Back on the road, Rufus explained the local geography to Jason as they travelled. Inland, to the east was the inland veldt; a flat, sprawling scrubland. The desert they were passing through was similar to parts of the Australian outback, and it sounded like the veldt was as well.
“Is everywhere in your homeland a dry, desolate waste?” Gary asked.
“They call it the sunburnt country,” Jason said. “It’s very big, and the central region is very dry. Most of the population lives on the coast.”
“This place is the same,” Rufus said. “The western region here, which runs along the coast, is a place of contradictions. Most of it is lifeless desert; great dunes that seem to go on forever. But right in the middle is a vast river delta, where dead sand gives way to fertile soil. The delta is full of life and heavily populated. The city of Greenstone is on the coast, at the midpoint of the delta.”
“You seem to know this place pretty well,” Jason said, “given that you’re not actually from here.”
“Rufus likes to over-prepare,” Gary said. “He was studying everything about this place for weeks before we left.”
“Better too much preparation than not enough,” Rufus said.
As they followed the rough trade road they eventually spotted some green in the distance.
“We’re getting close to the river,” Farrah said.
The green grew wider in their vision until it covered the horizon. As they moved closer to it, the hard, red earth underfoot gave way to softer, brown dirt. The sporadic, yellow wasteland grass became thicker, even showing hints of green. The packed earth of the road became too soft for the heavy wagons that used it and had been paved over with rough desert brick. The grass became denser until it carpeted each side of the road, with a haze hanging over it that bore the promise of water.
“There’s magic in that haze,” Farrah said. “It comes from the river, bringing the water magic that makes all this growth possible in the desert.”
Dirt gave way to rich, dark soil. The road took them between orchards burgeoning with brightly-coloured fruit and fields of tall crops. The haze thickened to a cool mist in defiance of the burning sun, moisture like sparkling diamonds in the air. Drifting through the fruit-laden trees, the mist created an ethereal fairy playground. A hidden Shangri-La within the unforgiving desert.
“Welcome to Verdant Fields,” Rufus said. “The name really says it all. The farms here and on the other side of the river feed every town and village in the central region.”
They started passing pickers in the trees and farmhands in the fields, shielded from the sun by the ubiquitous mist. Much of the heat still got through, but without the parching dryness that made the desert air so unforgiving.
Jason and the others followed the road through the rich farmlands before they finally approaching a wide river. There was a town covering the near-side bank, shrouded in fog rolling off the water. The town bustled as they made their way down wide streets built expressly for the passage of wagons.
“There’s always work for anyone who wants it in a town like this,” Gary said.
The riverside was a mess of docks and warehouses, teeming with people. Boats and barges came in and out, wagons were loaded and unloaded. Magic lamps were in heavy use to cut through the fog, even with hours of daylight left. Jason noticed magic being used in an oddly workman-like fashion, powering cranes or propelling watercraft. He saw rivermen and dockworkers drawing runes that glowed as they took effect. There were two bridges that arched away into the mist on thick columns, high enough that boats could sail comfortably underneath. The fog hid the far bank from sight.
A busy dockmaster promised them passage downriver in the morning on the condition that they showed up on time. The organised chaos of the docks waited for no-one, even fancy adventurers. They found lodgings for the night; a hostel for teamsters with no more amenities than a barrel of water. A roomful of unhappy wagoners discovered that Gary was a snorer.
The next day they were on a barge heading down river. Jason was surprised to realise that most of the watercraft were built not from wood or metal, but green stone. Farrah explained that the local stone had a strong water affinity, making it easy to craft a magic-driven boat from.
Rufus did his best to stay out of the crew’s way, while Gary happily helped out. His overwhelming strength was a more than welcome addition. Farrah took the time to show Jason how the magic propulsion pushed the barge along. There was a dedicated member of the crew whose sole job was to manage the magic. He was happy to find someone taking an interest, letting Jason and Farrah see the various ways magic was used throughout the ship.
Jason was impressed with the nuance with which magic was integrated into the barge, obviously the result of lengthy design iteration. Like other examples of magic he had seen, from lighting to indoor plumbing, it raised his estimation of the world’s technology level. It seemed this world’s reliance on magic placed it on a completely different technological track to his own.
“Boating engineer is a profession that uses little bits from various kinds of magic,” Farrah explained. “They don’t really understand anything outside of their job. They’re professionals with skill, but a very narrow focus. As adventurers, we’re better off with more breadth than depth when it comes to magic. We never know what we’ll come across.”
As the barge sailed downriver it left Verdant Fields behind. The mist coming from the river was thicker or thinner in various places as they sailed through, the surrounding terrain reflecting its life-giving power. When it was thin, the desert came right up to the river banks. Where it was thick, the river was bounded with life. It might be a patch of wet forest, or a long, gorgeous valley of lush green.
“This is where they grow Mistrun tea,” Rufus said as they passed through the valley. “One of the finest teas in the world. Costs a lot, back home.”
Mistrun was the name of the river they were sailing down, unimaginatively named for its signature mist. According to Rufus, the source of the river was the largest water aperture in the desert.
“It’s not a natural river?” Jason asked.
“It depends on what you think of as natural,” Rufus said. “There’s an oasis with the aperture at the bottom of a lake. All this water flows from there.”
