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The next fortress town Jason visited wasn’t under active attack, letting him get in and out quickly. Situated on the coast, it was connected to several storm accumulators. The offshore, windmill-like devices collected power from magical weather events for which the Sea of Storms was named. The prevalence of such storms in the local area was why an adventurer made the trip rather than an airship that could easily be caught up in the volatile weather.

This particular town used the power it collected to charge mana batteries that other towns could use to power their defences, reducing their reliance on the kind of long-distance deliveries that Jason was making. Jason was just adding to local adventurers already delivering to surrounding areas. Jason handed over a fresh batch of empty batteries and collected charged ones to take to his next stop. One of the most isolated forts in the region, it was outside the range the local adventurers normally travelled. It would also be the last stop on Jason’s route before returning to Rimaros.

***

Far to the east of the forts being supplied by Jason was the fortress town of Carazela. One of the most outlying towns in the Storm Kingdom, its latest supply run was deeply overdue. The fort’s defences had expired almost a week earlier and if not for a visiting essence user, either of the last two monster attacks could have overrun the town.

As it was, several monsters made it over the walls and the fort’s commander had lost people driving them back. The commander, Merrick Harlowe, sat on the balustrade atop the wall, weariness engraved on his face like a sigil. He raised his head, offering a tired smile as someone walked up to join him.

Melody Jain was the essence user responsible for the fort lasting as long as it had without supplies. She had even made a run to the local Fertility food tower after the last attack, saving the civilians from starvation. She had fought hard and the stains and rents on her white leather armour told the story of the effort she’d expended in shielding the fort and its people.

Unlike her irrevocably stained armour, her white hair and dark skin were clean. Water was the one resource they had no shortage of and Melody liked to take showers. Merrick had no idea if she was a former adherent of Purity or a loyalist; he was afraid to ask and didn’t really care. Either way, she had an affection for cleanliness that he guessed was a long-ingrained habit. He was certain that she hated wearing her marred armour, yet she always did, ever at the ready.

Merrick looked at her white hair as she sat next to him, returning his tired smile with one of her own. She had cropped her hair short after a brutal head injury cut a good chunk of it away. The wound had been healed but she had trimmed her lopsided hair to a short pixie cut.

Melody gave Merrick a look that was filled with regret.

“Merrick, I have bad news.”

“You’re leaving,” he said, his voice devoid of surprise.

“I’m sorry.”

“I understand,” he said. “You’ve already done more than we had any right to ask.”

“I was hoping I could stay until new supplies arrived, but I have my own responsibilities. I’ve put them off as much as I could. More than I could, if I’m being honest.”

“Maybe those supplies will finally arrive before the next lot of monsters,” he said, forcing optimism into his voice that he didn’t feel.

“We both know they won’t,” Melody said softly. “I’ve heard things, and perhaps you have too. This isn’t an ordinary monster surge. Some things are falling through the cracks. You and your people are one of them.”

“There’s always hope.”

She looked at him crestfallen.

“I…”

She trailed off, shaking her head.

“What is it?” Merrick asked.

“I can’t say. I shouldn’t.”

He let out a laugh, heavy with resignation.

“Ms Jain. Melody. Everyone here is going to be dead in a week. You don’t have to fear your secrets spilling out.”

She hunched forward, looking at her feet as she shook her head again.

“You’re a good man, Merrick Harlowe. A decent and diligent man who looks out for his people. You wouldn’t damn them to save them.”

He sat up straight.

“Save them?”

Melody continued to shake her head.

“I only have one thing to give, Merrick, and you don’t want it. Your people don’t want it. I won’t make them into pariahs.”

“What are you talking about?”

Still hunched over, she turned to look at him.

“You know what I’m talking about,” she said.

He looked away, running his hands over his face.

“Purity,” he said.

“I know you haven’t been asking because you were scared of the answer. Were you afraid that I’d leave or that you would have to make me?”

