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The lumbering figure was only passingly humanoid, its massive body embedded with coral that jutted from its flesh like spiked armour. It was still some way offshore, yet the sea only reached up to the giant's thighs. What was above the surface was already a match in height for a five-storey building.

“Asano,” Pelli said through voice chat. “I’m sensing a gold-rank monster near your location.”

“Yep,” Jason said. “I’m just looking it up.”

He was already painted in monster blood, some of which had smeared from his hand onto the magical marble tablet he was holding. It was a copy of the Magic Society’s monster almanac in which Jason was looking up the monster wading out of the sea.

“Reef giant,” he read from the tablet. “Matches the description.”

“They’re a common monster in this region,” Pelli told him. “Common for gold-rank, anyway. They’re slow, but they’re incredibly tough, which is a bad match for my abilities.”

“It’s fine,” Jason said. “That’s my specialty.”

“Jason, don’t fight a gold-rank monster alone. I’ll be there as soon as I clear the flock attacking this town.”

“Don’t worry,” he told her. “I’ve got something to boost me.”

"If you insist on fighting it, beware of its coral-tipped whips," she warned him. “They're much faster than the monster itself."

“So I’m reading.”

The beach was littered with monster corpses; freakish abominations combining elements of grasshoppers, cicadas and lobsters called lobhoppers. Jason put away the monster almanac and cast an eye over the dead creatures.

“Shade, who is naming these monsters?”

“I believe it falls to the person who first encounters them.”

“I bet it was the same person who named the shab. It’s just lazy; the guy should be ashamed of himself.”

Dozens of the silver-rank monsters had launched themselves out of the sea, yet never made it off the beach. The massive swarm of Gordon’s affliction-spreading butterflies was still hovering over the beach, almost thick enough to block out the sun. Shade’s bodies were flitting across the beach, touching each monster corpse in readiness for looting.

Both Jason and Gordon could direct the butterflies, although the control was haphazard at best. By and large, the conjured entities sought out anything Jason deemed an enemy and attempted to afflict it. They swept out over the water as Jason held his hands out to his sides while chanting a spell.

As your lives were mine to reap, so your deaths are mine to harvest.

The remnant life force lingering within the monsters poured into Jason, streams of glowing red energy moving through the air to be absorbed into his body.


  • You have gained multiple instances of [Blood Frenzy].
  • [Blood Frenzy] has increased your [Speed] and [Recovery] attributes.
  • Your [Speed] and [Recovery] attributes have reached the maximum threshold for your current limitations. Additional instances will be converted to [Blood of the Immortal].
  • You have gained multiple instances of [Blood of the Immortal].

Jason’s life force was already bolstered by the healing effects he had accumulated during the fight with the lobhoppers, his health extending far beyond his normal maximum and into video game hit point territory. Now with his attributes boosted, he was ready to face the relatively slow reef giant.

The butterflies went out to meet the monster as it waded into shore. The giant was one of the largest monsters Jason had ever faced, but there was an odd reversal between them. The gold-rank monster’s speed would have been mediocre for silver-rank, while Jason’s was boosted to a level bordering on gold. That did not mean that it was helpless, however, as Pelli has warned him. He saw why as the butterfly swarm drew close to the giant.

The monster’s body was embedded with fragments of sharp coral, half-buried in its flesh. As the butterflies drew near, the shards of coral shot out, revealing themselves as the razor-sharp ends to dozen whips made from what looked like thin strips of kelp. The whips flailed in a wild blur, somehow avoiding becoming entangled with one another while thrashing through the butterflies.

The butterflies exploded as they were destroyed, which triggered small chain reactions given how many of the butterflies there were, all swarming on the one enemy. It was not such a problem when they were spread out over many enemies, which was their primary purpose, but clumped around a single foe, their explosive nature became a liability.

Jason was unconcerned that only a few of the butterflies made it through the flailing barrier of whipping kelp tipped with coral spearheads. Even one was enough to get the affliction ball rolling, after which it was just a matter of time. Jason could have even backed off and waited for the afflictions to escalate, but he didn’t. He wasn’t walking away from a chance to push himself and grow stronger.

As the monster waded into shore, Jason stood waiting, his new sword in hand. The sigils set into the black blade had the red glow of life force, containing the power that would normally belong to Jason’s conjured dagger. His fingers tightened and loosened around the grip, the only sign of his nervousness as the gold rank monster closed in on the shore.

