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Liara, Vesper and the thus-far silent Trenchant Moore were sitting across from Jason and his team in an Adventure Society conference room. Liara tapped a folder on the table in front of her.

“The reason the society gave me so much leeway with the contract you all just completed was that it was part of a wider test program. This monster surge is unlike anything that has come before. You're all aware of the specifics, so I won't waste time repeating what you already know. The Adventure Society had been trying out new approaches to handle new problems. One of those problems is the safety of the more remote fortress towns. They've been exposed and under-supplied to a greater degree than anticipated.”

“Our contract was a test for a potential response?” Humphrey asked.

“Exactly,” Liara said. “The Adventure Society is increasing the resource allocation to the outlying regions but things are tight on every front. Our use of those resources needs to be as efficient as possible. The idea is to take some of the less-critical guild teams and the more capable independent teams and send them out on similar contracts. Some were already sent out before you even returned, and the early results are very positive. More reliable supply routes. Fortress towns burning through fewer resources with their active defences. We’ve even managed to take out a few Purity adherents, although we’ve lost people to them as well.”

“We didn’t encounter any during our contract,” Jason said. “To be honest, I’m a little disappointed. You weren’t following me again were you, Liara?”

“I was not. You have your team, now.”

“This is all very gratifying,” Humphrey said, “but I don’t think you called us in here to tell us we did a good job.”

“Your team is unusual,” Liara said. “Multiple portal or teleport powers, plus multiple, personal storage spaces. We want you to specialise in this kind of contract. We want to deploy you all over the Storm Kingdom so you have as many portal destinations as possible. Not only will this allow you to provide emergency supplies when regular supply runs fall short but you will be available for rapid-response to Builder activity. Given your aptitude in this area, Mr Asano, we want you at the forefront. Your team also has more experience than most at facing the Builder and winning.”

“We are at the disposal of the Adventure Society,” Humphrey said.

“Good,” Liara said. “This leaves us with the other topic for today’s meeting.”

She leaned back in her chair, looking to Vesper at her side.

“The political aspect,” Vesper said. “I'm sure you've explained everything to your team so, instead of rehashing details, I'll move directly on to what comes next. Despite everything going on, social gatherings continue to be a part of Rimaros high society. These are not just indulgences of the privileged but important events that allow the powerful players of the kingdom to settle high-level affairs.”

“And you need me to parade around,” Jason said.

“Yes,” Vesper said. “The real power brokers won’t be taken in by our little charade, but the families to which they belong are the tools they use for negotiation. And to the noble houses, leverage and reputation is everything. The games must be played in the front rooms so the work can be done in the back. If the Irios family looks too weak, they have to divert resources from what they should be doing to protect themselves. I don't have to explain why that is undesirable, especially now.”

“Can’t they just ignore the people nipping at their heels until the monster surge is over?” Neil asked.

“No,” Jason said. “If they get attacked and refuse to defend themselves, things just get worse faster.”

Vesper nodded at Jason appreciatively.

“Just so,” she said. “If they do not stand up for themselves, their detractors would only become emboldened and push harder and my family can only go so far to protect them. My family rule this kingdom, but we do not rule alone. The aristocratic houses form a delicate balance of forces that need to be managed. If we show too much favouritism, even now, it weakens us, which weakens the kingdom.”

“You don’t need to sell me on the reasons, Princess Vesper,” Jason said. “I told you I’m in and I rarely make an alliance specifically to murder all the people in it.”

“I wanted to get you in front of people following the expedition we went on together, but you’ve been away. We’re going to make it happen before you head out on another contract, and we need to get you ready for that. Etiquette. Dancing, general decorum. I have no doubt that you’ll go ahead and break the rules, but you should at least take the time to learn them first.”

“So, you and I will be spending some time together,” Jason said.

“There is still a monster surge happening,” Humphrey said. “I don't want this taking too much time away from our Adventure Society duties.”

“Which is why we are starting right now,” Vesper said. “You need to come with me, Mr Asano.”

“Yes, Mistress.”

Vesper closed her eyes as she pressed her lips thinly together, managing to hold back a response. She got up, turned off the privacy screen and left. Jason waggled his eyebrows at his team as he got up and followed her out.

