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On the island of Livaros, the sky port was the busiest part of the skyline. Looming towers had skyships docked up and down their exteriors while more ships drifted in and out of the port air space. It was busy enough that Jason wondered how air traffic control was managed.

The ships came in a startling array of designs. Some looked like ordinary ships, complete with sails, although Jason doubted they were propelled by anything so mundane as ordinary wind. Others were almost spaceship-like with sleek hulls of dark metal, but most fell somewhere in-between the sailing ship and UFO designs. The most common type of skyship looked like an ordinary sailing vessel but, instead of sails, had glowing crystals suspended from scaffolding outside of the hull. The crystals were the size of a small car and each ship using them had as few as three or as many as eight, depending on the size of the vessel.

Jason happily gawped like a tourist as he wandered through the port at ground level. He was also dressed like a tourist, once again in shorts and a very pink floral shirt. He relied on his magical senses to avoid bumping into anyone as he craned his neck around, watching all the activity above. Unsurprisingly, even the low-altitude air traffic present in the rest of the city was heavily restricted here. The only flying vehicles, aside from the skyships themselves, were magical wagons moving up and down the outsides of the towers to load the airships.

Dimensional storage was expensive, and people with personal storage spaces even more so. This was why some didn’t even bother with adventuring and became professional porters. Most airships still used both, however, filling their holds with dimensional storage crates.

Jason arrived at the tower he was looking for, a circular edifice of steel and glass that was the closest Jason had seen to contemporary architecture from his own world. The main difference was the massive freight doors through which wagonloads of goods were being hauled in and out. Not all of the wagons moving goods could fly and the interior of the building, as Jason discovered going in, was an array of large elevating platforms ringing the interior of the tower.

In the centre of the busy room was a series of reception desks, all rushing through the queues assembled in front of them as quickly as they could. Jason spotted Autumn, the elf he had met the other day, in one of the queues as he joined. She was a few spaces ahead of him but after she was done, stopped to wait. Jason reached the desk, showed his delivery contracts and was given a boarding document. He then went over to talk to Autumn. Her frog, Neil, was sitting on her shoulder again.

“I thought you had a portal power,” she said.

“I'm a new boy,” Jason said. “Unless they want me to portal around town, I need to do some travelling, first. I'm only shipping out, though. I'm getting dropped in the outer reaches and making my way alone from there. It's all very scary.”

“You're a stealth specialist?”

“A friend of mine told me that the powers you awaken reflect who you are.”

“I've heard that. It's a common theory.”

“Well, it's cowardice all the way for me, so, stealth powers.”

“Just be careful and I'm sure you'll be fine. They wouldn't send you out if they thought you'd die.”

“Don't worry; I have special skills. Did you know there's a high-pitched shriek you can make that tricks monsters into thinking you're a mewling infant and many of them leave you alone?”

She gave him a sceptical look.

“It's not even a power,” he continued. “It's just something I discovered by accident.”

“We're probably on the same ship since we picked up our supplies together,” she said, ignoring his ongoing nonsense. “Which ship do they have you on?”

“It's called, hang on…”

Jason checked his boarding paper and then frowned, his expression thoughtful.

“…Zila’s Promise. Hmm.”

“Same here,” Autumn said. “Is something wrong?”

“It’s nothing,” Jason said, looking around and then pointing. “Elevating platform six, that’s us.”

They went over to the platform and waited for it to come back down, all the platforms being in heavy use. They rode up, crowded in with wagons and carts. These were all magically propelled, even if they didn't fly. From what Jason had seen, animal-drawn vehicles were a minority in Rimaros. In Arnote, around the town market, he'd seen wagons drawn by heidels. He still didn't care for the creepy, two-headed lizard-horses.

In Livaros, animal-drawn vehicles seemed to be a point of prestige and he'd occasionally spotted wealthy carriages, flying or otherwise, drawn by exotic animals or magical beasts. The rich seemed to share Jason's aversion to heidels, but probably because poor people used them.

“You’re not human, are you?” Autumn asked him as the platform ascended through the inside of the tower. They were close to the glass and got a good view of the city. The platform made regular stops for wagons, carts and people to unload onto the airships docked to the exterior of the tower.

“No,” Jason said, pulling out a sandwich. “Want one?”

“I brought my own snacks,” she said, tapping Neil on the back. The frog opened his mouth and a bag larger than the frog himself emerged. Jason smiled as the bag warped to its full size. Watching larger items come out of small storage spaces was almost cartoon-like in how the object seemed so pliable only to spring into its normal shape and size, wholly unaffected by the process.

