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“Here’s the situation,” Koen said through voice chat. “The ADEs are river hydras. Big ones. Lots of regeneration, lots of poison, lots of heads. We’ve got two that are ideally placed. Far enough apart that we can take them on separately but close enough that we can take out one and intercept the other before it gets near the camp. The other one is more of a problem. It lies on the other side of the camp and seems to be moving in that direction.”

“What’s the approach?” one of the silver-ranked section leaders asked.

“We’re going to need both platoons to hammer our way through all that regeneration, even with fire powers to slow it down,” Koen said. “All sections will meet up at the designated rendezvous point. The camp will need to fend for itself against whatever else comes its way and I’ve already issued orders for the camp to withdraw from the incursion space.”

“What about the other ADE?” Nigel asked.

“We have two options on that,” Koen said. “Option one is we carve off some of our forces to stall it, buying time for the camp to fully extract. I do not like this option, since it diminishes our strength and distances the second group from the healers. Both of those factors will increase the chance of casualties, given that these things spew clouds of category three poison gas. I don’t want to lose anyone today”

“What’s option two?” Another of the section leaders asked.

There was a pause, as if Koen was reluctant to say.

“It’s probably a worse choice,” Koen said finally. “Asano, how strong are you? No flexing, no bullcrap. Honest assessment. How good are you really?”

“You’ve got to be kidding,” Nigel said.

“Asano,” Koen said, “you took on a category three essence user alone.”

“He lost,” Nigel said.

“Do you think you’re strong enough to stall out the other ADE?” Koen asked.

“Koen,” Nigel said, “you can’t be serious.”

“By which you mean Director of Tactical Operations Koen, right Nigel?” Koen asked. “We may not be in the military anymore but there is a chain of command that I will use to beat the English out of you if you interrupt me one more time. Mr Asano, can you do it or not?”

“Director Koen,” Nigel said, his anger held back behind clipped, disciplined speech. “Sir. Mr Culpeper directly and personally ordered me to keep Asano safe and you want to send him into danger.”

“I have complete operational authority for a reason, Section Leader Thornton, because sometimes the man on the ground has to make the call. My current options are to balance casualties in our own forces against casualties in the withdrawing camp against one man that isn’t one of mine.”

“Does the man in question get a say?” Jason asked, having let the two men argue amongst themselves.

“Go ahead, Mr Asano, although let me be clear that Nigel isn’t wrong. I am looking to put you at risk in order to keep my own people safe.”

“I appreciate the candour,” Jason said. “I came here to see what the Network is capable of and I am impressed. I’ve also seen the weaknesses, though. I know how to help you and now is the time to show you what that means.”

“I don’t want you getting yourself killed in an attempt to raise your value in our eyes,” Koen said. “Unless you’re genuinely confident of surviving, I don’t want you anywhere near that thing.”

“This is the point I’m trying to make,” Jason said. “You need to see that we view these circumstances very differently. This situation might seem exceptional to you, with all these category three monsters running about, but I have a word for days like today.”

“And what’s that?” Koen asked.

“Tuesday.”

***

Against Nigel’s protests, Koen sent Jason after the third hydra. At Koen’s insistence, Jason went to the rapidly evacuating camp on the way, to pick up an observer. She was a scout from one of the harvest teams and apparently excelled at stealth.

Kylie Chen was bronze rank. While she did have abilities and training that could be turned to combat, she was not a primary combatant. Her skills and abilities were best suited to quietly scouting out potential opportunities for the harvest teams. Her kit included strong perceptual abilities that allowed her to find plants, minerals and other materials with magical properties.

She had a dark essence, like Jason, and could hide herself even from silver rank monsters. Although he had been reluctant to bring her along, Jason was less grudging after his own senses couldn’t pick her up until she was almost close enough to touch. The silver-rank assassin from France had not accomplished better.

“Are you sure you want to do this?” Jason asked her. Around them was a storm of activity as the support teams were evacuating the camp back through the aperture.

“I might not be much help in a fight,” Kylie said, “but I’m confident in not being caught.”

“Alright,” Jason said. “Let’s go.”

They left the camp on foot, Jason getting out of sight before having Shade emerge. He didn’t want the commotion of his familiar taking a monstrous form and disrupting the evacuation. Darkness exploded out of Jason’s shadow, coalescing into a pair of mantis beetles. It was a form Jason was experienced at riding from his time in another astral space jungle.

“I hope we mix up the environment next time,” Jason muttered to himself as he used his cloak to lightly jump into the saddle. He was surprised at the lack of trepidation from Kylie as she curiously climbed onto the dark carapace of the other beetle and settled herself.