“Either. Both. So, you’re still…”

“Yes,” she said. “It’s unwise to wear the symbols in these times, but the faith remains.”

She stood up.

“I’ll go.”

“Wait,” Merrick said, gently grabbing her forearm before snatching his hand away.

“Sorry,” he said, stepping back. She turned around with a beaming smile, placing he hand on his forearm.

“You’ll never have to apologise to me, Merrick. I’ve watched you give your all for the people here. You could take your strongest and make a break for safety but that never even crossed your mind. I have nothing but admiration for you.”

He bowed his head.

“Do you have a way?” he asked, his voice barely audible. “A way to save them?”

“I can’t recharge the fort’s defences, Merrick. The power I have to offer becomes part of the people who claim it. Forever. It can’t be given back, and it comes at a price.”

“What kind of power? And what kind of price?”

“I don’t think you should –”

“Tell me!”

His words, loud and sharp, rang out across the wall. Sentries watching for monster attacks turned in their direction.

Melody trailed her fingers down Merrick’s arm and gripped his hand.

“I can’t ask you to do this.”

“I’m asking you.”

She let go and turned away, bowing her head again. He reached out with a hesitant hand, pausing before touching it softly to her upper arm.

“Melody, please. If you have a way to save my people.”

“I don’t,” she said without turning around. “Maybe – maybe – there is a way for them to save themselves, but I can't…”

“Please, Melody. I’m begging.”

She slowly turned, bringing herself close to Merrick with a half-step.

“What do you know about the church of Purity?” she whispered. “Do you have any idea of what you’re asking?”

“I’m asking for help.”

“I belong to a group,” she said. “An order. The Order of Redeeming Light. Have you heard of it?”

“No.”

“We take the things that are unclean. Impure. We purify them. Turn them into clean weapons of righteousness against the very filth from which they came.”

“Like monsters.”

“They are the most pervasive impurity in this world.”

“And you have some of these weapons of righteousness?”

“You’ve heard that my church is in league with the Builder?”

“I have, but I barely know what that means. We live simple lives out here, away from important people and their problems.”

“The Builder is very bad. Our entire church has had to do things to see it cleansed, things that others can’t understand or forgive. But the Builder has something it gives to its soldiers. Something that makes them strong. My order has taken one of the things that produce this weapon and passed it through the purifying light of our redemption rituals. Now we can make people strong, without tainting them. Give this world a chance against the Builder. But the world hates us. Anyone who takes that power will be an outcast.”

“Better outcasts than corpses,” Merrick said. “What is this weapon?”

“It’s called a redeemed core. If you give it to an essence user, they lose their powers but gain new ones. More importantly, they gain an entire rank. Immediately.”

“An entire rank?”

“It won’t work on gold-rankers.”

“But on silvers?”

“It will take them to gold-rank.”

Merrick took a step back running his hands through his hair with a shocked expression.

“This is not a simple fix, Merrick, or some easy path to power. There are consequences, beyond how society will look at you. You give up all your essence abilities. You get new ones in return but not as many. You won't be the equal of an adventurer of your new rank.”

“But strong enough to fight monsters.”

“Yes. But there is another price as well.”

“And what is that?”

“Faith. The taint of the Builder is gone but the new power has to come from somewhere.”

“From your god.”

“Yes. You must open your heart and your soul to Purity without reservation or his power cannot flow into you. You cannot toy with divine power. I’ve seen what happens to those who try to claim this power with a deceitful heart. They become powerful but also mindless. Simpletons who know only how to obey and not to think. I would rather someone be honest and turn from my god than go through that.”

“I can worship your god. If he gives me the strength to save my people, he deserves my faith.”

Melody looked around, wary of the sentries who might overhear. She moved closer to Merrick again, speaking in a whisper as she rested a hand on his chest.

“It’s not that simple, Merrick. I’ve already told you more than I should. More than I’m allowed. I just… I see you. I see your courage and dedication to these people. You are the kind of man this world should be celebrating, not leaving to his death.”