The giant emerged from the water and the fight began. Despite having read the monster’s Magic Society listing, Jason was still surprised. He had known the monster was gold rank, but given his abilities and the monster’s deficits, he had been anticipating a convincingly one-sided win. Instead, the many warnings he had been given about underestimating gold-rank monsters were borne out.

The lumbering monster, for all its physical power and resilience, was little more than a slow-moving weapons platform. The true threat was the coral-tipped whips anchored all over its body, even to its face. They formed a shifting razor wall that was extremely intimidating to approach.

Jason quickly discovered that staying out of the whips’ range was no guarantee of safety. More coral pushed its way out of the giant’s skin and was fired off; larger, spiked fragments, not tethered to the giant like the whips were. Jason’s cloak was very good at intercepting small projectiles, but these were only small relative to the giant. To Jason, they were more like spears, one of which struck him heavily in the side. It tore through his conjured cloak and robes but glanced off his flesh, leaving only a scratch that healed in moments.

The seemingly insignificant blow had soaked up a huge portion of Jason’s accumulated life force. A few more hits like that would take him from shrugging off attacks to his being pinned to the ground like the least pretty butterfly in the collection. Fortunately, his amulet’s magic was already at work. Every affliction that built up on the giant also placed a shield on Jason that healed him as it was broken, adding to his accumulated life force.

The amulet’s effects were only enough to take the edge off attacks, rather than entirely protect him. This was especially true against a gold-rank monster, but it gave him a valuable margin of safety, so long as he didn’t over-rely on it. He admonished himself as he became more conscientiously evasive, using Shade’s bodies to shadow-jump around.

While Jason had underestimated the monster, despite telling himself that he wouldn’t, he did have surprises of his own ready. When the giant was in the middle of the field of dead monsters littering the beach, Jason looted them all and they dissolved into rainbow smoke. Jason had not grown used to the foul stench, despite his years of adventuring, but could at least endure it as it disoriented the monster, giving Jason his first chance to move in and land hits.

The distraction was only momentary, but Jason’s combat style lived in those moments and he earned one opportunity and then another to attack. The giant swiftly recovered from the stench and Jason tossed a throwing dart marked with a green cord. It was intercepted by a whip and exploded into conjured vines that entangled the whips. They swiftly sliced their way free, but not before Jason once more moved in, landed hits and escaped.

Jason made his moves and took his chances. For all that the whips and the coral spears were a threat, the advantages that had prompted Jason to take the fight were real. He was able to choose his range and had the freedom to retreat as needed, allowing him to use his preferred hit-and-run strategy.

Even so, he took plenty of hits, although that was always accounted for in Jason's strategies. His potent drain attacks and spells, plus the regeneration he built up, fed Jason a constant stream of excess life force, even as the whips and spears Gordon didn’t block whittled it down. This was normal for Jason, who used the strategy as the key to surviving his skirmishing combat style. He needed to repeatedly conjure fresh combat robes as the old ones were shredded.

Jason’s familiars also played their parts. Shade and Gordon were largely safe from the monster’s attacks due to their incorporeal nature, although neither had abilities that could substantially harm the immense vitality of the giant. What Gordon excelled at was using his orbs to either shield Jason from coral spears or shoot them out of the air with pinpoint accuracy. His resonating-force beams were well-suited to breaking down the rigid structure of the spears before they could reach Jason.

Shade was Jason’s primary shadow-jump platform on the flat, open beach, while Colin was useful in multiple ways. His humanoid form sent straps of blood-slick leather to entangle the coral whips. The whips quickly pulled free but each interruption gave Jason another chance to move in with his sword. Leeches also formed from the bloody leather straps, crawling into the giant’s body and digging in with rings of tiny teeth. Coral spikes jabbed through the monster’s skin to impale many of them, but there were plenty more. Even the ones that were skewered left yet more afflictions in their wake.

Jason did not accumulate mana with the same alacrity as life force, but his generally efficient powers and the mana regeneration he did have allowed his levels to climb above his normal maximums. Once the afflictions on the gold-rank monster had built up, it was worth looking to spend that mana.

Suffer the cost of your transgressions.


Ability: [Punition] (Doom)

  • Spell (recovery, cleanse, holy).
  • Cost: Moderate mana.
  • Cooldown: 30 seconds.
  • Current rank: Silver 4 (09%).
  • Effect (iron): Inflicts necrotic damage for each curse, disease, poison and unholy affliction the target is suffering.
  • Effect (bronze): Inflicts or refreshes the duration of [Penitence].
  • Effect (silver): Damage per affliction can be increased by increasing the mana cost to high, very high, or extreme. This reduces the cooldown to 20 seconds, 10 seconds or none. Consecutive, extreme-cost uses have a shorter incantation.

