“I still say we should have fished whatever that thing was out of that fire lake,” one of the guild team members said.
“We weren’t there to kill monsters,” said Korinne, the team leader. “We were there to stop the Builder cult from prying the astral space off the side of our world and blasting this whole region apart in the process.”
The expedition had just emerged from the astral space and the expedition leader, Jeni, was setting up a device that would seal the astral space aperture. She had roped Jason, who was an astral magic specialist, into helping.
“If the Builder sends more people, this will only slow them down, not stop them,” Jason assessed.
“We can’t permanently assign a protective detail with everything else going on,” Jeni explained. “We don’t have the people. There are scout patrols that check on the astral space apertures, but this is the first line of defence. As you said, it will slow them down if they come back, plus send out a signal if it gets interfered with. It will buy us time to formulate a response."
They finished up and the expedition got ready to move out. The prisoners had been implanted with rune-covered spiked rods, buried in the flesh of their arms, legs and torso. The rods had a similar suppressive effect on star seeds as Jason’s abilities, preventing self-detonation.
“They gave me the rods, but we weren’t anticipating prisoners,” Jeni said, looking at them. “Normally it’s hard to catch them before they self detonate, so you only get prisoners when you plan the operation around it.”
Four of the five prisoners were sitting on the ground in a cluster, fearful eyes locked on Jason. The last was still unconscious from what Jason had done to him.
“Want me to transport them?” Jason asked.
“If you have something that will work,” Jeni said.
“Shade, what have you got?”
Darkness spilled out of Jason’s shadow and took the form of a giant black beetle, the size of a bread van. Along its sides were thin, vertical gaps in the chitinous exterior, revealing the insect’s interior to be mostly hollow. The hard, interior shell made for a secure space with room for half-a-dozen people at a squeeze. The top and bottom halves of almost the entire carapace opened up like a set of enormous jaws, make a gap through which the prisoners could be shoved.
“Tartarian beetle,” Jeni said, moving around the beetle as she looked it over. “They capture prey and carry it around with them, keeping it alive for days before eating it. Never seen a black one before.”
"That does not look comfortable," Jason said. "Will it do?"
"I can live with not comfortable. Is it going to eat them?"
“I don’t know. Shade, are you going to eat them?”
“Mr Asano, I shall refrain from dignifying that with a response.”
Jason and Jeni loaded the prisoners into the maw of the beetle, which was oddly like pushing them into the back of a van. Jason reflected that it was a mundane feeling for such a bizarre experience as shoving a bunch of people into a giant insect. While they were doing that, the rest of the group continued to talk amongst themselves, with the self-confident guild team being the loudest.
“It wasn’t much of a force,” team scout Rosa said. “They didn’t even have a gold ranker.”
“This is a minor astral space, which is why it’s in a cave in the middle of the jungle,” said the team leader, Korinne. “If there was anything worth harvesting out of it, there’d be a village here and we wouldn’t have to make our own road. If it wouldn’t be so destructive, they’d probably let the Builder have the damn thing. It’s probably not worth much more to him than to us.”
“You think that was really the Builder talking through those creepy people?” Rosa asked.
“I don’t see why not,” Korinne told her. “Gods show up in worship squares every day, and he’s some kind of weird god, right?”
“No way that was the real thing. Probably some local cult leader using a weird power to speak through his troops. He just claimed to be the Builder to impress us. That deal he offered was a steaming pile.”
“I don’t know. You felt that aura, right? That was divine.”
“It wasn’t divine,” Orin said, which drew the group’s attention. As with most people who spoke rarely, people listened when he did.
“They were silver and bronze-rank auras,” Orin said. “The power didn’t change. They just had something inside them that made them feel like that. Asano has it too, but nowhere near as much.”
“You got a good look at Asano’s aura?” Korinne asked.
The others had only sensed Jason's aura unleashed in the midst of battle when there had been many other auras overlapping. He also hadn't pushed it out with the oppressive strength he was capable of, blending it in so that he could leave the fight unnoticed.
"He showed it to me so I'd know to not make trouble," Orin said.
“You think that’s how he makes those things fight each other? He’s got some Builder in him?”
"It wasn't Builder in him," Orin said. "Not alien like those people. It was gods. I've seen it before. When gods touch your soul, they leave a mark."
The group all looked to Asano, shoving people into a giant insect.
“Who is that guy?” Korrine said, voicing the question they were all thinking.
The two princesses, meanwhile, were talking within a privacy screen as they stood side by side. Zara’s eyes were on Jason while Vesper was watching the guild team.
“This couldn’t have gone better,” she said, rubbing her hands together. "The Builder showing up in person? Kind of, at least. I'm not clear on how Asano got those things fighting one another or got into that astral space, which means no one else is, either. Plus, that new, dark side to him? Yes, please.”
“I don’t think this is as good an outcome as you seem to think,” Zara told her.
