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The gold-rankers secretly trailing Jason watched with surprise as three people appeared out of nowhere.

“This is it,” Liara Rimaros said. She was with two members of her old team, from when she had been a restricted essence enforcer for the Adventure Society. Like many gold-rankers, the current disposition of their team wasn't about everyday monster-hunting because there weren’t enough gold-rank monsters to hunt with the power to push them closer to diamond.

Most gold rankers didn't even chase after diamond rank. Those that did, like Emir's teammate Callum, spent much of their time in extremely high magic zones. These were places where the average power of monster manifestations excluded all but a few specialised population centres. These were wild frontier towns, where even silver-rankers were asking for death by roaming without protection.

Gold-rankers in civilised society pursued more civilised agendas. It might be mastering a craft, founding a township, garnering political influence or duty to a nation or guild. Their teams came together at need, whether for the occasional monster hunt or to assist a member with their individual goals. With lifespans extending into centuries, monster surges often served as reunions.

Liara had needed to make sure that neither Jason nor anyone waiting to ambush him would detect his observers. With her team in the city for the surge, she had access to people whose abilities she knew and trusted. Jana and Ledev were a brother and sister pair that, along with Liara herself, had made the hunter component of their specialised hunter-killer team. Together, they had been following Jason from the moment he left the airship.

“Do we move in?” Jana asked.

“Let’s wait and see what happens,” Liara said. “Surprisingly, they’re only silver-rank, so we can afford to let it play out.”

They listened to the conversation between Jason and what turned out to be Purity loyalists, instead of the expected Builder cultists.

“Who could possibly put restrictions on the Builder that it would adhere to?” Ledev asked. “And why would they do it for this guy?”

“They intend to take him alive,” Liara said. “That’s better than we hoped for. It means we don’t have to intervene to save him and we can track them back to their nest.”

***

The three Purity adherents hovered in the air above Jason. They had little room to move under the jungle canopy, even if the wings of light holding them aloft were intangible and unaffected by the trees. Jason knew that even though it was tactically unsound, his enemies couldn’t resist the chance to look down on him. Being one himself, he could easily spot a showboat.

Unleashing his aura, Jason didn’t suppress all three but focused on the leader. His power gripped her like a fist crushing an egg and he unleashed a soul attack that left her face twisted in a silent scream.

The attack on their leader gave the others pause for only a fleeting moment, but it was a moment Jason ruthlessly took advantage of. A shadowy arm shot out, grabbing the stricken leader and dragged her down out of the sky. Jason tossed her into the mud pit that he had just climbed out of and the mud immediately started to roil madly, like a bubbling cauldron. The wasn’t boiling but filled with leeches that immediately inundated the leader, her already dirty armour now painted in dark, clingy mud.

The leeches dug into her flesh. They wriggled through the rents left in her armour by Jason’s dagger and squirmed into her boots and sleeves, clamping onto any exposed skin. Lamprey teeth dug into her hands, face, even her eyelids as she thrashed to get out and free of the tiny carnivores.

The other two zealots were only startled for the most brief of intervals and weren’t shocked into anything as stupid as freezing in place and calling out their leader’s name in anguish. Trusting their leader to handle her own problems, they turned their focus on Jason and moved to the attack.

The less than ideal tactical positioning of the zealots bought Jason time as he ducked into the jungle, his cloak allowing him to slip through the dense growth. It was not much of an impediment to his enemies and their silver-rank power but it bought Jason the time to pull a potion vial from his belt and swig the contents.

It was a general power-enhancing potion that boosted his basic attributes. This gave the same comprehensive enhancement as a spirit coin, but instead of a quick spike, the power was smoothly distributed. It didn’t give Jason the same level of power jump as a gold spirit coin would, keeping him inside the silver range. The effects would last much longer, however, with far less debilitating after-effects.

It was a highly expensive potion, the silver-rank variant costing more than the gold-rank coin it was roughly comparable to. Jason was not short on money, however, and his current situation was the kind of desperate situation where it seemed very much worth the price.

Jason had a brief window while the strongest member of the enemy trio was caught up extracting herself from a pit of Colin. Silver-rankers moved fast and her companions were crashing through the jungle as Jason barely had time to get the potion down. They came charging through the undergrowth like rhinos but, rather than flee, Jason moved to meet one and they crashed together. Using her own charge to get inside her sword reach, he rammed home his dagger.