The most exciting point of the journey came when the river reached a deep gorge. The river should have spilled into the gorge, but instead flowed into a humungous aqueduct that spanned over the lengthy gap. A hundred metres wide and three hundred metres across, the aqueduct carried the river and those who sailed it over the gorge to continue along on the far side. The entire aqueduct was built entirely from green marble.
“This is crazy,” Jason said as they crossed over. Even at a hundred metres wide, the aqueduct was thinner than the river. This noticeably sped up the flow of the river and the speed of their barge. Jason looked out at the gorge, but they weren’t close to the edge and he couldn’t see much over the raised lip of the aqueduct. All that was visible was an unnerving expanse of sky.
“Sky River Gorge,” Gary said enthusiastically. “I tried to get them to go closer to the side so we could look over, but they said no.”
“How deep is this gorge?” Jason asked. “The pillars holding this thing up must be huge.”
“Interestingly,” Rufus said, “this aqueduct has no structural support other than the two ends.”
“That doesn’t sound safe,” Jason said.
“Rufus, I think you were wrong,” Gary said. “You did make too much preparation.”
“You do kind of sound like a tour guide,” Jason said.
“What’s a tour guide?” Rufus asked.
“Someone who gets paid to stand near interesting things to tell people about them,” Jason explained
“Rufus, I think you missed your calling,” she said.
“What’s wrong with teaching people about interesting places?” Rufus asked. “It sounds like a noble vocation. If there was one here, for example, they could point out that no one knows who built this aqueduct.”
“Why would you learn that?” he asked. “How does it help us with missions?”
“You carry on, Rufus,” Jason said. “I’d like to hear it.”
“Thank you,” Rufus said. “The aqueduct was already here when people first moved to this region, some three and a half centuries ago. At least, that’s when it was permanently settled. There is some evidence of people being in this region before, but no historical record of who or when.”
“Except for that old order of assassins,” Gary said.
“Yes, Gary,” Rufus said. “Except for that old order of assassins we very specifically aren’t meant to be talking about yet.”
They sailed downriver all day and into the night. Come morning, the predawn light started casting out the dark, revealing four figures sitting perfectly still. Atop the blocks of stone stacked on the barge, Jason and the three adventures were seated in a circle. Eyes closed, they slowly breathed in and out the moist river air. Rufus had stopped guiding Jason’s meditation, leaving him to find his own way forward.
- Ability [Midnight Eyes] (Dark) has reached Iron 0 (100%).
- Ability [Midnight Eyes] (Dark) has advanced to Iron 1 (00%).
Jason threw up his hands, letting out a triumphant whoop.
Rufus opened his eyes to look at the laughing Jason.
“You seem pleased with yourself,” he said.
“One of my abilities went up,” Jason said happily. “Just like you said it would. Makes sense that it was my vision power, since I’m always looking at things.”
“You’re certain it improved?” Farrah asked. “The strength of your abilities is a nebulous thing, and self-deception is easy.”
“No worries there,” Jason said. “One of my outworlder powers lets me track the progress of my abilities.”
“Really?” Farrah said, fascinated. “That sounds like something the Magic Society would be interested in. When we get to the city you should let me examine you with some of their specialised implements.”
“Uh, no thanks,” Jason said. “I have a strict ‘no specialised implements’ policy.”
He noticed their surrounding had changed in the time the group was meditating. They had been passing through the desolate sand dunes of the western region when night fell, but now they were surrounded by wetlands. The morning light was still dim, but Jason’s now slightly advanced power to see in the dark made everything clear. He could see a couple of villages in the distance, paddy farmers and herds of some large lizard the size of a cow. The docile creatures seemed perfectly happy wallowing in shallow water. Above everything was the familiar magical haze.
“The Mistrun Delta,” Rufus said. “We should reach the city by late morning or early afternoon.”
“I’ve been thinking about that,” Jason said. “You three are kind of a big deal there, right?”
The three adventurers all answered at once.
Rufus glared at the other two.
“Rufus is the big name,” Gary said. “We’re just an afterthought.”
“What’s your concern?” Rufus asked, still shooting Gary a look.
“I was thinking that if I rock up to town with you lot,” Jason said, “I’ll be operating under expectations that I’m unlikely to meet.”
“He has a point,” Farrah said. “If he arrives under your wing then people will be expecting some kind of highly-trained expert. Not the kind of pressure a freshly-minted adventurer needs to be working under.”
“Pressure’s good,” Gary said. “Makes you strong.”
“In moderation,” Farrah said. “This time last week he didn’t know magic existed, let alone adventurers.”
“She’s right,” Rufus said. “Also, from the moment I arrived the aristocratic families were trying to foist their scions onto me for training. They’ll realise I’m training Jason sooner or later, but later is definitely better.”
“That settles it, then,” Jason said, getting to his feet, the others following suit. “I’ll get off early and we can meet up in the city.”
“Good,” Rufus said. “Find the Adventure Society and register; we’ll find you from there. There are plenty of towns and villages here in the delta. You can disembark somewhere closer to the city.”
“Actually,” Jason said, “I was thinking of having a look around, and there’s no time like the present.”
He ran and leapt into the air, the starlight cloak manifesting around him. He landed on the surface of the river, turned around and gave the adventurers a goodbye wave.
“See you in a few days!”