“She really doesn’t like him,” Neil said.

“Yep,” Belinda agreed.

“Think they’re going to…?”

“Definitely,” Belinda said. “They’re going to break a bed. Maybe even a wall.”

“That is a princess of the realm,” Humphrey admonished. “At least do her the respect of voicing those opinions behind closed doors.”

He turned to Liara and the still-silent Trenchant Moore.

“I apologise for the lack of decorum on the part of my team members,” he said. “They’re mostly thieves and hooligans.”

***

The Purity enclave was underground in a cave system filled with luminescent crystals with a subterranean river. It had long ago been worked from natural stone into a temple and dormitory, in preparation for the days now at hand.

The Purity church’s Order of Redeeming Light had been making preparations in the Storm Kingdom for many years. When other wings of the church had grown impatient and revealed their hands early, it had brought about the public downfall of the church. Only the most diligent orders within the church, with the stomach for patience and the faith for obedience were left to carry out the mission that would turn recent history on its head and bring purification to the world.

For some orders, their task was to bring forth an army of pure beings to cleanse the filth from the world. The Order of Redeeming Light had another purpose. Theirs was to take that which was unclean and purify it, forging weapons redeemed from an unclean world.

Melody Jain was the leader of the enclave and her second in command, Sendira, was midway through reporting what their scouts had discovered. The order was largely comprised of holy warriors, but they also had a priest to serve as advisor and connection to the god. Their priest was a human named Laront, who was as young as his handsome face suggested, his silver rank not yet needed to stave off the ageing process.

“The Adventure Society is increasing their activity in the outlying reaches. They know we are out here and that we are acting. We should prepare to move before they understand why.”

Melody nodded.

“Agreed. Make preparations, but we must choose our moment well. Something is coming from the north that will draw all the attention away from us.”

“May I ask what is coming?”

“Our Lord has warned me of the unclean ally moving one of his great forces south,” the priest said. “The Storm Kingdom has angered it and it wished to make an example.”

“That is when we make our move,” Melody said.

“And what of Asano? Do we still need to capture him before we kill him for the ally?”

“No,” Melody said. “I wanted him captured so I could use him to lure my daughter here. Our informants in Rimaros have told us that she is here. Now, we can be reunited and she can be cleansed.”

“And if she is unwilling?”

“It does not matter,” Melody said. “I was unwilling, yet now I am pure. She can be forgiven her ignorance, once we have burned it out of her. I was once forced to leave my child behind and now my family shall be reunited.”

***

Liara and Trenchant were making their way back to the royal sky island, sitting opposite one another in a flying carriage.

“I’m concerned about Vesper,” Liara said. “She is being far too easily riled by Asano and his companions. They have the passion of youth but they’re children. She shouldn’t be letting them throw her off balance and I’m unsure why she is.”

“Her highness, Princess Vesper, has always held more administrative ambitions,” Trenchant explained. “Her adventuring has always been sporadic, only undertaken to advance her rank. It was never a calling. Monster surges are normally quiet, politically, so these have been the times she most actively pursues advancement.”

“You’re suggesting she’s upset because the politics is keeping her from going out and ranking up?”

“No,” Trenchant said. “My point is that Vesper is not like you and I. Her world is a political one where appearance is substance and trust goes only as far as mutual interest. When she adventured, her teams were fleeting and assembled from those whose ambitions were not centred on the mission. She has never experienced a team whose camaraderie was forged in fire, the ways ours were.”

“The way Asano’s was,” Liara said.

“Yes,” Trenchant said. “Asano’s aura may be a closed book to us, but you felt the others. You sensed the bond they have. The trust that comes from pulling each other back from the bloody edge. Not just them, either.”

“Farrah Hurin.”

“I don’t know everything they have been through,” Trenchant said, “but it gave her the passion and the loyalty to march into a royal palace to tear strips off a diamond-ranker. It’s brash and foolish, but also formidable.”

“You admire them.”

“Yes. I am a weapon of politicians but I do not care for politics. It is far too often the enemy of integrity. Asano and his team are young and foolish but they are adventurers to the bone. Vesper knows that. Her silver rank isn’t enough to read their auras but she’s felt the loyalty they have. The willingness to go all the way to the wall for someone doesn’t fit her world of compromise and benefits and it unnerves her.”