In the terrain, Jason's short dagger was far better than the zealots' swords and he jammed it right into the throat of the woman that slammed into him. Impaling the throat of a silver-ranker was far from enough to kill them, or even impede them that much, but Jason knew from experience that there was more to it than that.

Outside of protection specialists, very few people, even at silver rank, had suffered the kind of countless attacks that came with Jason's self-healing combat style. For all his evasion techniques, every time he slipped up, misread an attack or was simply outplayed, his body had paid the price. His experience had allowed him to move past instinctive reactions to wound that to even a bronze-ranker, were critical. His opponent lacked this experience and couldn’t help but clutch at her savagely pierced neck,

Jason’s experience was his strongest advantage against enemies that were well trained but hadn’t spent their entire careers going from one life and death battle to the next. One of the lessons that came from walking that line over and over was that the difference between victory and defeat often came down to just a few critical moments.

This was why Jason worked so hard to buy even fragments of time and strove to make the most of each. He had bought one moment with his aura attack, another with his dive into the jungle and the zealots handed over a third with their poor positioning. With each one he’d bought a key advantage; boxing up the leader, boosting his power and seizing the initiative. Now was his moment to own the fight.

Jason positioned himself between the two zealots and a nest of shadow arms snaked out of his cloak to entangle the loyalist that didn’t have a gaping wound in his neck. At the same time, Jason landed more attacks on the one he’d already stabbed; sewing machine pricks, quick and shallow, as he tried to load her up with afflictions. Even with his boosted power, though, the results were patchy at best. His resistance suppression powers were weaker at a baseline level than the Purity zealot’s resistances.

Despite snatching the battle’s momentum, Jason was in a bad way. He had been about to replenish his reserves in the first stage of the fight when the shield delayed him. The powerful heal and purge powers used within than shield turned delay into denial. Jason was left ragged and spent while his enemies were fully healed and free of the afflictions on which Jason's powers relied. The only measure by which they remained depleted was their mana supply.

Shade emerged from the jungle, reconverging after scattering in Jason’s failed attempt at escape. He couldn’t physically hurt them, but his ability to drain mana attacked their biggest current weakness.

Jason had a brief window in which he had the edge, between the absent leader, his potion boosted-power and his control of the fight’s momentum. He had while it lasted to redo all the gains the purge spell had wiped away. He gave it his all, snatching every moment and seizing every advantage in a desperate attempt to turn his current momentum into victory.

Every trick and every tool was used. He threw out darts that created shadows, explosions and decoy auras. One type entangled the enemies in vines, which was especially effective in their present terrain. He even pulled out an electricity gun, half-melted from overuse. It wasn’t powerful enough to inflict real damage but the surprise factor of an attack so removed from his abilities was one more advantage he could make use of. He wasn’t willing to give any of them up as he scraped the barrel for everything he had.

It wasn’t enough.

Resetting Jason’s buffs and afflictions at the moment he was at his lowest and about to replenish himself had reset a battle already stacked against Jason to an even more lopsided starting point. All his skills, tools, tactics and powers could accomplish no more than forestalling the inevitable. Jason’s enemies couldn’t match his experience or skill, but the difference was a matter of degrees, not orders of magnitude.

The zealots were highly capable, with an abundance of resolve. They didn't let Jason's cockroach survivability diminish their patience and push them into sloppy mistakes. While they might not have Jason's experience of life and death battles, they did understand oppression. They knew well that patience would inevitability give them victory.

The leader escaped Colin, her powerful resistances shrugging off almost all the poison the toothy leeches inflicted. The game familiar continued to hold her up for a while, taking his blood clone form and binding her up in strips of bloody cloth. Eventually, though, she burned most of his body mass away with searing light and rejoined her companions.

Shade had likewise taken hits for the team. As Jason had feared, his opponents had attacks that could cut down Shade’s incorporeal forms. When only a few remained, Jason recalled them. Like the portion of Colin’s biomass Jason always retained, it was enough to reconstitute them both without the need to resummon them. Gordon was already stashed away because he didn’t have extra bodies to lose. Jason also needed the shields from the borrowed orbs.

