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On an island off the coast of Vitesse, there was an Adventure Society way station where various magical vehicles were stored. In Greenstone, with its weak ambient magic, only people with the right power could operate magical vehicles. In high-magic zones, magic vehicles were available to all, but the most powerful still required the appropriate power.

Gary and Jason’s team were in an open marshalling area, waiting for a pair of high-powered ground skimmers to be delivered. Clive and Belinda both possessed appropriate powers to pilot them. With them was an Adventure Society supervisor, Miles Cotezee, and their temporary team leader, Kenneth, son of Brian. The pair were discussing the mission with Clive and Humphrey.

“How many of the people from the briefings were found to be infiltrators?” Kenneth asked Miles.

“No one in the briefing teams turned out to be Purity or Builder agents,” Miles said. “Their families and lovers were a different story and we dug out nine people working for one or the other. As planned, the speed and magnitude of the attack was too critical for them not to report immediately and they took risks that let us catch them out.”

“That’s not to say we got all of them,” Clive said.

“I know,” Miles agreed. “But we plugged a few holes and we have some people to interrogate. Hopefully, we'll learn something about their methods that will help us root out more infiltrators.”

Gary and Neil were discussing their own matters of import.

“And it’s a string on the end of a stick?” Neil asked.

“Kind of,” Gary said. “It’s not actual string, and it’s usually a specially designed stick. It has a spool to hold all the special string. It needs to be quite long.”

“Specially designed how?” Neil asked.

“Uh, it’s a bit wobbly.”

“Oh, it’s a wobbly stick.”

“There’s also a hook on the end of the string. You put something on it that the fish will want to eat.”

“This sounds like a lot of trouble. Fish aren’t that hard to kill.”

“It’s not about killing fish.”

“It’s not?”

“Sometimes you let the fish go.”

“You let it go?”

“Only sometimes.”

“Isn’t catching it the entire point of the exercise?”

“Exactly. You can keep the fish if you want to eat it but, as you said, the purpose of the activity is the catching. If you let it go, it can make more fish or someone else can catch it again later.”

“This entire process sounds utterly pointless.”

Sophie and Belinda were having their own conversation, under a privacy screen provided by one of Belinda’s magic items.

“So, you didn’t…?” Belinda asked.

“We don’t have a lot of private space right now. Where would we?”

“As I recall, you’ve been quite adventurous on that front in the past.”

“I don't think Humphrey is quite ready for all that quite yet.”

“I don’t know,” Belinda said. “You get the pants off some of those rigid, straight-laced guys and you find they’re into some crazy stuff.”

“Humphrey is not rigid.”

“Oh, come on, Soph. He's a placard of rules some god brought to life to fight evil.”

“You be nice,” Sophie admonished. “Look, I have no objection to it. It's been a looong time, but where would we go? It won't be in the suite with a bunch of adventurers waiting outside the door with silver-rank perception.”

“You can do it anywhere you like. Have you seen the two of you? We could charge tickets.”

Sophie slapped her friend on the arm.

“Fine,” Belinda said. “Just record it so we can make some money selling it after.”

“Absolutely not!” Sophie said, then showed a wavering expression. “I mean, probably not. I’m definitely not going to show anyone.”

“Except me, right?”

“No!”

“Uh-huh.”

“I’m not showing anyone!”

***

Late in the night, Jason was on the open deck of the skyship, looking up at the stars. There were crew on watch but the passengers were below deck, sleeping or socialising. His map ability showed that they were rapidly approaching his first destination and his time aboard the ship was coming to an end. Trenchant Moore came onto the deck, his aura masked so as to not be bothered by eager adventurers. He moved to stand next to Jason at the bow of the ship, activating his privacy screen to contain their words.

“Your people have brought me trouble I neither asked for nor deserve,” Jason said. “I can’t even make a friend without being afraid to draw them into my mess. Which is really your mess. Or the mess of the people who sent you, anyway. Autumn was scared of me and she wasn’t wrong to be.”

“What was that you were saying to Miss Leal about princesses?”

“So, they didn’t even tell you why you’re here,” Jason said. “Was it to protect me or test me? Or a bit of both.”

Trenchant looked at Jason for a long moment before answering.

“The instruction was to let you kill yourself, if that’s what you ran off and did. I’m not here to shield you from your own mistakes.”

“Makes sense. Too bad you can’t shield me from everyone else’s, but I suppose they don’t care about that so much.”

“Would you have fought if we ran into the pirates?”

“There really are sky pirates floating around?”

“Yes.”

“And they’re out here preying on people who need help the most? That’s a fight I wouldn’t feel bad about. I’m not going to and get myself killed over it, though.”

“They wouldn’t be foolish enough to attack a fort town. They’ll be going for the transports.”

“Thus all the high-end protection on those ships back at port.”

“The Adventure Society will not abandon the people caught far from the cities. Neither will the royal family. The elite adventurers will be needed soon, so they’re being sent now before… things escalate.”

“I know all about the invasion,” Jason said. “No need to tease it out of me; your bosses already know. I’ve had some run-ins with the Builder before and I’m going to have some more before we’re done kicking his little peons back to where they came from.”

