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What looked like a refugee camp with rows of tents had been set up in a forest clearing. Adventure Society and Magic Society officials were managing a group of people variously panicked, nervous or demanding. Miles led Humphrey, Gary and the others around the outside of the camp towards the largest tent.

The outworlders were easy to pick out by their auras. Species was a relatively subtle aspect of a person's aura but being surrounded by outworlders made it stand out. All of the outworlders looked human and were either bronze or silver rank, aside from a small handful of normals. Most of them carried a heavy taint of monster core use in their auras, including all of the silver-rankers. The bronze-rankers with auras not saturated in cores also showed more evidence of proper training with their aura control.

The largest tent in the camp was the administrative centre and the group was about to enter when someone called out from within the camp.

"Hey, Clive! I slept with your wife, bro!"

The group turned to where an Adventure Society functionary was telling a huge man to be quiet. They weren’t sure at first, as the voice was oddly high-pitched for a man who matched Gary for size. Very unlike Gary, he was hairless and had chocolate skin. Clive looked at the crowd between them and the man, then at Miles and chanted a spell.

“Exchange your fates.”

Miles and the big man swapped places, depositing Miles in the middle of the camp and the man in front of them. Like all the suddenly-arrived outworlders, he'd been given clothes, but he was too big for anything but Leonid outfits. Unlike Gary, who had permanently adopted the colourful fashion of Greenstone, most Leonids went with revealing outfits of leather straps, which the big man was now stuck wearing. He looked like he’d been dragged away from either a very good or very bad time, depending on his personal proclivities.

“Seriously?” Miles called out, now in the middle of the camp. “Come on, guys.”

The big man was nonplussed at the teleport but recovered quickly.

“G’day,” he said. “You’re Jason’s team yeah? Plus Gary the sexy lion-man and some rando."

“You know us?” Humphrey asked.

“Sure do. You’re Humphrey. And you’re Sophie, the tough one. Belinda, the smart one and Neil. I thought you were meant to be fat, bro, but you seem pretty ripped. What do you lift? Oh, and Clive. Sorry about your wife, bro.”

“I don’t have a wife!”

“It didn’t work out? Makes sense. If she keeps cheating, that’s not a healthy relationship. Best to make a clean break.”

“You know all of us,” Gary said. “Who are you?”

“I don’t know this guy,” Taika said, holding a hand out for Ken to shake. “I’m Taika Williams.”

“Kenneth, son of Brian,” Ken introduced himself.

“You’ve seen the crystal recordings Jason was always making,” Humphrey said.

“Sure did. I don’t normally like watching people’s holiday videos but they were pretty sweet.”

“How did you get here?” Sophie asked. “Was it the same way Jason got back?”

“He did get back then?” Taika asked. “These people won’t tell us anything.”

At that point, Miles shoved his way back out of the clustered people, staring daggers.

“Really, Clive?” he asked.

“You seem pretty shirty, bro. Are you Clive’s wife?”

“Who is this guy?” Miles asked.

“I’m Taika. G’day, bloke. Where’s Jason?”

“He arrived on the other side of the planet,” Clive said. “We’ve been working to earn a trip to go to where he is. Travel is restricted right now.”

“I suspect he’ll be brought to us, after this,” Miles said. “It’s an enormous mess and the higher-ups are going to want answers. Why do all these people keep asking about him?”

“He’s super famous, bro. The guy who went to another universe and got magic powers. So you tell us we’re all in another universe and he’s the first thing that comes to mind.”

“Then the rest of these people have only heard of him?” Humphrey asked.

“I only know a few of them myself, so I can’t say,” Taika said. “I’m happy to tell you all about it, but I want to trade that for some pants. I look like a commemorative chocolate of Sean Connery in Zardoz. There's a reason they didn't make those.”

***

Having completed his final delivery without further incident, Jason was done with his journey through the Storm Kingdom's western reaches. The last fortress town was very happy to receive their supplies and the handoff was blessedly free of complications. The fortress town had tight quarters, was densely packed and had a thick smell of animals, so he quickly left.

 

Outside the gates, Liara and her offsiders, Jana and Ledev Costi were still around. They had been following him using specialised personal flight platforms that looked like speeder bikes from Return of the Jedi. Having watched them follow him through the jungle for the last hour, he was almost surprised that no Ewoks emerged. The bikes were specialised for stealth, Jason’s magical senses not detecting anything from them. Like the gold-rankers riding them, they were able to hide even from Jason’s powerful perception.

Less stealthy was a simple floater platform containing the chained-up and power-suppressed Purity loyalists.

Jason tried to open a portal to the teleport square of the Adventure Society campus in Rimaros but it failed to become active. The archway appeared but remained empty instead of forming a dark portal.

"Oh, come on," he groaned. It was a potential scenario that he'd been warned about, where any time one of the islands was under attack, the defences would be activated, preventing dimensional travel. This meant a diamond-rank monster or large pack of golds was close to the city, or perhaps there was even a Builder attack.

“What is it?” Liara asked.

“The Livaros defences seem to be up,” he said.

“The monster surge is in full swing, now,” she said. “Rimaros was about due an attack.”

Jason flicked a hand at the portal and it filled with darkness.

"Look's like Arnote is fine," he said. "At least I get to go home and rest before going in to report."

Jason walked through and the archway vanished back into the ground.

“Why do you give him so much leeway?” asked Ledev.