“What?” she asked him, then popped a glazed nut from the bag into her mouth.

“You don’t want to know what I was thinking.”

“Now I really want to know.”

“I was just wondering about tying a giant firework to a cart so I could ride it and chase down a flightless bird.”

Autumn blinked, nonplussed.

“That’s really what you were thinking?”

“It probably wouldn’t work. I’d fly off the edge of a desert gorge, hover in the air briefly with a put-upon expression and then fall, kicking up a dirt cloud as I hit the ground.”

“A desert?”

“Yep.”

“In the famously wet and humid sea of storms.”

“I don't make the rules.”

“Is this some kind of ruse to make people underestimate you?”

“You asked.”

“What about your eyes? Is that something to do with not being human?”

“No, that’s just the side effect of a power.”

“A perception power?”

“Partly. It helps me sense dimensional anomalies. Astral space apertures, that kind of thing.”

“Why do I get the impression that you’re never quite telling the truth, even when you aren’t lying?”

“Because I’m clearly a man of mystery. I lead a life of danger, excitement and baked goods.”

“I can tell by the way you’re dressed.”

“How good is this shirt? I found it in one of the smaller market districts near supply depot seven.”

“Is it designed to repel any princesses that try to marry you?”

“You don’t think they’d like it?”

“It doesn’t exactly scream ‘man of action.’ Don’t princesses normally go for the manly, heroic type?”

Jason immediately thought of Humphrey. He also vaguely recalled hearing something about Rufus and a princess.

“You may be right; let's call that a bonus on top of getting to look so snazzy.”

He jabbed his half-eaten sandwich emphatically

“I am not going to marry any princesses,” he insisted. “That’s how you end up slaying dragons and I’ve got nothing against dragons. One of my friends is a dragon.”

“One of your friends is a dragon?”

“Yeah, he’s a real little scamp. Loves biscuits. Proper biscuits, not scones. Ooh, I should make some savoury scones. I'm just getting back into cooking. Maybe I shouldn't. I think that's where the princess problem started in the first place.”

Autumn was swiftly learning that, with Jason, it was tricky to stay focused as he hijacked conversations with nonsense.

“If you’re not human,” she asked, “what are you?”

“Rakishly handsome?”

“You’re silver-rank. Everyone’s good-looking.”

“Ah, but it’s not what you’ve got; it’s how you use it. Wait until you see me at the prow of the ship, wind tousling my hair. You won’t even be wondering where the sheep got that spatula from.”

“The sheep?” she couldn’t stop herself from asking.

Jason flashed her an impish grin then turned his gaze upward, as if having noticed something.

“You’ve done delivery runs like this in the past, right?” he asked.

“Not during a monster surge, but yes. It’s not monster-hunting money but it’s a way to make some relatively safe money if you have a storage power.”

“Do you know if these trips normally have a gold-ranker on them?” he asked.

“Sometimes,” Autumn said. “No one guild level, if it’s a gold. I don’t want to say dregs but they aren’t the best. I even saw one almost crash a ship because he got turned down for… anyway, he got angry and lost control of his aura. Distracted the port pilot while he was bringing the ship into port and scraped the whole side of the ship against a docking tower.”

“That’s not ideal.”

“I prefer not to have a gold-ranker because then you get high-end silvers instead. I'll take a team of guild silvers over a garbage gold-ranker any time, even if they do look down on the rest of us. At least they're professional when the monsters show up. Flying monsters are frequently attracted to skyships, so it's all but guaranteed we'll see them now.”

“What about sky pirates? I’d love to see some sky pirates.”

“Because you’re a man of mystery and danger?”

“Exactly.”

“I’ll be happy to avoid them, thank you very much. Story pirates might be all about romance and swashbuckling but real pirates are all about murder and avoiding soap.”

Jason laughed.

“You’re probably right,” he agreed.

What Autumn said about the gold-rankers assigned to such missions didn’t match what he sensed from the ships above them. There were multiple ships with rigidly-controlled gold-rank auras, far from the dregs that Autumn described. They were accompanied by similarly elite silver-rank auras.

Given that he was sensing elites on multiple ships, was it a matter of increased security for the monster surge? That didn’t track with Jason’s understanding that the delivery missions were lower priority. Perhaps the ships in question weren’t supply ships. What drew Jason’s attention the most was a ship that had a single gold-ranker and no other auras of note.

