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The fortress town of Arcazitlan favoured defence over comfort, with its stone chambers and claustrophobic corridors dug right into the stone wall of the gorge. This was worst in the spaces set aside for the civilians sheltering from the monster surge, with people crated-up like animals on a truck.

Living underground required specialised infrastructure, all of which ran on magic. Magic lamps were required to light up the dark and air needed to be brought in, filtered and circulated, with the old air pumped out. Magical plumbing for water was crucial for both people and animals, for drinking and hygiene. Latrines and showers, food preparation and storage all needed magic to stay in operation. Without them, the underground fortress would become a crypt.

As for the actual animals, herd beasts were also stuck in the tight underground confines. This made keeping them calm important since a stampede when there was nowhere to go was a horrifying meat grinder. There had to be magic to calm the animals or they would not accept being stuck underground, shoulder-to-shoulder, for weeks on end. Although they were penned up in stone boxes, illusions of the sky, complete with the warmth of the sun and a gentle breeze were matched with an artificial aura of calm. Their rooms were also shielded against aura penetration so they didn’t panic if some monster or passing adventurer washed a menacing aura over the fort.

All in all, the price of safety was extreme discomfort throughout a monster surge that would last weeks, possibly even months. People were crammed together almost as tightly as the animals. The areas set aside for the militia were much more open, with wider, higher corridors and generally more space to move around. Their off-duty spaces were just as cramped as those of the civilians but the operational areas were large enough that they could move quickly and in numbers at need.

Mordant Kerr, the militia commander, was marching through the corridors from the command centre to the top of the fortress. That was the spot where the fortress wall and the gorge wall had a gap plugged by a magical barrier. Flanking Kerr was his second in command, Miranda Ramos, and his logistics officer, Luis Garzón. Their feet carried them swiftly through the fort, although Luis’ mouth was moving faster.

“…I’m just saying, pick one and stick to it. Do you have evil powers or holy powers? You can’t just run around being a plague-bringer of doom, then turn around and start smiting people with the fist of the heavens. Also, I definitely heard him say he was eating sins, which is not a thing you can do and it’s very weird to try. Also, what were their sins, exactly? They’re monsters; eating people is what they do. It’s like saying an apple is sinning for being juicy and delicious. Everything he sucked out of them was something he did to them in the first place. Who does all those horrible things to someone, calls them sinners and then absolves them by killing them all with the light of wrath?”

“Gods,” Miranda said.

“Since when do gods do any of that?” Luis asked.

“Try reading their books,” she told him. “Pretty much any of them. Those early chapters are all violence and smiting. Lots of sinning and punishment until some prophet or whatever comes along to ask the god to stop murdering people. Then we’re supposed to be so grateful they stopped killing us left and right that we worship them forever?”

“Randy,” Kerr said, his tone gently admonishing. “You can think what you like, but I’ve told you about that kind of talk amongst the troops.”

“He literally asked,” she said. “You never complain about anyone else’s religious beliefs.”

“I’ve got enough problems with monster hordes and sinister adventurers and their bloody holy fire–”

“Told you,” Luis said.

“Mouth closed, ears open, Luis,” Kerr said. “Randy, what I don’t need is some ticked-off god knocking on my door because my right-hand woman is turning all their followers into heretics and infidels.”

“That’s not how it works,” Luis said. “Otherwise, she’d have been squished by a giant sky fist long ago. The pamphlets alone…”

“Luis,” Kerr scolded. “What did I just say about mouths and ears?”

“Sorry, Mord.”

Kerr gave him a side glance.

“Sir,” Luis corrected. “I meant sorry, sir.”

They reached the bottom of the stairs leading up to the top of the wall.

“Do I really have to go with you?” Luis asked as they moved up the stairs, immediately violating his implicit promise to shut up.

“You’re the logistics officer and he has the resupply, Luis. So, yes, you really have to go with us.”

“But he creeps me out with all the darkness and the blood and the smiting.”

They emerged from the top of the fortress and spotted the man in question. The on-duty defenders were arrayed in front of him, standing on the other side of the lightly shimmering force barrier. Instead of the expected sinister figure, shrouded in darkness, they had what looked, at first glance, like a lost civilian.

The man had open-toe sandals, shorts and a shirt with a flower pattern. He was casually biting into a fruit as if he was at a market stall instead of a fortified stronghold halfway up a mountainous wall. He had dark, glossy hair and a neatly trimmed beard. His sharp features and prominent chin showed the polish of multiple rank-ups, although he hadn’t reached the ethereal beauty many silver-rankers possessed. His most striking feature was the eyes that gave away his true nature.

