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Jason and Dawn walked towards each other until they were face to face.

“No,” she repeated.

“Dawn.”

“I said no.”

“Yeah,” Jason said softly. “You did.”

She wheeled around, turning her back on him as she ran a frustrated hand over her face. The rest of the room’s occupants looked on in confused silence, aside from Soramir. He was looking at them with narrowed eyes.

“Why do you have to be like this?” Dawn asked, her back still to Jason. “Time and again, why are you so eager to make the sacrifice?”

“You know me,” Jason said, the habitual amusement in his voice a transparent veneer over his sober undertone. “Hero complex.”

“How many times were you the one to step out on Earth when the factions were squabbling over meaningless scraps like scavengers?”

“You stepped out with me. You, me and Farrah.”

“And look at what it did to you. You’re a vase smashed and put back together so many times you’re more glue than pottery.”

“That’s a little hurtful.”

She turned back around to face him.

“Why do you always have to make things so difficult?” she asked.

“I’m a delight to work with.”

“When I first tried to work with you, you killed me.”

“It was one time.”

“You looted my corpse.”

“I was meant to pass that up? You’re a diamond-ranker. That made me rich.”

“You’re an idiot,” she said.

“That’s not news to anyone. If I were smarter, I wouldn’t be the one standing here. It took me way too many stupid choices to get this far. Why stop now?”

The Storm King cleared his throat.

“Perhaps one of you would care to enlighten the rest of us as to what you are discussing.”

“Your ancestor should have figured most of it out,” Jason said, not taking his eyes from Dawn. “Why don’t you go ahead and explain, Soramir.”

“The Hierophant is allowed to intervene in our world a single time,” Soramir said. “Even if we call in aid, we can, at most, eliminate a single one of the two cities bearing down on our kingdom. I believe Mr Asano wants her to use her one intervention to deal with the other city.”

“Is that even possible for one person?” The King asked.

“If she is the person,” Soramir said, “Then I believe so.”

The King turned to Dawn.

“Lady Hierophant. What would it take for such a feat to be even possible?”

Dawn turned her gaze on the king.

“No one telling me I can’t.”

She turned back to Jason as the others exchanged uncertain looks, except for Soramir and the king. Soramir revealed nothing on his expression, while the king had just caught a dose of Dawn’s aura and was looking shell-shocked.

“Uh… may I say something?” Rick said in the pause.

“Go ahead, Rick,” Jason said.

“The two diamond-rankers from the northern continent who were part of the failed attack on the rolling city are still trailing it with the outrider teams. I don’t want to speak for diamond rankers but it seems likely they’ll help.”

"That would make seven," Zila said. “Perhaps that would be enough to handle one city and then the other."

“It won’t be,” Dawn said.

“May I ask a question?” Vesper said.

“I think any perspective is valuable right now,” Soramir said. “Please go ahead, Vesper.”

“Lady Hierophant,” Vesper said. “Why are you talking like Jason is the one who gets to choose if you act? Why were we summoned to attend this briefing?”

“Because I did not come to this world to help protect it from the Builder,” Dawn said. “Warning the Adventure Society and the governments was my personal decision, but you have the strength to fight for yourselves. I was sent here to see that Jason Asano completes the task for which he returned to this world.”

“Just to be clear,” Jason said. “I was coming back anyway.”

“Jason is not important to your world,” Dawn said. “He was important in that he helped trigger the long-delayed monster surge, but that is done. What he needs to do now is for another world, not this one. I was sent to make sure that task was carried out, which cannot be done until the monster surge is over.”

“What I have to do doesn’t matter,” Jason said, forestalling questions.

“The point,” Dawn said, “is that my intervention needs to be used to keep Jason alive.”

“And you claim this task is worth leaving my kingdom to fall?” The Storm King asked.

“Yes,” Dawn said. “Your kingdom has many people, but if Asano fails, his entire world dies.

“I’m still unsure as to why Asano gets to choose whether you help us or not,” Vesper said. “Aren’t you in control of your own intervention?”