Jason had made impressive headway in afflicting the two enemies he confronted himself. It was a struggle between his ability to impart his various maladies and their ability to resist and purge them. Being Purity worshippers wasn't for nothing and they both had cleansing powers, although Jason was able to impede them. The silver-rank effect of his Inexorable Doom spell was an additional affliction that helped lock the other maledictions in place.


  • [Persecution] (affliction, curse, stacking): Subject gains resistance to incoming boon, recovery, cleanse and heal-over-time effects. These resistances cannot be voluntarily lowered. Additional instances have a cumulative effect.

Even with his advantages, Jason felt the momentum turn against him like a vast ocean vessel, slowly but unstoppably changing course. Purity’s most zealous worshippers had too many purgation tools at their disposal, both abilities and items. Their teamwork let one cover the other to drink a quick potion. As a result, Jason hadn’t done enough by the time the clock ran out.

The leader rejoined her companions just as the effect of Jason's potion was coming to an end. His temporary strength turned to weakness; nowhere near the after-effects of a spirit coin, but still damning in his current circumstance. He was too weak to fight all three and he couldn’t have outrun them at his best. He’d failed to turn the fight around or drag it out long enough that he could once again use his portal.

The portal he opened was still in place, back on the road. The other end was in his cloud house and Jason had been hoping that Rufus and Farrah would come through from the other side. It was a slender hope, though, as they had missions of their own. Neither would slack off during a monster surge.

In the end, Jason was tired and hurt, weak and ragged. Even so, he kept fighting, futile as it was. He’d reached his desperate bottom line, but they wouldn’t be able to catch him without killing him.

***

“What is he doing?” Ledev asked as he watched from high in the air with Liara and Jana. “He knows they want him alive, so why would he fight to the death?”

“Because he knows we’re here,” Liara said.

“There’s no way he sensed us,” Ledev said.

“He didn’t,” Liara said. “The Purity loyalists showed him we were here.”

“They don’t know either,” Jana said.

“They didn’t have to,” Liara explained. “Asano is aware that we know how the Builder’s people react to him. He knows we have access to his assigned route. He also knows that if anyone can find people suspected of working with the Builder to leak information to, it’s the anti-Builder taskforce. As soon as these people were waiting for him, he realised that we were fishing for cultists with him as bait. He even said as much.”

“He thinks we’ll step in and save him,” Jana realised.

“Forget it,” Ledev said. “He thinks he can force our hand, but if he wants to die, let him. It’s more valuable to follow them back to their people than tip our hand.”

“We can’t just let him die,” Jana said. “I’m going to help him, Led. And so are you.”

“Fine,” Ledev groaned.

“There is more to Asano than I’ve been allowed to tell you,” Liara said. “I think the lengths the Builder is going to over one silver-ranker makes that plain enough. Even if he weren’t, though, we placed Asano in this situation. We’re taking him back out of it.”

***

Jason could barely stay on his feet, but his strange eyes were alive as they glared at the zealots from the darkness of his hood. Even run ragged, Jason was making the Purity adherents pay a higher price than they wanted to take him down. They thought it was the last, prideful gasp of a dying man, unaware he was waiting for someone else to make themselves known. While he remained defiant, he was starting to worry that they either weren’t there after all or would just let him die. Then three gold-rank auras locked into the Purity loyalists.

***

The Purity people didn’t go easy but the gold-rankers and their surprise attacks took them prisoner, hurt but alive. After making sure the trio were thoroughly locked up in suppression gear, Liara, Ledev and Jana dragged them back to the road. Jason was leaning heavily against a black land skimmer, covered head to toe in mud, blood and exhaustion. With Colin’s biomass severely depleted, Jason was reduced to drinking a healing potion, and it wasn’t his first. He’d taken three of healing and two of mana in as quick a succession as he could without poisoning himself.

“I’m an idiot,” he said. “I should have seen this coming from the moment you saw those Builder cultists react.”

Ledev and Jana threw curious glances at Liara.

“They don’t know,” Jason realised, watching Liara’s teammates. “They’re not in the anti-Builder unit? Are they your own team?”

The stealth specialists revealed nothing from their auras but lacked Liara's political training to mask body language.

“They are your team,” Jason said. “This is a private thing. Oh, crap. The old man really is deciding whether to–”

“Yes,” Liara said, cutting him off. That told Jason more about how much Jana and Ledev knew.