The man’s eyes looked like the orbs they had seen floating around him during the fight, like a blue and orange nebula. The strange irises and void-black sclera undercut his otherwise casual appearance, marking him as an adventurer.

Powers that changed the look of a person’s eyes were far from unheard of, but for reasons unknown, it was rarely seen in monster core users. Even if they possessed the same power that changed an adventurer’s eyes, a monster core user’s eyes would usually remain untouched. The reason for the difference was something that even the Magic Society had yet to discover. As far as every known test could determine, the appearance didn't impact the nature of the powers in question. Many times it wasn't even a perception power that triggered the change.

The other features that caught Kerr’s eye were the scars the man had. A narrow blemish bisected one eyebrow and another marked a line in his beard on the side of his chin. A third was at the base of his neck, implying an impaling wound that would take at least a silver-ranker to survive. They were possibly affectations, but Kerr had seen plenty of fakes and these were either authentic or very well done. Most people willing to fake it went for big and impressive marks that stood out and told a story.

The trio arrived in front of the man, the militia troops parting to let them through. The adventurer’s eyes fell squarely on Kerr. Kerr could no longer sense any trace of the intimidating aura displayed in the fight. Having the man standing in front of him while his aura senses picked up nothing was slightly unnerving. As if sensing Kerr's unease, which he almost certainly did, a neatly controlled aura appeared around the man as if it had always been there.

“G’day, bloke. I’m Jason Asano, delivery boy.”

“Mordant Kerr, fort commander.”

The roof platform was a narrow strip where the aeronautically capable could arrive at the fortress. It was the only ingress point unless someone forcibly made a new one through the magically reinforced brick. A shimmering force wall cut off a third of the rooftop, reaching from the dark yellow brick underfoot to the hewn rock overhang above. Jason was standing on the outside third, the militia defenders inside.

“You’re our resupply?” Kerr asked.

“I’m all loaded up. Do you want to crack a window so I can pop through, or should I leave everything up on the roof here so you can come out and grab it once I’m gone? I won’t take it personally; you never can be too careful.”

“If you were a bandit, there wouldn’t be much point coming after us. If you can do what you just did, the Adventure Society will pay you more than you can get raiding little towns for random supplies.”

“You can’t be sure about that,” Jason said. “I can’t go to them if I have a restricted essence combo, and after what you just saw, I can see how you might be wondering.”

Luis opened his mouth to speak but closed it again at a sharp gesture from Kerr.

“We will check that you’re not a shape-shifted monster,” Kerr said.

“You already are, I can sense it,” Jason said. “Shade, please stop blocking their magic sensors.”

“It is impolite to use invasive detection magic without consent, Mr Asano,” a dignified voice came from somewhere around Asano.

“He kind of asked.”

“Telling is not asking.”

“He lives in a rock fending off monster hordes,” Jason said. “Cut the man some slack.”

While they watched Jason argue with the mysterious voice, one of Kerr’s people came upstairs from the sensor room.

“Sir,” she reported, “something is blocking our sensors.”

“Nothing new for someone with stealth abilities,” Kerr said. “Just wait a moment, Adelina.”

“See?” Jason asked. “Now you’re making things hard for the nice lady.”

He gave Adelina an apologetic look.

“He’s very protective,” Jason explained.

“Someone has to stop you from getting killed,” Shade complained. “You’re demonstrably not doing so.”

“It’s not like I’m trying to get killed.”

“Perhaps your memory is failing you, Mr Asano. All you had to do was show Shako a little deference, but you had to be insolent to a diamond ranker.”

“He works for the Builder! Also, he’s kind of a prick.”

The militia members shared odd looks as they watched Jason continue to argue with the disembodied voice, seemingly oblivious to their presence.

“Look,” Jason continued. “We're meant to be reassuring these people and now they think I'm a weirdo who talks to himself. Just let… Adelina, was it? Lovely name, by the way. Just let Adelina do her job.”

He flashed Adelina an impish grin, his strange eyes flashing. She returned a nervous smile with a slight blush.

“Very well,” Shade conceded. “Don’t blame me when they lock you in some magical trap room.”

“They’re not going to lock me in a magical trap room,” Jason said. “Why would they even have a magical trap room?”

“It’s for monsters that can move through the ground,” Adelina volunteered. “The walls are magically reinforced but we don’t have good attacking options inside the ground, so we open a gap in the defences and lure them into a trap room.”

“Adelina,” Kerr said. “Why are you explaining the fort’s defences to this stranger?”

Her eyes went wide and she gulped.