The beetles scurried into jungle too thick for more conventional vehicles, moving swiftly through difficult overgrowth. Sweeping blade-arms opened up otherwise inaccessible pathways. Gordon floated next to Jason, keeping up with the swift beetle by transforming into his nebula state to make rapid dashes. He used his force beams to dispatch any low-rank monsters fast enough to keep up with the beetles or dashed right through them to the same effect.

Twice along the way they stopped for Jason to deal with bronze-rank monsters. One was a mud elemental that fell to Jason’s sword, while the other was a pack of simian-shaped lizards. They were loaded up with afflictions and quickly handled.

“It’s up ahead,” Kylie announced, showing off the perceptual powers of a scout. Soon after they heard the sound of something large and heavy forcing its way through the jungle. Kylie pulled out a hand camera from a small belt bag.

“Stay well clear and keep hidden,” Jason said. “I don’t want to be running off to rescue you when you catch a dose of poison breath, no matter how heroic it would make me look. Well, maybe if you can set me up with good backlighting.”

“You seem very relaxed for someone about to fight what sounds suspiciously like a kaiju,” Kylie said.

“I’m a man’s man,” Jason said. “The only thing I fear is a frank discussion about my feelings.”

Jason warned Kylie to get ready and dropped lightly to the ground as the beetles turned into clouds of darkness that returned to Jason’s shadow. Kylie stumbled, but was prepared for the drop and managed to remain upright.

“Don’t put yourself in danger trying to get good footage,” Jason warned, the jokiness now absent from his voice. Without waiting for a reply, he started walking into the jungle.

***

Kylie wasn’t getting great footage. She had some impressive shots of reptilian heads larger than she was snaking through the jungle, but little else. Between the dense jungle and the obscuring clouds of poison gas, visibility was poor.

Knowing she would need another approach, she reached into a small bag at her belt and took out a headband stitched with magical symbols and slipped it on. A cable dangled from the headband and she plugged it into the camera, which she returned to the belt bag. The camera was now recording her perceptions directly.

Her senses were much more capable of seeing what was happening than the camera itself. The racial gift she obtained when awakening her Vision confluence essence gave her the unusual capability of awakening a perception power from each essence, where other essence users only had the one. There was a lot of overlap, with so many powers enhancing her magical and aura senses, but the effects grew with each one to be far more powerful than her rank suggested.

This allowed her to gain a real sense of just how powerful Asano’s aura was. Auras had a quality to them that was separate from their strength, that clearly indicated an essence user’s rank. Asano’s aura bore the unmistakable feel of category two, while easily reaching category three in strength.

All auras with a power, she had discovered, had a flavour to them that reflected their magical effects. Asano’s was no exception. His aura had an overwhelming feel of domineering judgement, as if Asano himself was the arbiter of objective right and wrong. It was the most arrogant aura she had ever encountered and she felt it react to her senses, which flinched from it like fingers from a hot stove.

Kylie’s superior senses had helped her to hone the control of her own aura, which was a key part of her formidable stealth abilities. Compared to Asano she was a second-rater and he was the first person whose emotions she was completely unable to read. Even category three agents allowed her to snatch glimpses of what was happening behind their eyes, but Asano’s aura felt like a solid wall around something mysterious, dark and dangerous.

Like most of the Network members in the incursion space, she had no idea who this strange essence user was that the higher-ups seemed to consider so important. He wandered around like he was in charge, with his strange robes and eerie cloak. Rumour was that he was from another branch that Sydney either had or was trying to recruit. She hadn’t really cared until she encountered his bizarre aura and sensed the incredible magic of the equipment he wore.

The items weren’t just powerful but incredibly well refined. It made it hard for anyone with lesser senses to even realise how potent the magic on them was. The man was a walking treasure trove and she wasn’t sure that anyone but her realised.

She returned her concentration to the fight, which she was tracking through her senses, eyes closed. She could sense the bulk of the dimensional entity’s main body and its necks that were incredibly long and flexible. The seven heads crashed through the jungle trying to chase down Asano, who repeatedly vanished from one spot to appear in another. As for the hydra’s poison breath, Asano was not just ignoring it but absorbing it, and transforming it into some kind of health and mana recovery effect.

Asano was lashing out at the creature repeatedly with a weapon in each hand. One was a dagger and the other was a strange whip that, ironically, took the form of a hydra. Both weapons easily landed against the monster’s bulk. She could also sense some kind of swarm creature crawling all over the hydra. She sensed echoes of Asano’s aura from it, meaning it was likely a familiar and not just a summon.