“Jason cannot control my intervention,” Dawn said. “What he does know is that if he runs off and attacks one of these cities, I will go and pull him out. And since I am intervening anyway, there is no reason to use anything but my full measure of power.”

“Like holding himself hostage?” Rick asked.

“But that only works so long as he’s willing to make a suicide rush at one of these cities with complete commitment,” Vesper said. “Why would he do that? What would it get him?”

“It gets me acting to assist the Storm Kingdom,” Dawn said.

“You’re saying,” Vesper said, “that he will go that far just to force your hand into helping us when it gets him nothing and costs him what has to be his strongest asset in this world. I ask again: why?”

“What kind of question is that?” Jason asked. “We’re talking about a kingdom full of people. Maybe you can do some evacuating, but it’s the people with power that’ll escape the Builder’s forces moving in. The others will all get left behind. It’s not heroic to give up a safety net if it can help millions of people. It’s the bare minimum you can do and still be a person.”

“I cannot stop Jason and take him far from here without intervening,” Dawn said. “Your family could, but why would they? He’s trying to save your kingdom. His ability to force my hand is why it is effectively his choice as to whether or not I intervene. All I can do is try and convince him to take his allies and leave.”

She turned her gaze back on Jason.

"Which he will not. He is stubbornly human for an outworlder. Again and again, I have watched him sacrifice for those who turned around and treated him poorly. Exploited him. And he kept doing it, even when it made his own family fear what it turned him into. That is how far he will go to secure my assistance for you, for no more reason than you need him to."

“They get it, Dawn. I have a hero complex.”

“I’m asking you to walk away, Jason. You would risk billions of people and a world full of life arguably more deserving of help than the human race for one kingdom.”

“Dawn, why ask when you already know the answer?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “Perhaps in the hope that all you’ve been through is finally enough. Perhaps because I like knowing that it never will be. You don’t have a hero complex, Jason. You are–”

“Don’t say it,” Jason told her. “I’ll blush.”

“Are you truly going to claim that a being of your resources, power and knowledge cannot find a way to stop this man?” Zila asked Dawn.

“Of course she can,” Jason said. “She just won’t.”

“Why not?” Soramir asked.

"Because the World-Phoenix sent me in person to watch over Jason because it wanted me to connect with the mortality I had long drifted away from. At first, I thought that meant embracing the small moments and simple pleasures. I became a painter again, as I had been in my youth. But I could have learned that anywhere. It was the stubborn foolishness of a mortal that kept letting the world burn his hands as he pulled it from the fire that she wanted me to see."

Dawn turned to the other silver-rankers.

“Jason is a fool. A mad idiot who makes one terrible choice after another. But sometimes we need the passion of young fools. They will make the choices that the sensible and wise will not. They challenge the impossible. That is why the World-Phoenix sent me to Jason Asano.”

“Okay, now I am blushing, I can feel it.”

Dawn laughed.

“I’m trying to make a speech here,” she told him.

“And it’s very nice,” Jason said. “Very flattering. And I know that we just had this big conversation about me getting my selfish way and pushing you into helping out, but maybe there’s a way to even the odds without forcing you to step up.”

“And what’s that?” the Storm King asked.

“Does this world have some kind of magic plutonium?” Jason asked. “Because I know a guy.”

***

Rimaros was mobilising on an unprecedented scale, the Magic Society, Adventure Society and government working in conjunction to muster all the available forces. Only the minimal force required to defend the city would be left in place. With most adventurers from silver-rank up preparing to move out in a fleet of airships and through a cornucopia of portals.

The Storm King and Soramir, who had been trying to shape the chaos from an administrative hub within the palace, finally stepping through a door to a private balcony during a lull for a break.

“Thank you for your guidance, Ancestor,” the Storm King said after activating the balcony’s privacy screen.

“What for?” Soramir asked.

“I was reluctant to take such a casual approach to Asano but you talked me into it. Now he had swayed this mysterious Hierophant to our aid. What is a hierophant, anyway?”