“Why?”

“Because she instinctively understands that they are willing to go further than she is. They flaunt it because they understand that Asano is not stable right now and are very protective of him. There is something inherently intimidating about absolute commitment. It’s part of what makes zealots such troubling enemies.”

“And politicians always leave room for compromise and always leave a way out.”

“I have seen exceptions, but they didn't tend to be all that successful as politicians. To an adventurer, absolute commitment to your team is a strength. To a politician, that rigidity is a weakness. But Vesper is being forced to accept Asano and his people on their terms. This is not a good situation for her.”

“Asano is not an enemy we want in the future,” Liara said. “Antagonising him now is not good for us.”

“No, but we must also look to the needs of today, which is where Vesper excels. Unfortunately, she is being told no at every turn. The other major problem she faces is that she’s been instructed to play her own game, but by someone else’s rules.”

“How so?”

“Out of Asano’s circle, only Humphrey Geller and Rufus Remore are people she should even be aware of. Even then, only peripherally. They’re a group of silver-rankers, far from home and the central bases of their power. Yet they are moving in circles with gold and diamond-rankers. Higher still, if you consider some of what we've only surmised about Asano and Farrah Hurin. The hierarchy of rank is a central pillar of political interaction, yet Asano disregards it entirely. More importantly, his Ancestral Majesty supports him in this."

“I never really thought about that,” Liara said. “I’ve mostly been dealing with him from an Adventure Society perspective, which Asano seems to respect. The political side is very different.”

"Asano is clearly used to dealing with authorities more powerful than himself. He doesn't like how that has gone in the past and has resolved to not let himself be pushed down. This conflicts with Vesper both directly and ideologically, yet his Ancestral Majesty's wishes force her to capitulate to Asano and his erratic whims. In some ways, your ancestor is using Princess Vesper as a tool more than he is Asano. When you are that powerful and that old, perhaps that is how you come to see the people around you.”

“What should I do about Vesper?”

“Support her,” Trenchant advised. “Make sure she understands that she isn’t isolated and there are people on her side. Otherwise, she’ll end up like Asano: brittle, sharp and lashing out at any hand reaching out to her.”

***

In the outer reaches of Rimaros, the windmill-like storm accumulators drained magic from the Sea of Storm's eponymous weather events to both shield the city and help power its infrastructure. A small flying vessel passed over the line of accumulators on its passage towards the city. It had the signature industrial iron look of the Builder's vessels and was being escorted by Zila Rimaros. Soramir Rimaros has sensed their approach and rapidly arrived to intercept, arriving on a floating cloud that sparkled with gold and silver light.

“What is this?” he asked of Zila.

“It emerged from the underwater city while I was monitoring it and approached me," Zila said. “Nothing onboard is stronger than silver-rank. It poses no threat.”

Their powerful senses could easily penetrate the vessel, which was crewed by constructs. Only one living thing was aboard; a silver-rank cultist.

“He’s claimed peaceful passage as an envoy to the Storm Kingdom,” Zila said. “He wishes to speak with someone who can represent the Storm Kingdom.”

“You were not enough?”

“I thought it would be best to defer to you, in this.”

“And what does he want? What does the Builder want?”

The cultist emerged onto the deck wearing plain, hooded grey robes. It held no fear, even in the face of diamond-rankers. They could sense not just a willingness, but an expectation of death.

“I am a herald of war,” he said. “I come with a message. A declaration.”

“Let us hear it, then,” Soramir told him.

“Your kingdom was offered escape from my master's intentions, and you rejected his goodwill. As a result, your kingdom will pay the price. He is no longer just coming for your astral spaces. He shall despoil your lands and massacre your people. He is the Builder, but all your works shall be unmade, Soramir Rimaros. Everything you have built shall be rendered unto dust.”

“Is that it? Soramir asked. “That’s the whole message?”

“It is. You may kill me now, for my task is done.”

“Why bother. Go back and tell your master he could have just sent a note.”

Soramir turned around and shot back toward the city.

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Shirtaloon (Travis Deverell)

  • Australia

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