“Then give me this power.”

“I can’t. If my people are going to expose themselves to help you, they have to know that you’ll truly be with us.”

“What are you saying?”

“It can’t just be you, Merrick. It has to be all your silver and bronze people. If you want Purity’s help, you all have to make a show of faith. Together.”

“I can’t tell my people to do that.”

“I know. This is why I didn’t want to say anything at all.”

Merrick walked away from Melody, back to the edge of the wall. He leaned on the balustrade, looking out over the sea. The breeze tousled his hair, the magical barrier over the fort long-depleted.

“It doesn’t even have to be monsters at this point,” he lamented. “Without the magical barrier, even a storm could deal with us.”

“There might be something else,” Melody said. “If your people were willing to show their faith, then perhaps I can convince my people can help you, in ways I cannot alone.”

“What kind of ways.”

“If you and your people take the power, it will take a little time for you to adjust. Days, in which you won’t be able to fend off monster attacks. But if my people knew they didn’t have to fear you, we could stand for you, until you are ready. Perhaps even share some of what supplies we do have. I can’t promise anything on my own, but–”

Merrick turned around to meet her gaze, eyes steely.

“I can’t tell my people to do this,” he said. “But I can ask.”

***

Jason was riding along a wide jungle roadway when he sensed the approach of several essence users. He was passing by another fort town when four auras emerged and rushed towards him. They were essence users; three bronze and a silver. All had monster cores in their auras, so not adventurers.

Shade pulled the skimmer to a stop, the vehicle and Jason’s familiars disappearing as he waited for the approaching people. He stood in the road, letting them come to him. It did not take long, all sprinting up the connection road leading from the nearby fort town.

“Adventurer,” the silver-ranker said as they arrived. They had gone hard enough that the bronze-rankers were exhausted from pushing themselves to match the silver’s speed.

“I take it that you are residents of that fortress town,” Jason said.

“I’m the town commander. Are you a supply courier?”

“I am, but my supplies are not for your town.”

“Please,” the commander said. “Our courier is more than a week overdue. The food came from the Fertility farm tower but our remaining mana batteries won’t hold out through another monster attack.”

“And if I give you the supplies for another, even more isolated town, what happens to them?”

“Please, I’m begging.”

Jason frowned.

“I can’t give you these supplies,” he said. “They were provided by another fortress town that charges mana batteries, though.”

“They have access to storm accumulators?”

“Yes.”

“Then you can leave your supplies here and go back for more. All we need are charged mana batteries.”

“I can’t make that decision,” Jason said. “But I’ve been there. I can portal you and I back there and you can plead your case to them for more supplies.”

The commander’s face lit up.

“You have a portal power?”

“I do. We can go right now.”

***

Standing in the open gates of the town, Merrick and Melody were facing one another, his hands clasped in hers.

“Come back quickly,” he said.

“I will,” she told him with a smile. “With good news, I promise.”

He reluctantly released her hands and she left, moving quickly but stopping to look back more than once before she disappeared into the jungle. She picked up the pace until she was certain that she was beyond Merrick’s aura senses. She slowed down and soon after, two women in white armour appeared. One wore tough but flexible leathers, like Melody, and handed her a fresh set from a dimensional bag. The other wore heavy armour made from the chitin of a monster, recoloured white.

“How did it go?” the leather-wearer asked as Melody stripped off her dirty armour.

“As planned,” Melody said. “All the silvers and bronze-rankers.”

The armoured woman chuckled.

“You’re still the best, Mel. Should we let the next supply courier through? We kill too many and people might come looking.”

“No,” Melody said. “It’s a monster surge and they send the expendable people for a reason. We’ll shield the fort from the next attack, give them supplies and let them fend off the one after by themselves. Then we let a supply run through. We can’t have them regretting their decision, after all.”

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Shirtaloon (Travis Deverell)

  • Australia

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