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Farrah looked at Jason with concern as they sat around a table with Rufus, eating the breakfast Jason had just cooked. After leaving his own world, Jason had immediately undergone a shift in temperament. The dark clouds that had accumulated over the past few years had finally parted, only for their late-night visitor to summon them back. Jason was sitting sullenly, idly poking at a fried sausage with his fork.

“I never met this Hurricane Princess,” Farrah muttered, “but I might just have to slap her into the goddamned ocean.”

“Jason, you just need to play along and ride this out,” Rufus said. “From what you told us last night, they aren’t trying to put you in a tough spot. If anything, they want you extricated from the situation as quickly as possible. You should let them do that.”

“Maybe,” Jason said. “I don’t like putting my trust in powerful people whose objectives aren’t the same as mine.”

“But they are,” Rufus told him. “You both want you out of this situation.”

Jason tossed his fork down on the table and turned on Rufus.

“No, Rufus, that isn’t what they want. They want to resolve the political mess their princess has stirred up by doing whatever gets them the most and costs them the least. Yes, that might mean getting me out of town as quickly and quietly as possible but it looks like that ship has sailed. Even if it hasn’t, what if the best way to get me out of town is to kill me, burn me and sprinkle my ashes across the ocean? What if they decide to lean in and marry me off to their damn princess? Captain Diamond Pants took a rummage through my soul and seemed to like what he saw, so I’m not ruling that out!”

Jason was half out of his seat as he ran out of steam and fell back into the chair, his shoulders slumping. He ran both hands over his tired face.

“I’m sorry, Rufus,” he said. “You didn’t deserve that.”

Jason got up and left the room.

“See?” Farrah said to Rufus as she got up to follow Jason out. She found him on the upper balcony of the cloud house, dangling his legs over the side as his head rested on the railing. She sat down and joined him but didn’t say anything, waiting for him to talk. It took a while.

“My first instinct was to do something a little drastic,” Jason said finally. “To resolve this my own way, on my own terms. But every time I do that, the solution has always caused more problems and it's never me that ends up paying the price.”

“What kind of solution were you thinking of?”

“Writing a song called ‘I’m Jason Asano and I love Prostitutes,’ getting blind drunk and then painting the lyrics on the market boulevard in giant letters until someone arrests me.”

She laughed.

“Disgrace yourself out of eligibility?” she asked. “I’m afraid you’re underestimating the degeneracy of the aristocratic class. That’s the kind of thing they brush under the rug all the time. They have their own rules for what is and isn’t acceptable and there aren’t many that you’re qualified to break.”

“I don’t have a noble lineage to disgrace?”

“Exactly. There’s an expectation that adventurers, even ones raised to the nobility, will have a certain lack of decorum. There’s only two real ways for someone like you to become truly untouchable. One is to be a pathetic adventurer.”

“Aren’t I already a dirty generalist?”

“That a prejudice of fools. If you want to write yourself off, you need to tank some missions, badly and very visibly. Which you aren’t going to do.”

“No,” Jason said. “I’m not going to get out from under the bus by throwing the people I’m meant to be protecting under it. That diamond-ranker knew what a bus was, by the way. I'm pretty sure that he's done some dimensional travel.”

“Your world?”

“I doubt it. Mine isn't the most advanced one out there and I doubt we were the only ones to invent the bus. Shade based most of his vehicle forms on some other world with better tech.”

“You think the diamond-ranker knows about Dawn?”

“Maybe. We didn’t have a lot of time to discuss exactly what she’d be doing here.”

“At least she didn’t tell people about your role in... probably shouldn’t say. Who knows if a diamond-ranker is listening?”

“It should be fine,” Jason said. “Unless they’re just listening listening, rather than using some kind of observation power. The balcony is still part of my spirit domain and I'm not sure if even gods can peek at us here.”

“Really?”

“Can’t be sure, but maybe.”

“Maybe is a big enough deal as it is. Wouldn't that make this house a throbbing great dead spot in the senses of those diamond-rankers?”

“Yep.”

“There was no real chance of dodging their attention, was there?”

“Nope. I was hoping they just wouldn’t care because I’m a silver-ranker. Then Princess Pain-in-the-Arse buggered that right up. You said there was something else I could do to turn myself into Mr Wrong?”

“Act above your station. This one is more in your area and you’re already bumping into royalty.”

“No,” Jason said. “If I do that, then whatever inclination the royal family have to shield me from this evaporates and I still have no sense of the players and agendas involved. What happens when the family of whoever Zara was supposed to marry decides that I’m an intolerable stain on the reputation of their house? What if the jilted fiancé decides the best way to hurt me is to send a couple of gold-rank uncles looking for you? They won’t be stupid enough to touch Rufus, but it’ll be open season on you and me.”