“Perhaps you should go back down and try the magical sensors again.”

“Yes, sir,” she said, scurrying back down the stairs.

“You really do have a magical trap room?” Jason asked. “Is there a trap door over it? Shade, does this world have rancors?”

“There is a bipedal lizard with an ogre bloodline that is quite similar.”

“How does a lizard get an ogre bloodline?” Jason asked. “On second thought, don't tell me. The answer will be weird and gross.”

Adelina returned from downstairs, reporting to Kerr once again.

“He's not human, sir, but whatever he is, it's what he appears to be.”

“Should I feel violated?” Jason asked.

“Make a gap in the wall to let Mr Asano through,” Kerr instructed Adelina.

“Yes, sir.”

She flashed Jason a glance as she headed back for the stairs.

***

Luis led Jason to a storeroom where he unloaded all the supplies from Rimaros. It was all for the magical defences, plus crates filled with spirit coins. The powerful defences like the force barrier, the magically reinforced walls and the wind blade runes took concentrated, heavy-duty magic. Rather than spirit coins, this meant mana accumulators, much like the one Jason had used to maintain his cloud house's functions on Earth. They were far cheaper than the cloud flask, of course, which was exotic even in Rimaros, so they burned out over time.

The spirit coins were to keep the essence users in the fort fed, as well as maintaining the less intensive magical amenities, like lamps, plumbing and air filters. Jason hadn’t brought any regular food, only magical supplies, since the food came from the dedicated food farms scattered around. Jason was looking forward to seeing one in operation, which he would at his next delivery stop.

After checking the supplies against their respective lists and making sure everything had arrived, Luis took Jason to Kerr’s office, the commander wanting to speak with the adventurer. He sent Jason in as Miranda, was just coming out.

“What do you think?” Luis asked Miranda in a half-whisper as the door closed behind her.

“About what?” Miranda asked.

“About Asano.” Luis clarified as the pair started walking away. “What was that stuff about a diamond-ranker?”

“He was just talking nonsense. If he went mouthing-off at a diamond-ranker, he really would be dead.”

“I think Adelina might like him.”

“Nothing gets past you, does it?”

“But why? He’s an evil weirdo and when he talks himself, something talks back.”

“Now you’re just looking for things. It's obviously a familiar; you're not that dense.”

“I still think it’s odd that she’d like him.”

“Of course it’s odd,” Miranda said. “What woman was ever attracted to a powerful and mysterious stranger?”

“Wait, you don't like him too, right?”

“Of course not. He's an evil weirdo.”

***

Jason took a chair in the small office at Kerr’s inviting gesture.

“That was a deft, if rather unusual approach to putting my people at ease, Mr Asano.”

“Better strange than scary,” Jason said.

“Unless scary is what you’re looking for.”

“I’m done looking for scary.”

“Scary may not be done looking for you. Why did the Adventure Society send a guild member with our supplies?”

“I’m not in a guild,” Jason said.

“You’re not?”

“Not yet. I’m going to join the same one as my team, but some unusual circumstances have left me here, on the far side of the world. I’m trying to get back to them or get them back to me; whichever works. It’s tricky during a monster surge, as I’m sure you can imagine.”

“The Adventure Society likes people to stay put and work hard.”

“As well they should,” Jason said.

“Even so, you’re definitely at a guild level of bringing boot and ass together. Why would they send someone like you out here on a delivery run?”

“There are reports of pirates targeting the supply ships,” Jason said. “They’ve been loading the ships with some heavier hitters to try and catch them out.”

“I see. I assume you were told that you need to take our next supply request back to Rimaros.”

“I was.”

“Good. Luis will have that for you promptly. I was also hoping to presume upon you to deliver a package for me. To a friend in Rimaros. Mail is hardly reliable at the moment and even if the fort had a water link chamber, the service congestion in Rimaros is quite heavy.”

“The Adventure Society has taken control of all the water link services for the duration, or so I’m told. What do you want me to take? I don’t like putting mysterious packages into my storage space.”

“Just a letter and a recording crystal.”

“It wouldn’t be a recording of the fight I just had, would it?”

“It would. This favour will not disadvantage you, Mr Asano. My friend is not placed in the very highest reaches of society but he’s respected. More importantly, he has a lot of friends of his own, many of whom are in the highest reaches of society. He’s a good man to know and a better one to be known by. Especially for an out of town adventurer without a lot of local connections.”

“I’m not sure I like the kind of local connections I’ve been making thus far, but alright, Commander Kerr. I’m already playing delivery boy. Why not mailman?”

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Shirtaloon (Travis Deverell)

  • Australia

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