“A hierophant is someone like me, and one day, you,” Soramir said. “She once held a position of great power that she has passed along, although her position was far more than the king of an ordinary physical realm. Hierophant, for me, is a description. For her, it is a title."

“Her aid may be all that holds this kingdom together, and it hinged on a boy. If you hadn’t advised me on how to approach him…”

The king trailed off, shaking his head.

“That was not to sway him, descendant. He was always going to help us, however we treated him. As the Hierophant said, it is simply who he is. I wanted to show him our goodwill. And, if all works out, we must show him our gratitude. At this point, any fool can see his friendship will be a treasure in the decades and centuries to come.”

“If the Hierophant saves the kingdom, I’ll shower them both in glory. And if she is right about the Builder’s intentions, she will.”

“Asano has had his fill of fame and found the taste bitter. You need to hide his involvement, descendent.”

“People will know.”

“And they will know you want them to keep their mouths shut. The combination will afford him as much privacy and protection as we can offer.”

“I defer to your wisdom, Ancestor. We should not be thinking ahead right now, however. I do not like our allocation of resources, putting out weakest bet where we can least afford to lose.”

“I share your concerns, but to do it any other way would tip our hand.”

Soramir turned off the privacy screen.

“That is as much break as we can afford,” he said. “I’ll assist you as long as I can with the administrative tasks before I need to deploy.”

“Thank you, ancestor.”

***

In the largest Artifice Association workshop in Rimaros, resources were being brought in by a train of couriers with dimensional space powers. Travis was at a drafting desk, madly drawing out designs with input from Clive, Gary and the Knowledge priestess, Gabrielle.

Travis had a profound grasp of the weapon he was designing and had no trouble recalling the details. One of his essence abilities was specialised in constructing and modifying design models in his mind. Like holographic recordings only he could see without Jason's Party interface. Jason had commented that it was the closest he had seen to the images projected by his own interface ability.

Travis’ knowledge fell short in two areas, which was where Clive, Gary and Gabrielle came in. The first area was with the tools he had to work with. Magitech weapons were technological as well as magical, which artificer workshops were not equipped to handle.

Gary was an artificer and, while he specialised in weapons and armour, he was well versed in all the tools of his trade. Travis explained what he needed to the others, Clive helping decipher that into magical terms. Gary’s role was to determine what was possible with the tools at hand and where they would need to adapt the design.

In addition to not knowing the tools at his disposal, Travis’ other shortfall was his ignorance of the materials he had to work with. Gabrielle’s contribution was in determining appropriate materials. As priests and priestesses of Knowledge were wont to do, she had simply turned up where she was needed and got to work. Gabrielle was able to tell him what local resources he could use as elements of the rapidly forming design were completed. Those were the materials being brought in, ready for assembly to begin.

"And you're certain this is alright?" Clive asked Gabrielle, not for the first time. "It seems like we're wading into a lot of grey areas in terms of what your goddess would generally allow."

“The highest transcendent beings all operate in balance,” Gabrielle explained. “The goddess of Death and the Reaper, for example, each have their areas of authority and they work with an ebb and flow. The builder had come to our world and has been pushing the boundaries of the agreements it agreed to abide by. This gives the gods of our world an amount of leeway to push their own boundaries in reaction. The time has come for the Builder to pay for his recklessness.”

***

“I hate that I’m not a part of this,” Jason said. He was on the balcony of his cloud house, feeling at a loss. Compared to the chaos taking place in Livaros, sleepy Arnote was quiet and tranquil. This was especially true looking out over the placid, turquoise lagoon.

“You have pushed me more than a little today,” Dawn told him. “This is what I ask in return. If you participate in this operation, the Builder has an open invitation to use any of his assembled forces to come after you. People are going to die today, Jason. A lot of people. There are diamond-rank hornets in that nest, Jason. Don’t poke it.”

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Shirtaloon (Travis Deverell)

  • Australia

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