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As Jason drained the life force from the dead monsters around him, the drone came down to hover in front of him.

“Jason,” Farrah’s voice came through it. “I can direct you back to the defence line.”

“Shade has brought me up to speed,” Jason said. “A lot of civilians were abandoned on this side of the line and a lot of them are still here, in hiding. Only the intelligent dinosaur-people have aura senses worth a damn, so there are a lot of survivors.”

“You need to come in for a debrief,” another voice said.

“Here’s my debrief. The gold-ranker is dead and there aren’t any more. There’s a lot of scared people here, so I’m going to go get them. If you feel like helping at all, let me know and I’ll be happy to coordinate with.”

“Bugger it, I’m in,” Farrah said.

“Farrah,” Asya’s voice came through. “I think you might be going a little native. How are you, Jason?”

“There are people who need me in action more than I need rest.”

“Akari will be in too," Farrah said. "Can you send some Shades our way?”

“He’s sending bodies as the buses finish their current runs elsewhere. I’ll have him divert some to you.”

***

Asya’s expression was dark as she left the drone operator’s tent.

“He is not alright, whatever he might say.”

“Of course he’s not,” Farrah agreed. “I bet that on the inside he’s tangled up like a sack of loose yarn you found at the back of your grandmother’s cupboard.”

“He needs to stop and rest,” Asya said.

“That’s the thinking of someone who wants what’s best for him,” Farrah said. “We need to think about what’s best for all the people in the restricted zone.”

“We don’t know what he’s been through, Farrah. Whatever happened in there with him and that category four monster, it turned him into a bird. That’s not how his flying power works.”

Farrah had a very good idea why Jason turned into a bird but she was the only one Jason had told the true nature of his ability to so she kept it to herself.

“He didn’t come in because he knows that when he stops, he’s staying stopped for a while,” Farrah said. “He needs to keep holding down the lid before it boils over.”

“Quite so,” Shade said, appearing next to them. “Mr Asano is quite strained but I have been with him long enough to know that he will not let himself rest until the job is done.”

“Clearing this city of monsters will take days, at best,” Asya said.

“Best not dally, then,” Shade said. “I have already acquired Miss Akari.”

Asya grimaced but gave a nod.

“They won’t resume evacuation until sweeper teams start clearing out the restricted zone,” she said. “I’ll see if I can divert some resources to help in the meantime. I can probably get the Americans with their drones to look for survivor clusters.”

“Now you’re talking,” Farrah said. “Shade, let’s go.”

***

While the Network held off on more evacuations, just as Asya said, they didn’t waste time forming teams to clear out the restricted zone in preparation for doing so. That left Jason, Akari, Farrah and five buses marauding around, collecting survivors. The strike teams coordinated with them whenever they came across civilian clusters, While Jason’s mini-team directed strike teams toward monster herds.

Farrah rested on one of the buses more than fought, keeping herself fresh for when they needed maximum killing at maximum speed. Akari rested when she could, her endurance giving her a solid uptime. Jason never stopped at all and barely remained within the vicinity of the buses. He stayed in contact through his party interface while serving as scout and pathfinder.

Jason, Farrah and Akari fought only as necessary, but necessary turned out to be a lot. Active monster-slaying they left to the Network, yet they racked up no shortage of kills since the monsters were also going after the survivors. Fortunately, Jason had a new weapon against swarms of monsters.


New Title: [Giant Slayer]

  • Overcoming a much stronger enemy has left a permanent mark on you that can be sensed by others. This may trigger a fear reaction from the unintelligent and the weak-willed if your aura is significantly stronger than theirs. Your actual rank being lower than theirs does not diminish the effect.

Jason was aura-blasting herds of unintelligent dinosaurs into leaving an area, giving them the breathing room to get survivors out of whatever hole they were hiding in and onto a bus. If there was an intelligent dino-monster controlling them it didn’t work, but that let Jason know that there was prey to hunt.

On the day after the gold-rank monster fell, enough strike teams made up of Network silver-rankers were combing the restricted areas that other evacuation measures were authorised. The Cabal had participated in monster clearing but not civilian evacuation, as they often seemed like monsters themselves. Some complained that they seemed less like monsters than Jason Asano but exceptions were not made.

Even before the official resumption of evacuation in the restricted zones, a handful of others had joined Jason in bucking the Network’s direction and running evacuations early. These were mostly silver-rank teams with at least one vehicle power.

Farrah went off for sleep on the second day, rejoining after half a day of rest. Akari did the same on day three. Jason not only didn’t rest but barely even paused, replenishing himself on enemies and continuing to push forward. By the fifth day, even Farrah started looking at Jason with concern.

"Most of the survivors have been collected," she told him as he dropped off a busload of evacuees. "Most of the monsters are gone."

“Guarantee me that if I stop, no one will die that would have lived if I hadn’t,” he said.

“You know I can’t do that.”

“Then you know I can’t stop.”

He offered no further explanation and stepped back onto the bus. Farrah and Akari shared a concerned look as they followed.

They had all seen piles of dead in the previous days that dwarfed Broken Hill, with none of them coming out mentally unscathed. Jason barely spoke and as survivors became more scarce he increasingly threw himself into eradicating every monster they encountered. Giant dinosaurs were wiped from existence with cold, brutal efficiency. Jason’s intensity was starting to scare the survivors they found.