“You really think I’d go along with that?” Jason asked. “Especially after today?”

Ledev's face was filled with growing disapproval as he listened to Jason and Liara talk.

“You’re speaking with a princess of the Storm Kingdom,” he told Jason. “You need to address her with respect.”

“Respect is earned,” Jason said wearily. “And lost.”

Ledev opened his mouth to retort but stopped at a gesture from Liara.

“You knew we were here,” Jana said. “If you’d gone quietly, we could have tracked them back to their base and then rescued you.”

“Yeah,” Jason said. “Because that’s what selling me out to the Builder cult engenders: trust.”

“I know we haven’t treated you well, here, Mr Asano,” Liara said.

“I spotted that too,” Jason said. “But I won’t claim to be innocent of using others without thinking of the consequences.”

He frowned, then narrowed his eyes at Liara.

“Except you did think about it, didn’t you. By now, you must know pretty much everything I’ve ever done in this world. You’ll know that I have a history of reacting badly when powerful people try to use me. You want to see if I’ve learned better. Except it’s not you. The old man is having me tested, and not just by you. Do say hello to Trenchant when you debrief him.”

“You think you warrant that kind of attention and effort?”

“You’re here, aren’t you?”

“You think very highly of yourself,” Ledev said.

“That’s not news to anyone,” Jason said. “And I never asked for all that effort. I was looking for a nice, quiet stay in your very lovely kingdom.”

“There are no quiet stays in a monster surge,” Jana said.

“It depends on your standards. By mine, a monster surge is plenty relaxing. The Builder invasion will be rough, though. I’ll give you that.”

“You think a monster surge is relaxing?” Jana asked.

“Sure,” Jason said. “You’ve got the Adventure Society and all these gold and diamond-rankers to save the world so you don’t have to do it yourself. They have a great spice market on Arnote; I’m going to put together a mix for cheese enchiladas when I get back.”

“You were right that I’ve learned a lot about you,” Liara said. “And today, I learned more. People the Builder wants to kill personally don’t get nice and quiet, Mr Asano.”

“Then you should check my files again. He’s already killed me personally and it didn’t take. Now he’s sending henchmen. He has no idea how to dark lord properly; he’s doing it all backwards.”

“You and I need to have a long talk, Mr Asano.”

“No, we don't, Princess of the Storm Kingdom. You just want to.”

He let out a long sigh.

“Look, I’m tired and I still have a job to do, so I’m going to make my last delivery and go home. Come find me in Rimaros and maybe I’ll muster up the energy to get angry and say something stupid. I have a lot of practise.”

“That’s it?” Jana asked and Jason gave her a quizzical look.

“That’s what?” Jason asked.

“An organisation key to orchestrating an interdimensional invasion is targeting you specifically for death. You barely survived their ambush and you’re just going to what? Go about your day?”

Jason gave her a tired but friendly smile.

“Lady, that usually is my day. If I stopped working every time some evil church or the local Magic Society director had me kidnapped, I’d never get anything done. This was meant to be a nice break for me, where people like you deal with the global conspiracies and forces from beyond reality. But your princess, here, went and hung a pork chop around my neck. Now I’m going to be hip deep in zealots, cultists and evil magic robots from space. Again.”

Jason opened the door of the skimmer and slumped into the back seat.

“You can’t just leave,” Ledev said. “We’re not done with you.”

“You’re bloody right you’re not,” Jason said, without turning around to look. “You people are following me until I’m done in case someone else tries to kidnap me. You’re the ones who told these pricks where to find me, after all. We’re only an hour out of the next fort town anyway.”

Ledev looked incredulously at the top of Jason’s head, laid back on the plush seat of the skimmer. He opened his mouth to talk but again Liara silenced him, putting a restraining hand on his shoulder.

“That’s fine,” she said. “We owe you that much.”

Jason sat up, turned and gave Liara a long, assessing look. Unlike the others, he could not read her sincerity or lack of same at all. He gave her a small nod, turned back and waved his hand forward. The land skimmer started moving, soon zipping away down the road. Ledev's face still showed his anger at Jason's insolence, while Jana looked sceptical and confused.

“Did he say he was kidnapped by a Magic Society director? And what’s a robot?”

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Shirtaloon (Travis Deverell)

  • Australia

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