This aura put even the other gold-rankers to shame. Even compared to gold-rankers, Jason had never felt that his aura control fell short, but this man’s control was on a whole other level. It felt less like observing an aura than it did like observing a sword. Jason kept hearing about the level of true elites, but now he understood what that looked like. The only gold-rankers he’d seen that might come close were Rufus’ father, Gabriel, and Gabriel’s teammate Callum. He couldn’t be sure, though, as he’d last sensed their auras when he was an iron-ranker with feeble aura senses.

“I think we’re here,” Autumn said as the platform stopped once more. It was on the level of the ship containing the remarkable gold-ranker, which didn’t surprise Jason at all.

“Every bloody time,” he muttered.

“What’s that?” Autumn asked.

“Doesn’t matter,” Jason said. He ate the last of his sandwich and pulled out a fruit drink in his coconut cup.

“I don’t suppose you found a line on those tiny umbrellas?”

“Sorry.”

“Did you even check?”

“I did not, no.”

Doors in the side of the building opened and the people on foot moved through while the wagons jostled for position. Unlike non-magical variants, they were better able to rotate in place, but it was still awkward.

Through the doors was a metal walkway connecting the building to the ship, ending in a cradle in which the ship was resting. The walkway led directly on deck where the first mate quickly checked their papers and ushered them out of the way. They headed for the gold-rank aura near the stern of the ship.

***

Trenchant Moore stood at the stern of the Zila’s Promise, taking in the surroundings with his aura senses. There were gold-rankers accompanied by silver-rank guild teams aboard the other ships, ready to eliminate the pirates if they showed themselves. It was an operation that needed to be wrapped up quickly with the demand for capable gold-rankers rising every day.

Adventurers and other essence users assigned to delivery contracts were boarding the ship. The adventurers with society-issued contracts sensed Trenchant’s aura and approached. He confirmed their details and warned them to stay out of the crew’s way. A couple tried to make more social approaches, guessing he was a guild member from his aura. Monster surges were a prime recruiting period for guilds and those hoping to score a membership would always be looking for opportunities. Trenchant rebuffed the smart ones with a standoffish attitude and the stupid ones with a burst of aura suppression.

Trenchant’s senses detected an unusual aura moving up through the tower on an elevating platform. It was silver-rank but with a strength rivalling that of a gold-ranker and the precise control to match. He was unable to see through the aura at all without pushing out his senses aggressively, which he would hardly do in the heavily crowded dock. If he distracted some port pilot in a critical moment it could lead to a crash. There had been a near-miss for that exact reason a couple of years ago, incurring expensive repairs and even more expensive port delays.

It was the second-strongest silver-rank aura he’d ever seen but had no trace of the overlap that marked a fourfold aura. This was a singular aura power with formidable strength in and of itself. It was exactly the kind of aura it would take to arrest the attention of whatever Rimaros ancestor was behind Trenchant’s current task. As to which ancestor, Trenchant could only guess. As far as he had known, the only diamond-ranker in the city was the namesake of the ship he was on.

As expected, the aura’s owner boarded the Zila’s Promise, approaching with a more ordinary adventurer. From the emotions in her aura, they were casual acquaintances, although she seemed to harbour a strong curiosity about her companion. Even up close, Asano's emotions were completely hidden; his aura’s control every bit the equal of its strength.

At most, Trenchant could see that Asano was hiding his true strength and level of control, passing himself off as one of the less capable adventurers that otherwise occupied the ship. No one short of a gold-ranker would be able to see through it, and some of those would need to be up close. This image was reinforced by the man's outfit, from the garish shirt to the open-toed sandals to the ridiculous beverage with fruit sticking out of it.

The pair introduced themselves respectfully, confirming Trenchant’s assumption of Asano’s identity. He looked over the contracts from the two, seeing that Asano was to leave the ship mid-journey to make a solo trek through the outer reaches. During a monster surge, especially this one, it was a task that demanded guild-level skills. If Asano had been lacking in that regard, though, he wouldn’t be worth paying attention to.

“There is a potential threat of pirates,” Trenchant told Asano. “Security on the vessels delivering supplies to the outer reaches has been increased. What do you feel would be the appropriate action should the airship be attacked?”

This drew the attention of the other adventurers, especially the ambitious ones that had failed to draw any kind of positive response from the gold-ranker.

“The same thing you do in every situation,” Asano said. “Assess the circumstances and use your best judgement. There’s no point deciding what to do now, out of context.”

Trenchant nodded but gave no further response, turning around to look out of the stern at the city spread out below.

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Shirtaloon (Travis Deverell)

  • Australia

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