“Then what’s our move?”

“What Rufus said. We play the game, for now. We need to learn more and keep an eye out for opportunities to get some control. It’s boldness to act in the right moment and recklessness to act in the wrong one. I need to stop being the latter and aim for the former.”

“I’m sorry we ended up waist-deep all over again.”

Jason flashed her a tired but genuine grin.

“At least it’s not neck-deep. No one’s asked me to save the world yet.”

He pulled his legs in from the railing and hopped lightly to his feet.

“As much of a pain as all this is,” he said, “it’s just noise and nonsense. I say we let the politicians play politics while we just go be adventurers. At least for now.”

Farrah also got to her feet.

“I hate that they’re making you run around alone,” she said. “You should be with us.”

“You’re happy with the guild they’ve attached you to?”

“It’s a sister guild to our own. They help us when our members are in this part of the world and we do the same when they’re in ours. They’ll be good to us. It’s you I’m worried about.”

“You don’t need to worry,” Jason assured her. “It’s me. What could possibly go wrong?”

“You’re really going to tempt fate like that?”

“Fate tempted me first. If I can fight the Builder, I can bloody well fight her.”

“You realise there’s no actual god of fate, right? It’s just a metaphor.”

“Good, because I'm pretty sure I couldn't actually fight her.”

***

Jason’s portal arch opened in the teleportation square of the Adventure Society campus, which was still thronging with people. Jason, Farrah and Rufus made their way to the jobs hall that had as many people swarming it as had surrounded the administration building a couple of days before.

“Maybe we shouldn’t have taken those days to relax before coming here,” Rufus said. “I’m not feeling very relaxed all of a sudden.”

“I don’t think there was any dodging this particular bullet,” Jason said.

“What’s a bullet?” Rufus asked.

“It’s like an arrow but you don’t need magic to make it not crap,” Jason said.

“Let’s just get in there,” Farrah said. “The longer we put it off, the more people wind up in front of us.”

***

Once they got far enough into the crowd to join actual queues, Jason was separated from Rufus and Farrah. They got into the fast-moving line of guild members and associates while Jason was lumped in with the general populace. He at least got to skip ahead of the bronze and iron-rankers, so the wait was frustrating but not interminable.

There was a lot of bravado on display, from peacocking auras to pride erupting into childish scuffles. The overworked Adventure Society officials were herding the adventurers like overworked school teachers, only stepping in when the scraps got out of hand. There seemed to be an unofficial rule that so long as no one pulled out powers, they'd be left to settle their differences.

Unsurprisingly, the jobs hall was much larger than the one in Greenstone, spread out over four five-storey buildings. Each one had a large leaderboard set up showing the top hundred contributors by action quota. Inside, the normal contract posting boards had been removed and replaced with tables where officials were sat, handing out contracts and sending people off as quickly as they could. Each table had a thick book of contracts that was magically linked to a central archive, marking off which adventurer was assigned which task.

Jason was sent to the fourth floor of the second building, where he found himself sitting before a harried-looking official who looked more exhausted than Jason had ever seen another essence user. He'd seen people come out of monster waves looking fresher.

“Papers,” the man said and Jason handed them over. The man checked them against his records, and then looked up at Jason.

“You’ve been demarcated for resource and supply delivery contracts.”

“That’s my understanding,” Jason confirmed.

“You confident going out alone?”

“It’s the monster surge. We do the job and we don’t get picky about it.”

“Oh, you’d be surprised. You’ll only be assigned low-priority contracts because you’re only a one star.”

“That’s fine,” Jason said. “I imagine those people are tired of being overlooked and would welcome any help they can get.”

“Just remember that that help means delivering supplies, not killing monsters. Even if you try it and don’t die, they won’t count towards your action quota or leaderboard status. Speaking of which, normal rewards are suspended and will instead be handed out weekly, based on the aforementioned leaderboard status. Is that understood?”

“Seems clear enough,” Jason said. “How many contracts can I take at once?”

“You looking to clear your weekly quota in a couple of days?”

“I figured it would be easier if I could do some kind of circuit rather than soak up time coming back here over and over. I don’t much care about the quota.”

“Uh-huh. I don’t care if you’re leaderboard-chasing or whatever. Just don’t get yourself killed or half-ass the jobs chasing points.”

“I’ll do my best.”

The official went through his book and eventually assigned Jason four contracts. He did this by scrawling Jason’s name on a page and then plucking it from the book, where it was magically reconstituted. He laid the pages out in front of Jason.