 

  • [Penitence] (affliction, holy): Gain an instance of [Penance] for each curse, disease, poison or unholy effect that is cleansed from you. This is a holy effect.
  • [Penance] (affliction, holy, damage-over-time, stacking): Deals ongoing transcendent damage. Additional instances have a cumulative effect, dropping off as damage is dealt.

Even for a gold-rank monster, the giant’s vitality was enormous. Jason had never been able to unload as many afflictions as had accumulated on it without killing the victim before, yet the giant remained relatively unharmed. While its flesh was marked with patches of dark necrosis, it was still going strong as it shambled around the beach, trying to catch Jason within the zone of its whips.

Jason’s Punition spell was stronger for every affliction on the target. With what had built up on the giant, one casting would have killed almost anything else he’d ever fought, but the giant kept coming. Normally the mana cost was moderate, but Jason bumped it three stages through high and very high, all the way to extreme. This reduced the incantation of future casting while reducing the cooldown to nothing.

Suffer.

More damage.

Suffer.

More damage.

Suffer.

More damage, but the giant kept coming even as Jason kept casting. By the time Jason’s mana was all but depleted, its skin was blackened and rotting, the colourful coral whip heads becoming bleached and pale. In spite of this, the monster was still going strong. Jason’s powers might breach the resistances of gold-rank enemies, but the level of damage they inflicted was still at silver. Gold-rank monsters took a lot of killing.

For the majority of his adventuring life, Jason had rarely gotten the chance to fully explore the impact of his abilities on monsters. While he killed slower than most adventurers, most things still died before his abilities could move through their full sequence. Given the opportunity, Jason’s powers told an almost religious story, beginning with the cost of sin and ending with the price of absolution.

“I think Clive was right," he muttered. "The abilities we get are based on our personality. Even my power set's a chuuni."

He raised his free hand towards the monster as cast a spell.

Feed me your sins.


Ability: [Feast of Absolution] (Sin)

  • Spell (recovery, cleanse, holy).
  • Base cost: Low mana.
  • Cooldown: None.
  • Current rank: Silver 4 (08%).
  • Effect (iron): Cleanse all curses, diseases, poisons and unholy afflictions from a single target. Additionally, cleanse all holy afflictions if the target is an ally. Recover stamina and mana for each affliction cleansed. This ability ignores any effect that prevents cleansing. Cannot target self.
  • Effect (bronze): Enemies suffer an instance each of [Penance] and [Legacy of Sin] for each condition cleansed from them.
  • Effect (silver): Increase cost to moderate to affect all afflicted enemies and allies in a wide area.

 

  • [Penance] (affliction, holy, damage-over-time, stacking): Deals ongoing transcendent damage. Additional instances have a cumulative effect, dropping off as damage is dealt.
  • [Legacy of Sin] (affliction, holy, stacking): You are considered more damaged for the purposes of execute ability damage scaling. Additional instances have a cumulative effect.

As the giant lit up from the inside with transcendent light, Jason’s depleted mana was more than filled. With so many afflictions converted into mana, he was so bursting with it that he’d have trouble using stealth because the mana leaking out of him would be so easy to sense. Further, for each affliction, he gained an instance of Integrity that continually fed him health and mana. With so many being stacked on him, Jason was now gaining life force faster than he could lose it, even standing in range of the whips.

“Let’s see if we can change that,” he said, eyes locked on the giant as the sigils set into his black blade turned from red to blue.

“Mr Asano, you’re talking to yourself again.”

“Do you mind?”

“I just worry you might be getting ready to take a dramatic fighting pose.”

“I am not going to take a fighting pose.”

“You’re not imagining yourself on the poster of an action movie, then.”

“Absolutely not.”

“Or a limited-series premium television show with a fight choreographer from Hong Kong?”

“Can you please stop? I’m trying to fight evil here.”

"With your powers of blood and plague and your black sword?"

Gordon was floating between Jason and the giant, shooting down spears or deflecting them with shields. Jason spotted his orbs strobing, which was the dimensional being’s equivalent of laughter.

“You’re all mean,” Jason said. “All I wanted to do was look a little bit cool and you’ve ruined it. At least Colin gets me.”

Colin, who looked like a blood clone of Jason, struck a fighting pose.