Summons and familiars were both rare. Very few people had the knowledge to perform the rituals involved, which seemed to influence which essence users could awaken such powers. Asano, strangely, had three; the swarm, the shadow that could turn into beetle mounts and the nebula monster than guarded them on their journey through the jungle. It was another reason to be curious about the odd man.

Asano’s weapons seemed to have little effect on the hydra, although they certainly agitated it, sending it thrashing through the jungle in pursuit of Asano. He dodged the creature well but there were seven heads snaking through the trees in pursuit. He took a few hits as he dodged a toothy mouth but a giant head crashed into him sending him flying like he’d been hit by a truck. He seemed to have some kind of shield that, with each hit, transformed into a healing effect.

After one such hit, one of the heads clamped down on his leg, huge teeth sinking into it and it lifted Asano up through the canopy and into the air. Asano’s nebula familiar launched all four of the orbs floating around it at the creature, which collided in pairs to trigger two explosions with potent magical force. The hydra dropped Asano, who did not fall but slowly drifted. She could sense that it was the magic of his cloak holding him aloft as he chanted a spell.

She felt the life force drained out of the hydra. It flowed out of the monster and into Asano, completely restoring his leg. He then dropped out of the air and back through the canopy.

***

The hydra’s body was lumbering and Jason easily sprayed Colin all over it. The heads, by contrast, were as quick as the body was slow, with Jason taking multiple hits in the course of locking in his afflictions. The creature was powerful enough that even with the shields his amulet was creating with each affliction, the monster punched through those shields in short order.

The hit that breached the armour left him dizzy and the monster clamped onto his leg, rearing its head to haul him up and over the treetops. If not for Gordon’s orb explosions freeing him, the leg would have been torn right off.

Jason’s Feast of Blood power didn’t actually drain blood but life force to heal him and, as of bronze-rank, grew stronger for each instance of poison on the target. Since both Colin and Jason himself had left the hydra riddled with poison, one casting was enough to completely heal him.

Things became easier over time as another of Jason’s bronze-rank powers came into play. Rigor Mortis was an unholy affliction left behind when Jason made attacks using the shadow arms of his Hand of the Reaper ability. Rigor Mortis inflicted a stacking penalty to the speed and recovery attributes. It was only a small penalty, but as the afflictions built up, the hydra became easier to dodge and slower to chew through the afflictions already impeding its regeneration.

***

Gradually, Kylie came to sense that something was profoundly wrong with the hydra. It was slowing down and becoming sluggish, giving Asano an easier time of avoiding it. Further, there was some kind of malediction taking over its body with increasing speed. It wasn’t recovering the way it should and the magic afflicting it kept growing and growing.

What was, at first, a small collection of minor effects had escalated into a magical force that rivalled anything she had ever sensed. It was a cancer, chewing at the hydra from the inside like a carnivorous tumour. Then Asano cast a spell that she felt resonate with the afflictions. Each one enhanced the spell’s power only a little, but there were so many that the spell ravaged the hydra to the point that she was amazed it clung to life.

At this point, the fight was effectively over. The hydra struggled to move it’s sluggish heads in pursuit of Asano, but could barely move. She was expecting Asano to back off, but he was not done. To her shock, he cast a spell that drained all the horrifying afflictions from the hydra.

Startlingly, Asano devoured all that terrible power, feeding on the misery and suffering of what had once been an enemy, but could now only be described as a victim. Even so, he was still not done. In the wake of the darkness drained from the hydra, Asano had left something in its place. A power, bright and terrible, appeared inside the hydra. It was unlike anything she had ever sensed, a force that felt like it could burn a hole in the universe.

A calm had come over the jungle as the hydra lay prostrate and unmoving. Her incredible hearing heard Asano’s voice in the eerie stillness, alien to his warm, joking tone from earlier. It was as cold, dark and merciless as the bottom of the ocean.

“Mine is the judgement, and the judgement is death.”

She felt something rupture the very dimensional fabric of the incursion space, right above the hydra. Power, like that now inside the hydra but far stronger, came from the dimensional rent, smashing into the hydra like the fist of god, sending a blinding glow shining up through the jungle canopy.

***

When Jason returned to Kylie, he found her huddled against a tree, wide-eyed and shaking with fear.

“It’s fine,” he told her. “The monster’s gone.”

He moved forward to help her to her feet but she scuttled away from him like an insect.

“Oh,” he said, realisation dawning. “It’s not the monster you’re afraid of.”

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Shirtaloon (Travis Deverell)

  • Australia

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