"Because strange forces circle that man," Liara said. "Powerful people – and powerful things – have gone up against him and suffered for it."

“He would have been taken out by three silver-rankers if we hadn’t stepped in,” Ledev said. “How is that guy dangerous? I mean, for his rank he’s rock solid but that’s not the puddle he’s splashing around in.”

“We’re the only reason he was in that situation,” Jana said. “It doesn’t feel right, setting someone up like that. It wasn’t like this when we were going after necromancers. I miss knowing that we’re on the right side.”

“It was just a test,” Liara said. “We were always going to step in. He knew that himself.”

“Because he figured it out. We didn’t tell him that. Do you think it felt like a test to him?”

“No,” Liara said. “No, I don’t.”

***

Jason rested for a couple of days on Arnote, only stepping out to handle a couple of monster manifestations that occurred on or around the island. One he handled with the gold-ranker who lived nearby, cleaning up the small stuff while the gold-ranker went for the main monster.

The other encounter was out to sea. What originally seemed like a series of sea serpents turned out to be one monster with tentacles that each ended in an eel-like head, all stemming from a main body that was a ball of flesh submerged deep in the water. Jason was able to field test his specially-purchased underwater adaptation gear as he prevented the monster from attacking a boat. Normally boats didn’t sail during a monster surge but the specific circumstances around the current surge meant that additional risks were being taken.

When Jason returned to Livaros, the defences having been lifted, the streets were filled with chatter about the diamond-rank monster that attacked. Coming up from the south, it was a smoke dragon that could switch between solid and amorphous states. The population of Livaros had enjoyed a front-row seat to the battle between the monster and Zila Rimaros from behind the islands powerful dome barrier.

Jason had been disappointed not to have seen the diamond rank monster, as well as the combat ability of a diamond-rank adventurer. The locals were more than happy to discuss what they saw, although Jason already saw signs of people’s stories starting to change in the retelling.

In the course of the battle, the dome had been heavily rocked by the collateral force from the battle and the defences were now in a stage of maintenance. Normally disguised nodes all over the city were being worked on by artificer technicians. Asking around, Jason learned that they were from the Irios family.

A noble house of the highest order, the Irios family was respected both for their adventurers and their mastery of artifice, the creation of magical items. They designed and maintained the most important defences in the city, from Livaros, where the Adventure Society was located, to the royal family’s sky island. The Irios family were deeply involved in both the Magic Society and the Artificer’s Association, with a huge amount of influence in the city.

It made perfect sense that the royal family would want to maintain good relations with the Irios family. Unfortunately, a planned political marriage to the Hurricane Princess had been cancelled after the Princess met some man while away from the city and went into a formal mourning period after hearing of his death. This had created tension between the Rimaros and Irios families at a time when unity was especially important.

Jason engaged one group of artificers in conversation as they took a break from work, offering them a round of sandwiches and drinks. The appreciative magical technicians were happy to speak on the topic of the family they were proud of the and work they did for it. In addition to the islands of Rimaros, the Irios family designed and built the defences for many of the fortress towns. According to the family members at least, this led the Irios family to be known as the shield of the Storm Kingdom.

Jason was getting some sense of the magnitude of political brown stuff into which he had been dumped. During the most dangerous monster surge ever, relations between the royal family and the people who maintained the kingdom’s defences affected not just the nobility but everyone in the nation. He had been positioned as the reason that those relations were now uneasy.

As he roamed the streets of Livaros somewhat aimlessly, Jason considered the latest turd dropped on him from a very great height, courtesy of the never-ending conveyer belt in the sky. It felt like he was in an endless loop where someone powerful used him for one thing or another, he got angry, made a little speech and nothing ever changed.

Every desperate move he’d made in an attempt to overturn the board and take back some agency came with heavy consequences. He was under no illusion that anything other than luck and extreme circumstantial oddities were responsible for his continuing to be alive. Sometimes a bold move had paid off, while other times it was an inability to keep his mouth shut as the frustration inside him boiled over.

Jason’s last resurrection before the decade or longer it would take to reach gold rank had been spent for nothing. All he had to do was keep his mouth shut and not antagonise the diamond-ranker. But he couldn’t let it go. Shako, in that moment, had been the representative of all the forces bearing down on him and if he’d just rolled over instead of biting back, Jason would have lost something he could never get back. He really would have become a puppet for whoever grabbed his strings and tried to make him dance.

He had no idea what to do about it. As much as it aggravated him to be once again played with by the latest edition of the people looking to control him, he was more conscious than ever of what would happen if he lashed out blindly. The problems between the houses of Rimaros and Irios affected people who lacked even the agency Jason managed to claim for himself.

The vast majority of the Storm Kingdom’s citizens could do nothing but hope the people running things didn’t get them killed. If Jason became petulant and caused trouble, they would be the ones paying the price, not the kings and aristocrats. He needed to be patient and harden up, whether that was fair or not. He had responsibilities and there were plenty worse off than him. He was rich and powerful and it was time to stop being a Thadwick.

As for what that meant specifically, he had no idea. He had to be quiet; to listen more than he spoke and to learn more than he revealed. It was a far cry from his strong suit, but if he wanted things to go better than they had in the past, he needed to be better himself.

With a renewed sense of direction, even if it was only in attitude, Jason set out for the Adventure Society campus.

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Shirtaloon (Travis Deverell)

  • Australia

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