The network forces had previously mapped out zones in the city and as the work progressed they started declaring them monster free. Holding teams were emplaced to make sure they stayed that way. A team of local network officials came by, flanked by silver-rankers to debrief Jason. He asked if they were the ones responsible for what happened and did not like their political answer about national sovereignty and passing off blame onto the Cabal. The silver rankers overlapped their auras to shield the officials from Jason’s aura pressure before Jason stormed back out into the city.

***

Adrien Barbou, now going by Mr East, looked at the paused image of a starlight bird and a zombie-like monster. Standing next to him was Mr North.

“Perhaps I was wrong in opposing the idea of killing him,” Barbou said.

“Asano did not overpower the category four monster,” Mr North said. “He used environmental dangers, circumstance and opportunity.”

“It could be argued that the ability to do so is more of a threat than raw power, in which he does not fall short anyway. He is strong for his level and his power continues to grow

“Reports are that he will soon cross into category three, possibly even as a result of current events.”

“Enough power trumps all,” Mr North said, “and new power will not be enough for what comes next.”

Barbou narrowed his eyes at Mr North before schooling his expression. A smile teased at Mr North’s mouth.

“Speak your mind, Mr East.”

“It’s nothing.”

“I said speak,” Mr North demanded, his voice full of grave promise.

“It has occurred to me,” Barbou said reluctantly, “ that perhaps events have not slipped as far from their design as we all think. I have wondered, on occasion, if someone not only knew from the beginning what the ramifications would be but was also engineering those events to go exactly the way he wanted. If what seemed like plans going awry were actually masks in masks in masks. We are about to make what should be our endgame but you are looking further to things that are, to the rest of us, obscured in the dark.”

“I like you, Mr East. You see things that others overlook. You take fragments and recognise at least some of the whole.”

“Are you going to kill me, now?”

“No, Mr East. Good help is hard to find.”

***

The aftermath of the Makassar disaster would affect the city for years to come but Jason’s part was done after eight days. The trip to Japan was postponed as he headed for home with Akari and Farrah in the back of Kaito’s helicopter, Kaito having configured the main section into a luxurious passenger compartment. Asya had remained behind as the requirements on the ground turned from the tactical to the logistical.

Jason had draped his heavily-damaged combat robe over his chair and was standing, looking at it. The robe, custom made for him by Gilbert Bertinelli had been a quiet champion for him but the magic in it had died. Despite its considerable powers of self-repair, Jason had pushed it close to destruction many times, many of them during his desperate struggle in the latest proto-space.

Jason had a magic item that could increase the rank of a high-quality item and he had intended to use it on the robes once he reached silver rank. Now it was impossible and he carefully folded what was left of the garment and returned it to his inventory. He admonished himself for mourning the loss of a piece of clothing when tens of thousands were dead.

Farrah stood up and moved next to where he was staring at a now-empty chair. Although she had not been with Jason as he fought alone in the proto-space, they had faced the horrors of Makassar together. Once they found a school where a class full of children had hidden in a courtyard. The monsters had found them first and now Jason and Farrah had seen things they could never unsee. They gently leaned into each other for comfort.

“I miss Gary,” Farrah said. “I could use a big hairy ball of happiness right now.”

“I hesitate to say it,” Jason said, “since we could all use some comforting thoughts right now, but Gary didn’t take losing you well. I doubt he took losing me much better.”

“That’s alright,” Farrah said. “I can’t wait to see the look on his face when he sees us again.”

Jason turned his head to give her a sad smile.

“That’s a nice thought,” he said. “Now I have something to look forward to.”

***

Jason stood under a dome in his cloud house, looking up at the water. From before Broken Hill and through a week in Makassar he had only slept once, keeping himself fuelled on spirit coins, as well as the mana and stamina he drained. Now that he was back, he still hadn’t slept.

In his time as an essence user, Jason had become completely convinced that essences did something to the mind that helped it process trauma. There was a limit, however, that in the wake of Broken Hill and then Makassar he had slammed into like it was a solid wall.

He knew that compared to the people in both places who lost their lives or their entire families, he had nothing to complain about. He had the power and the resources to keep himself and his family safe, which was exactly what had been done with Asano Village. It made him feel all the more guilty that he had done that while thousands of other families died.

He sensed Dawn at the airlock and opened the cloud house to her with a thought. Moments later she found him, standing in the same spot he had been in when she last left him.

“I’m sorry to come to you like this after what you’ve been through,” she said.

“What I went through is nothing,” Jason said. “The Makassar death toll officially crossed a hundred and fifty thousand today and they’re still counting the dead in piles. Literal piles of bodies.”

His voice cracked as he spoke, almost descending into sobs.

“I know,” Dawn said softly. “It doesn’t change the fact that you’ve seen horrors people never should. You need time to recover, which makes what I have to say hard.”

“I need to go to Japan,” he said.

“Yes. The grid could start going active in less than a week. Farrah estimates a little more, but time is short. We need that door before the world discovers it and its potential.”

“Alright,” Jason said.

“First you have to sleep,” she said. “A lot. After that, you need some meditation. It will help you get back into balance, but you know that.”

“I’ll cross into silver. I can feel it.”

“That’s why you’ve been stalling,” Dawn realised. “Silver rank feels like a reward you don’t deserve.”

“Everyone else got misery and death,” Jason said. “I get strength and power? How is that fair?”

“You can be a fool of the highest order, Jason Asano, but even you’re not fool enough to think the cosmos is fair.”

“It should be.”

“If you don’t like the way of things, then change them. All you need is enough power.”

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Shirtaloon (Travis Deverell)

  • Australia

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