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Autumn Leal was tired. In the course of what she had thought was an ordinary delivery run, she was ambushed by a team of Purity loyalists. Outnumbered and outmatched, she had thought she was done for until the guild team she hadn’t known were trailing her in stealth appeared. They captured and took away the loyalists that survived the resulting ambush, leaving Autumn to complete her supply contract.

She didn’t like being bait, but she did like coming home alive, so she called the whole thing even, completed her deliveries and returned to the airship for the trip back. The airship was diverted slightly to pick up an expedition of adventurers operating in the wilderness, who proved to be an unusual bunch. There was a guild team, some unaffiliated adventurers and prisoners who turned out to be some of the Builder cultists that people had been talking about for so long. The magic rods sticking out of their flesh seemed to be triggering strange aura reaction, making them seem alien and bizarre.

More unusual still, at least to her, was the member of the group she recognised. The final trio of the expedition’s membership was made up of Jason Asano, along with two women with the iconic blue hair of the Rimaros family. They were talking inside a privacy screen when Jason spotted her and left the screen to approach her across the deck.

“G’day,” he said to her, his words accompanied by a smile that looked at weary as she felt. “Another delivery contract?”

“Yes,” she said warily, nodding in the direction of the blue-haired women. “Are they…?”

“Yeah.”

***

The skyship Jason was riding in was an unusual design. It looked like an ordinary ship suspended from three hot air balloons by huge brass chains, except that the balloons were massive, pale blue crystals. Looking for some solitude, Jason slipped over the side and under the ship, conjuring his cloak to keep him aloft. A shadow arm emerged from his back to grip the keel of the ship, forming a tether that pulled Jason along as he watched the landscape pass below.

“Look at this,” he said happily. “This is how it’s meant to be. Magic and wonders.”

Shade emerged from Jason’s shadowy cloak to float alongside Jason.

“Loath as I am to interrupt your moment of peace, Mr Asano, Miss Hurin has requested to speak with you. Again. She is becoming increasingly concerned at my repeated refusals. I normally wouldn’t bring it up, but it is Miss Hurin.”

“Quite right,” Jason said.

As much as he was enjoying drifting through the air, he owed Farrah too much to leave her hanging any longer. He’d already brushed her off too many times during his recent emo rampage. He closed his eyes, felt for the connection to Shade and expanded his senses. He saw through the body Shade had left in the cloud house, where Farrah was pacing back and forth in agitation.

“I’m fine,” Jason said through the familiar.

“Fine nothing,” she said, wheeling on Shade. “I’d reach through Shade and choke you if I could. What were you thinking, running off in that frame of mind?”

“It wasn’t the best choice,” Jason acknowledged. “At least that's on-brand for me.”

“You think cracking jokes will make me forget that you’re one self-impressed aristocrat away from murdering someone that will get you in real trouble?”

“It’s alright, Farrah. Shade pulled me back from the precipice.”

“The precipice of what?”

“Maybe we can talk about this when I’m not hanging from the underside of a skyship.”

“Why are you doing that?”

“Why isn’t everyone? It’s awesome. I just… I needed something fun, Farrah. Something simple and joyous. It’s easy to forget that’s a thing, you know?”

In the cloud house, Farrah dropped into a chair as if the rage propping her up had just run out, leaving only tiredness and concern.

“Jason, I don’t like you being out there alone. Not when you’re running the ragged edge.”

“I’m not alone. And these Rimaros people aren’t so bad, as it turns out. I mean, the royal family dragging me into their mess was a dick move, but they did think I wasn’t around to get hurt. They might have their own agendas, but they seem pretty decent. It’s a little sad that came as a surprise.”

“Are you at least on the way back?”

“Yeah, but I’m not going to portal.”

Farrah nodded.

“You don’t break up the expedition until the contract is done,” she said. “During the monster surge, that means when everyone is home safe.”

***

The airship descended through the skies of Rimaros. As it headed for the sky dock towers on the island of Livaros, they entered a rapidly increasing level of air traffic. One vehicle stood out, both for its design and the fact that it was heading for the royal sky island and not Livaros.