“This has gone beyond my most optimistic expectations for this expedition. Now you just have to get him to talk to you before we get back. Just make sure people see you and that you use a privacy screen. Keep it mysterious; we want people wondering.”
“Aunt Vesper, it’s clear that he’s not in a good place right now.”
“It’s good for me.”
“Aunt Vesper,” Zara admonished.
“Just look at the way the expedition is grouped. The guild members over there, us here, unaffiliated off to the side. Asano should be with them, but he’s not. He’s with the gold-ranker, talking like an equal. Even if people don’t think about it, they notice it. It places him within a hierarchy of importance in their minds without them even realising.”
“I think Asano might be volatile.”
“Volatile is working out.”
“Fine. It’s not like I was serious about having him murdered.”
“About having him what?”
“Look, if you want to listen to him talk about his feelings or whatever, that’s your business. Just do it behind a privacy screen, as I said. Remember why we’re here.”
“I know why I’m here,” Zara said. “I’m still not sure why you are.”
“I needed to keep an eye on things.”
“Liara said it was because Trenchant Moore teased you.”
“Liara has a big mouth.”
As the group pulled out their various means of transport, Jason looked at the pathway the expedition had opened up through the jungle. It was a trail of destruction leading off into the distance.
“I assume that was you," he said to Jeni.
“One of my expedition subordinates went off against orders to provoke the enemy, so I didn’t want to tarry.”
“Sorry about that. I’m kind of working through some stuff.”
“You’ll forgive me if I try to avoid working with you again. Whether it’s grim murder mode or whatever cheerful front you’re putting up now, you’re neither honest nor stable.”
“That seems a little harsh.”
“Harsh? Do you think killing a lot of enemies by yourself gets you anything? I could let the guild team loose like a dog in a butcher shop and they'd tear through anything you found here. All you mean to me are questions you won't answer, orders you won't follow and running off alone to mess up the group's plans. Do you think my assessment of your performance on this contract will be anything but scathing? I was specifically asked to assess you for potential promotion to two stars, but I'll be arguing against it in the strongest possible terms."
“That’s fair,” he said. “Star rating is based on judgement, and even I don’t trust mine right now.”
Jeni gave him a concerned look.
“I don’t know what you have going on Asano, but go to the church of the Healer. Get some help.”
An ice cloud appeared at Jeni’s feet and she headed off. Jason took another look at the path of destruction, which was quite thorough.
“I reckon a regular skimmer could manage that. What do you think, Shade?”
“I could manage a small airship, rather than the group needing to rendezvous with one.”
“I think we’ve shown quite enough of the rabbits in our hat for one day,” Jason said. “Let’s stick with a skimmer.”
Shade took the form of a skimmer, parked next to the giant beetle, while Jason walked over to the princesses. The rest of the expedition pretended they weren’t watching. Vesper was on her Sapphire heidel, while Zara was standing on what looked like a miniature hurricane.
“Give you a ride, Princess?” Jason asked Zara. “It’s past time you and I had a little talk.”
“She’d love to,” Vesper said, setting off on her construct creature steed.
The small storm at Zara’s feet dissipated and she followed Jason to the skimmer. It was a heavy skimmer with comfortable seating for four, much like he had used for most of his delivery contract. He opened the side door and got in the back, Zara doing the same to sit next to him. Jason pulled the privacy screen pin from his inventory and pinned it to his chest before tapping it to activate.
The expedition was taking off, following Jeni The skimmer moved forward smoothly on its own as Jason and Zara sat in silence, unsure of what to say.
“When you came stumbling into my tent, those years ago,” Zara said finally, “I never imagined we’d end up here.”
Jason turned to look at her. Even at iron-rank, she'd been as stunningly beautiful as anyone he'd ever seen. It had driven him to flirt with her at the time, but that inclination was dead.
“I was going to haul off on you,” he said. “I was going to tell you all about why I’m running around so angry.”
“I don’t think you’re angry, Mr Asano. I don’t see rage when I look at you. I see a tiredness that will take more than rest to recover from.”
Jason looked away from the princess.
“You’re very different,” he said wearily.
“You too. I am sorry for getting you involved in my mess.”
“There’s no changing it now. All we can do is move forward”.
“You must hate me.”
“I don’t hate you, Princess. I understand knowing that you’ll have to shake the tree if you want anything to fall out. I’ve made those choices, willing to pay the price, only for the people around me to do the paying.”
“Learn faster than I did, Princess. Shade, stop the skimmer.”
The skimmer slowed to a halt.
“You have something that you need to do,” Jason said, then tapped his pin to drop the privacy shield. She got out of the skimmer and turned to look at him.
“This isn’t three years ago, Asano,” she said coldly, “and this isn’t some provincial backwater on the far side of the globe. I have responsibilities as a member of the Rimaros family and I won’t let you get in the way of that.”
Her travel cloud appeared at her feet and she took off after the still-moving expedition.
“Let’s get going, Shade.”