“Anything?” Rufus asked as Gary walked in. They were renting a three-bedroom suite for their stay in Greenstone. Rufus and Farrah had been waiting for Jason in the sprawling lounge with the huge glass windows overlooking the ocean. The doors to the balcony outside were open to let in the sea breeze.
“Nothing,” Gary said. They had been checking daily to see if Jason had registered with the Adventure Society.
“It’s been a week,” Farrah said. “Do you think it’s time to make some discrete inquiries?”
“Not yet,” Rufus said. “Remember, everything is new to him. He’s probably just taking his time to look around.”
Jason was riding on a wagon along the embankment roads of the delta. The wagon was filled with crates containing all kinds of plants, only a few of which were fruits and vegetables. Jason was riding shotgun next to the driver, a man in his mid-twenties. The driver reached back, grabbing a plant with a celery-like stalk. With one hand on the reins, he snapped the stalk in half with the other, a practised gesture. He offered one half to Jason.
“Not medicinal, this one,” the driver said. “I just picked some up because I like it.”
The driver, Jory, was technically an adventurer, although he was the first to admit he rarely went on adventures. His true calling was alchemy, the brewing of potions and elixirs. He went out to the towns and villages looking for materials he couldn’t find in the local markets.
“Or at a price I can afford in the local markets anyway,” he’d cheerfully explained.
Jory had found Jason in a village, swamped by people looking for healing. It was something Jason had gotten used to as he slowly closed in on the city, through eight towns and villages in as many days. Jory had offered him a ride for the final leg of the journey.
Jason was never shy about filling a silence, but that was far from necessary with Jory, who talked so much he kept having to wet his mouth from a canteen, even in the humid delta air. He started telling Jason about his alchemy lab in Old City.
“Old City?” Jason asked.
"You really must be new to the region. Greenstone is split into two sections. Old City is the original city of Greenstone, situated on the original harbour. The other part of Greenstone is the Island. Originally it was meant to be a massive breakwater when the ports of what is now Old City were expanded. Somewhere along the way, they turned it into a haven for all the rich people to leave the rest of us behind.”
“Alchemy doesn’t rake in the money?” Jason asked.
“Not the way I do it,” Jory said.
“So, they made an island, and called it the Island?” Jason asked.
“Unimaginative, right?” Jory asked. “You do want to live there if you can afford it, though. It is very nice. Old City is where the money is made, but the Island is where the money goes.”
Jory explained that adventurers could afford to live on the island, so long as they were actively working. Most of them had been born rich anyway, which was how they got their essences in the first place. Jory’s own family lived there, but he himself lived in Old City. Everything he earned was sunk back into his alchemy research.
“Most alchemists drive their work forward by pushing the boundaries of what alchemy can achieve at its strongest,” Jory said. “The most elaborate techniques, the rarest and most expensive materials. I go the exact opposite way, trying to make things cheaper and simpler. If I can make alchemical products affordable to everyone, not only can it help a huge number of people, but it will open up huge new markets.”
Jason had seen for himself that medicine in this world was essentially just whoever had the healing magic. Both ritual magic and alchemy had ways to heal, but the cost and expertise required placed both out of the reach for most people.
Most healing was done through the church of the Healer. From what he'd been told, their god supplied the essences and awakening stones that gave them their healing abilities. They could be sought out for a fee, but also sent people around the delta to heal people at more reasonable prices. It sounded good, but Jason had seen firsthand that there was always more demand for such services than supply. Jory hoped to rectify that with easy and affordable medicines.
“That’s a noble goal,” Jason said. “How’s it going?”
“Reasonably well," Jory said. "The advantage of researching cheap and plentiful materials is that they’re cheap and plentiful. I’ve even started a clinic out of my laboratory, selling some of my early successes. It helps pay for my research, although the margins are thin to keep it affordable. That was the whole point, after all.”
“Maybe you should talk to the church of healing,” Jason said. “They might be willing to fund your research.”
"I had the same thought," Jory said. "As it turns out, they see who gets healed and who doesn't as theirs to choose. The poor, in their uneducated ignorance, don’t get the chances the wealthy do to understand the glory of the gods. As such, they need suffering to wash clean their souls.”
“That sounds familiar,” Jason said, shaking his head. “You get that kind of thing where I come from, too.”
Moving closer to the city, the embankment roads that crisscrossed the delta gave way to flat ground. All vegetation had been dug out or cut down, leaving a wide-open space in front of the city wall. The wall itself was red-yellow stone, a dozen metres high. Roads leading from all around the delta led up to the high gates.
“Those are some big walls.”
"There are only a few secure towns in the delta," Jory said. "Most of the population comes into the city during monster surges."
“This clear space is to see the monsters coming?” Jason asked.
"That's right. It's a lot of work to keep land this fertile clear. Back in the day, they used to try and spoil the ground, stop anything from growing."
“I wouldn’t think that would be hard,” Jason said. “I mean, magic is a thing, right?”
“That might work somewhere else,” Jory said, “but not here. There’s an inherent magic to all the water coming down the Mistrun River. It has a strong life vitality, so you can’t stop the growth here. The best you can do is beat it back. After a surge, they let it go until the next one is due. They’ve been keeping it clear for more than a year now. The last few surges have all taken longer than expected to arrive.”
“Aren’t longer gaps good?” Jason asked.
“Yes and no,” Jory said. “Think about the logistical costs of a surge. Whole populations shift, herds have to be culled and moved. Being in a state of readiness for years at a time is expensive.”
“I can imagine,” Jason said.
“Haven’t you seen it for yourself? You would have been, what? Ten, twelve when the last surge hit?”