“Who are you, Jason Asano?”

“A person who’s tired of dealing with people more powerful than himself. I’m just a guy looking to be an ordinary adventurer of his own damn rank. I want to take some contracts, help some people. Dashing heroics and witty banter; maybe a monologuing villain or two. I have no political ambitions and I do not appreciate being dragged into someone else’s.”

“They don’t send someone like me after ordinary adventurers,” Trenchant said. “They send me after people who make trouble.”

“I don’t make trouble,” Jason said. “Trouble made me. You tell those people that sent you that this particular puppet likes to strangle the puppet master with his strings.”

“I don’t know what that means.”

“You don’t have puppets? Oh, they’re probably magic and don’t have strings, bloody hell… Look, just tell Soramir Rimaros that I’m willing to dance to his tune as long as he doesn’t make a spectacle of it.”

Trenchant’s aura showed no reaction to the name that Jason could sense but he didn’t mask his body language quite as well.

“Yeah,” Jason said. “That’s the depth of the brown stuff into which you’ve been dropped. That thing you're feeling right now, where you're just realising the magnitude of what you've been dragged into? That's where I live. You want to know who I am? That's who I am. Go back and tell them that.”

Jason vaulted over the side and dropped into the darkness, vanishing from Trenchant's senses.

***

Clive and Belinda each took one of the provided skimmers into their storage spaces. Neil then used his Bolster power, which enhanced the next subsequently used ability, on Humphrey. Belinda copied the spell with her Mirror Magic power and used it on Clive. As a result of the boosts, Humphrey’s teleport and Clive’s portal power could transport four silver-rankers each over longer than normal distances. This allowed them to move the group, minus the Adventure Society official, to a spot a dozen kilometres from their destination.

They arrived in a clearing within the foothills of a heavily forested mountain range. Sophie and Kenneth moved swiftly to scout as Clive and Belinda pulled out the skimmers and triple-checked they were in working order. Neil, Gary and Humphrey went on alert, Neil and Gary’s frivolous attitudes vanishing as soon as they arrived in the field.

There were several reasons they were using a pair of skimmers instead of a single, larger vehicle. The skimmers were already pushing the size limit for objects that could be placed into magical storage and the approach to the dam was through a forest where large vehicles would be hard to navigate anyway.

The main issue was that they planned to split the group and approach the dam from both ends, working their way into the middle. Dividing the group was a danger but they needed to complete their objectives before the defenders had time to call in reinforcements. If the Purity loyalists realised what the team was up to, even the attack on the valley would be a secondary priority.

The team regrouped around the skimmers, ready to set out. Kenneth took out his watch and checked the time.

“The decoy attack on the valley has been going on for the last hour,” he said. “While the hope is that this will have drawn away some of the dam’s defenders, there are no guarantees. None of the attack teams know they are making a feint but that does not mean the enemy will fail to grasp our intent.”

“Especially since the team supposed to be in charge of the attack didn’t turn up,” Belinda said.

“The teams didn’t learn about that until the last minute,” Humphrey said. “Even so, Belinda’s concern is valid.”

“It is,” Kenneth agreed. “There is a chance we may be facing even more defenders than anticipated. Even if everything went as planned and the people protecting the dam have been moved away, it won’t be all of them. At the very least, those who remain will be on alert.”

The team split up into two groups. Belinda and Clive were each necessary for a team, both to drive one of the skimmers and to provide ritual magic on site. Humphrey and Sophie went with Clive. The trio had worked together for the last couple of years and their teamwork was polished. Neil and Belinda had worked together extensively, but Gary and Kenneth were not team members. They didn’t have the rapport the team built up spending six months embedded in a monster-filled astral space or any experience working together since.

The two teams split up, the skimmers shooting off into the forest at different angles.

***

The fortress town of Arcazitlan was hard to access, having been dug into the wall of a rocky gorge. This was why deliveries were made by adventurers rather than airships that could easily be crushed against a wall by the regular gusts sweeping the gorge. The inaccessibility was worth the extra trouble since the defensible position put less strain on the resources powering the fort’s defences.

While some monsters might seek easier prey than the hard to reach the fort, the same was not true of all. Arcazitlan was being attacked by bone feasters, emaciated humanoid monsters with dark purple flesh. Their bodies were narrow and withered; their bald heads had no eyes, nose or ears. All they had was a mouth that took up the entirety of what should have their face.

The monsters had the power to rapidly grow bone to create exoskeletal armour, razor-sharp weapons or even utility tools. Hand and foot spikes strong enough to dig into rock allowed the monsters to clamber the steep, rugged incline of the gorge.

No bigger than a person, the monsters weren’t strong or tough by silver-rank monster standards. What they were was very fast and dishearteningly numerous, swarming up the wall of the gorge. To Jason, watching from atop the other side of the gorge, they looked like ants massing on the corpse of a dead animal.