“Oh, that’s not helping,” Jason lamented. “You look like a power ranger.”

A coral spear passed through Colin’s head and he toppled over, the top third of his body breaking into a pile of leeches.

“Oops,” Jason said. “I probably shouldn’t get distracted.”

Jason dashed toward the giant, dark red leather straps shooting out from his conjured robes to entangle the whips. They only held for a moment but Jason's speed still bordered on that of a gold-ranker as he dashed in. He landed a few quick blows with his sword before getting out, but even this was not fast enough to completely escape whips as fast as the giant was slow. The freed whips gouged Jason’s flesh, eating away at his accumulated life force more than previously, courtesy of Jason himself. The afflictions his sword had just left behind impacted both the monster and himself in an escalation tactic pairing risk and reward.


  • [Price in Blood] (affliction, holy, blood, stacking): Damage between people who share the affliction is increased, including damage sources in place prior to this affliction taking effect. Damage from holy sources is further increased. Additional instances have a cumulative effect.

Jason didn't let up, continuing his hit-and-run sword strikes to escalate the damage to both himself and the giant. Once it reached a point where even his absurd life force gain was no longer enough, he moved the fight into its final phase.

Mine is the judgement and the judgement is death.


Ability: [Verdict] (Doom)

  • Spell (execute).
  • Cost: Moderate mana.
  • Cooldown: 30 seconds.
  • Current rank: Silver 4 (06%)
  • Effect (iron): Deals a small amount of transcendent damage. As an execute effect, damage scales exponentially with the enemy’s level of injury.
  • Effect (bronze): Damage scaling is increased by instances of [Penance] on the target.
  • Effect (silver): Inflicts or refreshes [Sanction] on the target.

 

  • [Sanction] (affliction, holy): Healing, recovery and regeneration effects have diminished potency. Base strength of this effect is very minor but scales exponentially with the enemy’s level of injury. Scaling is affected by [Legacy of Sin] in the same way execute damage is. Cannot be cleansed while any instances of [Penance] are present.

Even Jason’s most potent ability didn’t finish the giant, although the monster finally showed its suffering. Large portions of its body burned away in trails of rainbow smoke as it staggered and stumbled. Its combat effectiveness dropped as the whips slowed, many of them burning away in transcendent light. Jason no longer kept moving in to attack, instead, waiting for his execute power to come off cooldown to finish the job. Even then, it took three more castings of the finisher before the creature’s gold-rank resilience could finally take no more.

In the aftermath of another battle that left him painted in blood, Jason reflected on the power of the gold rank monster. He had every advantage he could muster, from a very favourable power match-up to a pack of monsters he could feed on and buff himself with as a lead-in. Even with all of that, the battle had been an incredible slog. If any of his advantages had been absent, or if unforeseen factors had intervened, the fight could have turned deadly for Jason very quickly. If years of this was what it took to reach gold rank, he had a new appreciation for anyone who managed to accomplish the feat. As for diamond rank, it felt further away now than in Greenstone where it was almost a mythical realm.

***

While Jason was fighting a giant on Arnote, the war with the Builder had already begun. Airships swarmed over the Builder’s submarine city in the Storm Kingdom’s northern waters that had surfaced to disgorge airships of its own. Close by, on the rocky desert coast, a vast plume of dust was being thrown up by the approaching land city.

On a rocky coastal outcropping, Dawn stood alone, looking at the dust storm. She knew what the builder wanted from this attack. It wanted her to use up her single chance to intervene while also showing its power to cow the nations of the world. She would allow the Builder its first objective since this was not her world to fight for.

It was not what she would have chosen as First Sister of the World-Phoenix, but that was not her role anymore. The World-Phoenix wanted her to find her mortal sensibilities, and those sensibilities let Jason make the choice for her. It might not be the most strategic move, but perhaps it would be. A victory at this stage would bolster the morale of a world under siege.

That would help stymie the Builder’s second goal, of intimidating the world's nations. It was as far as she would go on that since the true fight belonged to those for whom the world was theirs to fight for. She would act this one time, then success or failure would be for them to seize.

She raised a hand to the sky.

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A note from Shirtaloon (Travis Deverell)

The chapters that will eventually become book seven end with chapter 526, after which there will be a two week break before the book eight chapters begin. 526 will be release on the 27th or 28th of September (a Monday or Tuesday), depending on local timezone, while chapter 527 will be released on the 12th or 13th of October, a Tuesday or Wednesday.


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Shirtaloon (Travis Deverell)

  • Australia

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