“They don’t have monster surges where I come from,” Jason said. “They don’t have monsters at all.”
“They don’t have monsters?” Jory asked. “Where are you from, exactly?”
“I was living in a city called Melbourne,” Jason said. “A long, long way from here. Very lean on monster activity.”
“It must have an absurdly low magic density,” Jory said. “Even compared to here, and that’s saying something.”
“Oh, there's definitely less magic there,” Jason said. “We’re pretty isolated from anywhere with real magic.”
“How did you get here, then?
“Not entirely sure,” Jason said. “Some kind of magical accident out in the desert reached out and dragged me right out of my bed.”
“Must have been some accident. I have heard about long-distance teleport experiments with shaky results.”
“It was something like that,” Jason said. “I was lucky enough to run into some adventurers who helped me get my bearings.”
“Not to mention a full set of essences,” Jory said.
Jory was iron rank, like Jason. He could sense the essences in Jason's aura as easily as Jason could sense his. Jason was still new to aura sensing, but he was getting a handle on it. Ordinary people were faint, barely detectable, while those with essences were much clearer. Most villages had one or two people with an essence, while anyone who had reached iron rank with a full set radiated out like a beacon.
Monsters had an aura strength similar to those of an essence user, but their auras had a different feel to them. Rufus, Farrah and Gary had powerful, bronze-rank auras, but Jason had only caught glimpses. They could all suppress their auras, hiding them from Jason’s senses. Farrah had told him that higher-ranked essences users were expected to contain their auras.
“I kind of stumbled into those essences,” Jason said. “They came quick, but they didn’t come easy.”
They joined a queue of wagons at one of the city gates. The line moved quickly, the guards barely glancing at the contents of his wagon.
“You’re not carrying anything restricted are you, Jory?” a guard asked.
“Just the usual, Hugh,” Jory said, then turned to Jason. “You’re not restricted, are you?”
“Not that I’m aware of,” Jason said.
“You have a good day, Jory,” the guard said. “I’ll bring my mother to the clinic, now you’re back. Her leg again.”
“Always welcome, Hugh.”
Jory drove the wagon through the gate and into the city proper. Most of Old City was built from the same red and yellow stone Jason had seen in the desert, although many buildings were painted in colourful whites and greens. They were mostly one or two levels high, but three wasn't uncommon. Over the rooftops, he could see the occasional building that jutted five, six or even seven storeys high. The streets were teeming with people, even right in front of the gate. The air was filled with voices and the smell of spice.
“What’s that I’m smelling?” Jason asked as Jory let the wagon confidently into the street, people flowing around it like water.
“It’s called chittle,” Jory said. “It’s cheap, strong and grows all over the delta, so the street vendors all use it. It can take some getting used to.”
“No, it smells good,” Jason said. “I’ll have to do some wandering around.”
They reached Jory's combination home, alchemy lab and medical clinic; a large, three-story building. A sign above the door proclaimed it as the Broad Street Clinic. Although the street was crowded, the building was given a wide berth as two people brazenly vandalised the front of the building in the middle of the day. Rather than hooligans, however, they were wearing bright white robes hemmed with blue, yellow and green They both had ceramic pots of red paint and were writing the word ‘HERETIC' across the door. There was a small crowd of passers-by who had stopped to watch the show.
“Ah, dammit,” Jory said wearily, pulling the wagon to a halt.
“Who are they?” Jason asked.
“They’re from the church of the Healer,” Jory said.
The two men spotted him on the wagon, putting down their pots and brushed to march over and confront him.
“So the heretic is back,” one of them said. They were both young, around eighteen or nineteen.
“Is this really necessary?” Jory asked, still atop the wagon.
Jason could sense from their auras that both men were essence users. Iron rank, like Jory and himself.
One of the two opened his mouth for a sneering remark but was pre-empted by Jason.
“Who are these pricks?” Jason asked loudly as he hopped down off the wagon. Walking around the two men, he picked up one each of the pots and brushes they had put down when Jory arrived. Jory and the two men watched him, unsure of what he was doing.
“Who are you?” one of the men asked.
“I asked first,” Jason said. “Is it a local custom to write what we think of people with paint? I’m not sure I can fit ‘self-important turd nugget’ on your robes. Do you have a smaller brush?”
Still sitting on his wagon, Jory groaned, running a hand across his face. The two men turned red with fury, lunging at Jason. He threw the contents of the pot over the first one and threw a fist at the other. The paint landed but the punch did not. A short time later Jason was curled up on the ground. He could have tried using abilities, but he knew both men were iron rank. He was afraid pulling out powers would be like pulling a knife in a bar fight, escalating things to the point of genuine danger. The clean one was satisfied with having laid Jason out with a punch, but the one splattered with paint was still getting kicks in.
“Come on,” the other one said. “We came to send a message, and the message is sent.”
The painted man gave Jason a final kick, picked up the other pot of paint and tipped it over Jason.
"Now it's sent," he said, and the two started walking off. The crowd of onlookers hurriedly parted to let them through, but the pair stopped when a voice called out to them.
“Hey!” Jason called out. The pair turned to see Jason, barely back on his feet, doubled over, but flashing them a bloody-toothed smile.
“You guys kicked the crap out of me pretty good,” Jason groaned. “I don’t suppose you can point me to a church of the healer?”
The man covered in paint lit up with fury, his face almost matching the red paint splashed on him. Sprinting back with thundering steps, he brought a fist down on Jason’s head. Barely able to stand, Jason’s only defence was a bloody-toothed grin. The fist came down and he crumbled, out cold before he hit the ground.