“Is that a flying cottage?” Zara asked.

A rustic garden cottage, complete with garden, was moving through the air within a shimmering orb. Jason took his eyes from the orb to peer at Vesper’s feet. Vesper noticed his gaze.

“What are you looking at?” she asked.

“I was just wondering if you had ruby slippers.”

“Why?”

“Do you?”

“No.”

Jason pointed up at the cottage.

“You should be careful it doesn’t fall on you anyway. I’ve seen that happen before.”

“You’ve seen that vessel before?” Zara asked.

“Not in person, but there’s a famous story about something similar where I come from. If I recall correctly, isn’t the main road connecting the towns on Arnote made of yellow bricks?”

“What in the world are you talking about?” Vesper asked.

***

Soramir and Liara were waiting on a landing platform on top of the royal palace. Trenchant Moore was standing silently behind them.

“Do not speak unless addressed directly,” Soramir instructed Liara. “She’s not known for being tolerant of mortals. When I bow, you don’t.”

“Why not?”

“Because you’re a Rimaros. Never bow unless you know exactly why you’re doing it. You can bow, Commander Moore.”

“As you will it, Ancestral Majesty.”

Soramir's behaviour gave Liara far more effective warning than his words. For her entire life he had been a legend; an unseen figure representing the pinnacle of power and authority. He had been far more approachable in his sensibilities than she had expected on finally meeting him, but still radiated power that placed him second in her mind only to the gods. To see him almost nervous was an unsettling revelation.

The cottage orb paused at the invisible magic barrier, where even the most prestigious visitors went through rigorous checks. The diamond-rank Zila Rimaros oversaw the checks, going into the cottage for a time before emerging and flying off. The vehicle moved through the magical barrier and floated down to settle on the platform, the orb vanishing to leave a cottage garden incongruously sitting on the roof of the royal palace. The door opened and a woman emerged.

She was a celestine with ruby hair and alabaster skin; a fiery contrast to the cool, sapphire blue of the three Rimaros royals. She wore a white summer dress with embellishments of yellow and orange. The dressed swayed gently as she made her way down the path to stand before the trio, greeting them with a slight nod. Soramir responded with a bow as Trenchant Moore behind him echoed the gesture.

“First Sister, we are honoured by your visit,” Soramir said in greeting.

“I have passed the position of First Sister along,” Dawn said.

“My apologies, Hierophant.”

“I see that you are not unschooled in the disposition of the wider cosmos.”

“Yes, Hierophant. I have spent some time travelling beyond my world. I have only returned in these times of trouble. I must thank you for accepting my request and visiting us. I am in your debt, both for bringing your knowledge and grace to our kingdom and for accepting my request to bring certain people with you.”

“Actually, Lord Rimaros, there was a problem with your request.”

Liara felt Soramir go tense next to her.

“Problem, Hierophant?”

A slight smile teased the corner of Dawn’s lips.

“The list of names you wished me to bring along was incomplete. A failure of communication, perhaps. I took it upon myself to add the appropriate names and bring them with me.”

Soramir relaxed.

“Thank you for correcting my oversight, Hierophant. I am in your debt over again. We have prepared accommodations for you, or will you perhaps be staying with friends?”

“Your accommodations will no doubt be sufficient to my needs,” Dawn said.

“Then please come with me. My descendent, Liara, and the highly capable Commander Moore will see to the disposition of the people you have brought with you.”

Dawn turned to look at the cottage and eleven people emerged, looking around. A half-dozen were silver rank, along with four bronze-rankers and one gold. Most were human but there was a leonid, an elf and a celestine amongst them. There were also two outworlders, both bronze-rank. One had clearly been a human originally, and while the other one was as well, in poor lighting he could be confused for a leonid or even a life-like golem. She had never seen a human standing next to a leonid without being dwarfed before.