“You should be able to do these at a run,” he said. “Do them in the order I’ve laid out for the best efficiency. You’ll need to pick up the supplies here in the city first; it’ll mostly be from the supply depots that have been set up. Addresses are on the contracts. Use your membership badge to confirm that you’ve accepted.”

Jason took out his silver badge with its single star and touched it to the first contract.


  • Point of interest: [Livaros Supply Depot #3] has been added to [Tactical Map].
  • Point of interest: [Mecilados Fortress Town] has been added to [Tactical Map].

“Alright,” Jason said. “I can work with this.”

***

The Storm Kingdom held within its territories the coastal regions of the continents that bordered the Sea of Storms. One of the kingdom's most outlying fortress towns was located in the northeast corner of the southern mainland.

The coastal fort was caught up in a magical storm sweeping in from the sea, battering against the magical dome that capped the high walls of the fort. Normally the barrier was invisible but the magically-infused wind and rain made it plain to see, even as anything beyond it was obscured.

As the storm raged, monsters emerged from the sea. Storm shabs were large abominations with shark bodies and crab legs, all covered in hard shell. More dangerous than the weaker shab variants, these silver-rank monsters fired arcs of lightning from protrusions on their shells.

The typical approach of these monsters was to begin with electricity attacks, paralysing or killing their victims outright before them devouring them, alive or dead. With all their potential victims were behind secure walls, however, the monsters had to do things differently.

More intelligent than lower-rank shabs, the monsters had waited for all of their number to emerge from the ocean before approaching the fort. Dozens of the shabs approached at the fort's weakest point, which was the main gates, then began their siege together. Rather than the weak but quick blasts of electricity they used on their victims, they took the time to build up their magic. When they had gathered as much as they could, they unleashed it in powerful bolts of lightning that blasted the magically reinforced gates. Despite all that power, the gates held.

The fort town was far from defenceless. Ritual circles became visible on the walls, sending out large bolts of fire and conjured force spears in retaliation, while essence users fired spells and ranged special attacks from the battlements, safe behind the barrier dome. Many of the essence users without ranged attacks fed their mana into turrets that were essentially oversized magic wands, blasting out magic from giant crystal tips.

No essence users went out to face the enemies. These were not adventurers and would not survive diving into a sea of monsters. While the adventurers of the Sea of Storms might be powerful, these were craftspeople, merchants and minor nobility. Raised on monster cores, they were no more capable in battle than the aristocracy of Greenstone.

The fort's problem was not one of defences but resources as the protections incorporated into the walls consumed a lot of magic. While portions of that could be provided by essence users feeding in their own mana, not all of it could. Spirit coins and other sources of magic power were consumed not just to repel the attacks but to shield the fortress town from the power of the storm.

The town had been promised additional mana accumulators that could concentrate ambient magic, along with new storm accumulators to harness the power of the storms. The outlying fort had been a low priority in a busy time, so those supplies had yet to arrive.

This group of shabs weren’t an existential threat to the fort, which would be able to hold them off. The danger was that killing the resilient monsters was consuming more and more of the fort’s dwindling resources. These monsters would not breach the fortress town but their attack meant that the next group just might.

The commander of the fort was Merrick Harlowe, a minor local lord and silver-rank core user. He watched unhappily from the walls while the defenders cheered as the town’s defences took down the first shab. All he saw in the dead monster was the expenditure it had taken to kill it.

Harlowe’s head came up as he saw a flash of golden light, distinct from the electric arcs thrown out by the monsters. It was hard to see through the storm slapping against the dome barrier but he saw something moving out amongst the monsters. There were more flashes of gold and pain was added to the high-pitched shrieks of the monsters, loud enough to be heard over the storm.

The attacks against the fort slowed and then stopped as the monsters started shooting lighting at something in their midst. The storm was picking up and the defenders lost sight of the monsters altogether, seeing only the flashes of the lightning and the bursts of gold light amongst them.

The lord ordered the defences to be stilled, preserving their resources. Even if whatever was out there didn’t kill the monsters, there was a good chance it would drive them off. He also didn’t want to harm whoever or whatever had come to their aid, given that it was almost certainly an adventurer. Over time, the lightning amidst the monsters diminished and the screams of the monsters fell away. The gold flashes stopped and only the sound of the storm remained.

A woman came close enough to the gates to be seen through the driving rain. She was a human with dark skin, her white hair and white clothes drenched in monster blood and rainwater. She looked exhausted, a bloody but beautiful white sword dangling from one hand.

“What are you waiting for?” the lord bellowed. “Open the gates.”

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Shirtaloon (Travis Deverell)

  • Australia

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