective against the metal constructs, making them trouble for the minions. The only light came from the glowing magma lake, an orange-tinted gloom, like being inside a smouldering ember. Jason moved through undetected, his cloak was dimmed to void black as he used it to fly over the lake.
There was something inside the lake, submerged in lava. It was bigger than the ants, or perhaps their queen, if they had one. It was still only silver rank, although definitely in the upper range. Jason stayed high, near the ceiling, so as to not tempt fate.
Jason didn't extend his senses far but could feel the unhidden auras of the Builder minions as they rushed in the direction of the aperture. After coming through the aperture to the expected ambush, Jason had been forced to dash off and take stock, but the cultists waiting had chosen not to chase after him for long once he disappeared into the magma cavern. Instead, they gravitated to the place they knew he would need to go eventually. At some point, he would have to go back to the aperture.
Unfortunately for the Builder’s minions, Jason had inadvertent allies in the ants. Jason could easily hide from them as their aura senses were poor and Shade could deceive their insect vibrational sense. There was also the issue of the entire astral space being a lava tunnel maze. Jason's map ability was a boon, helping navigate a path and track the enemies along it. As he made his way back towards the aperture, he took every chance to bait the ants in the direction of cultists with pinpoint bursts of aura.
The cultists were right in thinking Jason would return to the aperture. His advantage was that he could scout it out instead of walking in blind, but time was against him. The Builder had been sending his cultists in the direction of the aperture since Jason’s arrival in the clearing. Fortunately, the constructs and semi-construct flesh abominations were more liability than asset.
Jason’s ability to hijack their clockwork cores made them worse than useless when fighting him, so they had been sent back. Jason spotted them engaging ants to clear a path for essence-using cultists more than once, but resisted the temptation to take some over. The cultists were connected to the Builder through their star seeds, which linked them in a similar fashion to Jason’s party interface. Once any of them found where he was, they all would, so every time he was spotted they would get closer to boxing him in. Jason did not want to give up the strategic advantages of speed and stealth, returning to the chamber containing the aperture within minutes of leaving it.
Five silver-rank essence users were waiting near the aperture. Jason had hoped for less but expected more, but lower-rankers with construct and converted to help them had been left to watch the sealed aperture. They had all been sent away at the Builder's warning after Jason's display outside. They knew that only silver-rank essence users posed any kind of threat, at least amongst the forces at hand.
The cavern in which the aperture was located was not large compared to the magma lake chamber. Light came from natural orange crystals growing out of every surface of the natural cavern. Walls, floor and ceiling, if the uneven chamber could truly be said to have the distinctions, all featured them. So did the stalagmites and stalactites. The uneven cave floor and pervasive shadows meant that anyone without enhanced agility, reflexes and perception would quickly break a leg. The only place the floor had been worked flat was directly under the aperture, where a sealing ritual had been set up. That was what Jason needed to undo to give the rest of the expedition access.
The terrain was ideal for Jason to skirmish through if it came to a fight, but with five silver-rank enemies, he would prefer it didn't come to that. It was not Greenstone and five-on-one odds were something he'd rather avoid, even if the environment was favourable and he could overwhelm their auras. If just one or two of them was at a guild level, their numerical advantage could easily spell death.
Following his defeat at the hands of the Purity priests, Jason has made additional purchases while restocking his equipment. At the top of that list was a set of the most powerful cleansing potions his body could handle, having learned his lesson about being too reliant on his resistances.
Another purchase was something he made after considering the fights in his future. Most of Jason’s battles had been against monsters and he needed new strategies that prepared him to face essence users. This was especially true when he was outnumbered, which seemed to be most of the time.
After considering his options and advantages, Jason had devised a tactic using one of his strongest tools and a set of items he had picked up quite a lot of over the years. He only had a few that were as strong as he needed, but a few was enough. Because the items were on the Adventure Society’s controlled list, Jason’s one-star rank did not allow him to buy more.
Familiars were unable to join Jason’s party chat, but Jason and Shade could still converse safely. Shade could hide Jason from various senses, including masking his sound, but that sound was not masked from Shade himself.
“Time to try the new strategy,” Jason told his familiar. “Get into position.”
Five Shade bodies slipped away, moving through the dark to hide in the shadows of the five essence users. Once they were in place, Jason’s aura dropped on the cultists like a bomb. Without the Builder actively boosting them, which would just make more pointless vessels, Jason’s aura suppression was especially effective.
In the same moment that Jason suppressed their auras, a Shade body rose from each of their shadows, pulling silver-rank suppression collars from within Shade's storage space. Only with suppressed auras would the suppression collars be able to take effect, which was why they weren’t often used in combat. Only with the rank or numerical disparity for powerful aura suppression was it a viable method for shutting down the powers of opponents. Unfortunately for the cultists, their master was the primary factor in Jason turning into a one-man force multiplier.
Shade acted quickly and four collars snapped around four necks. Only one of the essence users reacted quickly enough to prevent the sneak attack, sending out a wave of force that knocked back Shade’s body, even though it was intangible, along with the man’s collared fellows. That left one cultist facing off against Jason. The others weren’t helpless, but locked out of their powers, their impact would be limited. It was, ostensibly, a fair fight.
Jeni hesitated in her mind with what she sensed waiting in the clearing but didn’t slow as she led the expedition group onward. They reached the clearing and surveyed what was on display, which was bizarre on every front. The Builder’s forces were fighting one another, constructs and flesh abominations in a wildly destructive melee where they attacked not just each other but even themselves at times.
The other scene in the clearing was very different in its stillness, yet no less strange. One of Asano's shadow familiars was facing a plumb-straight line of Builder cultists who were visibly in the process of dying as their bodies broke down around them. Even so, the cultists didn't react to their own conditions, standing like troops at inspection.
Every member of the expedition sensed the power inside the cultists and how dangerous it was. Every member of the expedition had seen gods appear in worship squares and religious ceremonies and knew the feel of divinity. This was similar, but like a mannequin that was both a little too human and not quite human enough, there was a disturbing, uncanny valley aspect to that power that put them all on alert.
The bodies of the essence users were drying out and crumbling away. Cracked and desiccated like the mud of a long-dry riverbed, it was falling off in flakes, dust and bloodless clumps. The bronze-rank cultists were nearing the end of their endurance even as the expedition arrived, one of them collapsing to the ground. None of the others showed any reaction, turning their attention to the newcomers with eerily uniform precision.
“Adventurers of Rimaros,” the vessels addressed them in impassive harmony. “I am the Builder and I have a proposal for you.”