He watched the fort's defences, which seemed to largely consist of force blasts that knocked away any monsters that reached the walls, slamming them into the opposite wall and then letting them drop to the ground below. Jason guessed it to be a relatively efficient defensive measure in terms of the energy consumed. The force wave itself wouldn’t cost much and he also sensed the magic imbued into the opposite wall of the gorge. They weren’t powerful effects; just enough to enhance impact a little and get through any resistance to non-magical damage.

This would be effective against many monsters. Large monsters would find their own weight became an enemy, while the wall impact could easily damage the relatively fragile wings of flying creatures.

The bone feasters were a dangerous foe for the fort, however. They were small, light and agile enough that their silver-rank fortitude could easily endure the fall. They also healed quickly, overcoming what damage they did suffer before climbing up again.

As Jason continued to watch, the defenders realised that their force wave defence wasn't going to eliminate the monsters. Runes on the fortress wall lit up and wind blades started shooting out, twisting in the air as they swerved out from the wall before turning in and slicing into the flesh of the monsters. A direct hit would kill one of them outright. Any impact, be it on a monster or the wall, caused the blades to explode in a ring of cutting force to lacerate the surrounding bone feasters.

Unfortunately, the monsters adapted quickly. While they had been climbing the wall unadorned, they started shielding themselves in bone armour that slowed them down but protected their withered bodies. The blades still had a large impact but no longer killed the monsters outright, while the secondary effects were even more reduced. The monsters were slowed by the armour and the need to heal up at the bottom of the gorge before they resumed climbing. Even so, the attack continued.

***

The commander of the fort, Mordant Kerr, stood on the battlement at the top, under an overhang of rock. In front of him was the magical wall plugging the gap between the overhang and the battlement. It would be easier for a monster to dig through the rock than the protective wall if not for the fact that the stone around the fort had been magically reinforced.

Kerr’s logistics officer, Luis, approached the commander.

“Sir, if we’re going to use the scourging wind, it has to be soon. If we keep the blade runes running much longer, we won’t have enough charge left in the mana accumulators to activate it.”

“And if we do use it?”

Kerr was not a local, having come down from north of the Sea of Storms. That had been decades ago, yet his signature drawl was as strong as ever.

“It’ll be everything we have, sir. Even the force wall won’t last long. It’ll be hand to hand with however many of them survive.”

Kerr’s eyes never left the figure standing on the other side of the gorge and the logistics officer followed his gaze.

“Is that another monster, sir?”

It was hard to see, a person-sized patch of darkness, speckled with points of light.

“No,” Kerr said. “It’s an adventurer. Most likely the one with our fresh supplies.”

“If we use the wind, then, they can resupply us.”

“They’ll have fresh mana accumulators but they’ll be empty,” Kerr said. “Ours might be on the verge of burning out but they still have charge, which is what matters until these monsters are dealt with.”

“Do you think he’ll help us, sir? Is it even a he?”

“I can't rightly tell my own self,” Kerr drawled. “Man or woman, though, they ain't likely to chip in. They'll be waitin' for us to clear the monsters out.”

“The Adventure Society don't much care about us out here,” Luis said. “They don’t send their best people on delivery runs.”

“Which is why they tell ‘em to leave the defendin’ to the defenders,” Kerr said. “Can’t see their aura to tell if they seem worth a damn. They always send stealthers on these missions.”

“So, what do we do, sir? You need to decide about the scourging wind or time will choose for us.”

“I think we’ll have to risk using it,” Kerr said. “Stop the blade runes and get the militia ready to…”

The commander trailed off as a shadowy figure descended from above the overhang. Then the adventurer across the gorge vanished, emerging from the figure, the light-speckled shadow wrapped around it unfurling into wings of darkness and starlight. The adventurer hovered in the air, the slow undulating of the wings holding it aloft. The now-revealed adventurer was wearing a loose combat robe the colour of dried blood. Within a shadowy hood, two strange eyes met Kerr’s gaze. Even right in front of him, Kerr couldn’t sense any aura, which was why the monsters hadn’t paid any attention yet.

“Stop the blades,” the adventurer said. The voice was male, cold and unafraid of what was probably a hundred monsters clambering up the wall below him. “Just keep knocking them down and I’ll handle the rest.”

Kerr and Luis looked at the man, then shared a glance.

“He doesn’t look like just a delivery man,” Luis said.

“No, he does not,” Kerr agreed. “I suspect, Luis, that you might owe the Adventure Society an apology in regard to the quality of personnel they dispatch in our direction.”

Kerr met the adventurer's gaze again.

“Alright, stranger; we'll shut off the blades. Just don't get us all killed, you hear?”

The wings folded in, wrapping the adventurer in darkness and he dropped out of sight. Then they felt a powerful aura sweep out that made Kerr feel like a trespasser in his own fort.

“Sir, are you sure that wasn’t a monster?”

“I don't care if it's the goddess of Pain's firstborn daughter. Anyone who kills monsters and carries supplies will get a warm welcome from me. And from you. That's an order.”

“I thought Pain was a god, sir.”

“Y'all think so here,” Kerr said. “Where I come from, they know that Pain is a woman.”

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Shirtaloon (Travis Deverell)

  • Australia

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