Soramir’s attention was drawn to the sword the leonid was carrying loosely by the scabbard. The scabbard was suppressing the aura within, but his powerful senses saw through it. The aura was identical to that of Jason Asano, to the point of Soramir almost felt like Asano was standing in front of him. Part of that was the sword had a profound soul bond to its owner, and part was the nature of Asano himself. Soramir knew what a gestalt being was and that this nature was responsible for Asano's aura feeling almost tangible. His soul was not separate from his physical being, giving a substantive feeling to the projection of that soul, his aura.

Dawn followed Soramir’s gaze and reached out to touch the pommel of the weapon. It disappeared from his senses as completely as if it had been teleported away. Soramir recognised that it was not any kind of essence ability that hid it but pure aura manipulation. He wondered if Dawn had been responsible for Jason’s aura control, which was as formidable for his rank as his aura’s strength. He was not fool enough to ask the question, however.

Once the people had walked off the cottage garden and onto the large landing pad, the cottage floated into the air. The globe once more appeared around it as the cottage rapidly shrank. Once it was small enough to fly into Dawn’s hand, she set it at the point where her dress cinched at the waist, the globe hanging like an ornament despite not being attached to anything.

Soramir led Dawn away, leaving the gaggle of people to Liara and Trenchant. Trenchant moved up to stand beside Liara as one of the group stepped forward. To the surprise of Liara and Trenchant, it was not the gold-ranker, who stayed at the back, but one of the silvers. He was a large human with broad shoulders, olive complexion and dark hair. He bowed to a carefully measured depth to each of the gold-rankers, demonstrating his etiquette training.

“My name is Humphrey Geller, of Greenstone.”

“Liara Rimaros. This is Commander Trenchant Moore of the royal guard.”

“Greetings, your highness. Commander. On behalf of my companions, I thank you for your hospitality.”

“That’s a princess? This day’s turning out pretty sweet.”

“Taika! You’re making Humphrey look bad.”

“Sorry, Neil. Sorry Princess, bro. It’s nice to meet you all.”

The man-mountain’s voice was friendly and surprisingly high-pitched. The celestine and another silver rank woman snorted out laughter while Humphrey took on a long-suffering expression.

“Lindy!”

“Clive, he called her Princess bro. How are you not laughing?”

“Time and place, Belinda,” Clive said.

“Sophie’s laughing too,” Belinda pointed out.

“I don’t think Clive’s stupid enough to tell her off,” Gary said. “She’s too scary.”

“That’s sweet of you to say, Gary,” Sophie told him, putting a hand on his forearm.

“I apologise for my companions, your highness,” Humphrey said. “They’re working adventurers and spent little time in high society.”

"At least we won't need to double-check who they are," Trenchant said. "They're very obviously the companions of Jason Asano."

The auras of the group had been a mix of curiosity, wonder, eagerness, trepidation and nervousness. As soon as Jason Asano’s name passed Trenchant’s lips, that changed. Six auras locked onto Trenchant like snipers. The others reacted, but the six that were now raptor-focused on Trenchant were suddenly so sharp and alert that Liara felt her hackles rise. Even though she outranked them all and the attention wasn’t directed at her, it was pointed enough that she was impressed at Trenchant’s lack of reaction.

Of the visitors, only the unreadable gold ranker at the back maintained her equanimity at the mention of Asano. She stepped forward to defuse the situation.

“We are all acquaintances of Mr Asano,” she said, with a short bow. “Arabelle Remore, of Vitesse. While we don’t wish to be rude, we have travelled far to meet friends long thought lost to us. We do not wish to dismiss your hospitality but we would like to see Jason Asano and Farrah Hurin at the earliest opportunity. My son should be with them.”

“Jason Asano is currently on a contract,” Liara said. “It was moved up unexpectedly due to Builder activity, so he is expected back shortly. As far as I know, Miss Hurin and Mr Remore should be at their shared residence on Arnote, one of the main islands of Rimaros.”

“If you will follow me,” Trenchant Moore said, “I will take you there directly.”

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Shirtaloon (Travis Deverell)

  • Australia

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