After leaving the walls of the city on the back of a heidel, Rufus rode at a casual pace along the embankment roads that divided up the delta. They were busy with traffic, mostly carts and wagons shuttling back and forth from the city. He could have urged his mount to move faster, instead enjoying a leisurely ride that took him to the gates of the Geller family estate. A thick, high wall marked the boundary, spanning off in both directions. The estate beyond was so vast that monsters were as likely to manifest inside the walls as out.
Approaching the open gate, he was let in by a pair of guards who took his mount. Rufus could sense the iron-rank auras of both men. That might have been normal in his home city, but locally was the exception. To his knowledge, only the Duke of Greenstone’s household guard used iron rank essence users for basic troops. Knowing the Geller family, he expected these guards were family members on some kind of punishment detail or being taught the value of diligence.
At the guards’ direction, he started walking up the wide, gravel-covered thoroughfare. The main house could be seen in the distance, a series of low buildings whose design seemed more interested in fitting the surroundings than lording over them. Rufus nodded to himself, finding it very much to his taste.
The grounds on both sides of the central approach were bursting with life. Palm trees, tall shrubbery, and bamboo stands. Paths disappeared through vine-covered archways and behind flowering bushes. The promise of canopy shade and the sound of trickling water enticed strollers to explore.
Rufus continued up the central path toward the manor house. Moving closer he saw the low buildings were interconnected with open walkways of wood, stone, and bamboo. As he arrived in front of the foremost building, someone emerged to meet him. A beautiful woman with dark olive skin and black hair, she looked around thirty, which Rufus knew to be twenty years shy of the reality. The age-defying power of her silver-rank essences kept her looks just as they were when he first met her as a boy.
“Lady Geller,” Rufus greeted.
“Little Rufus Remore,” Danielle said with a smile. “I didn’t think you would still be so adorable.”
Rufus cleared his throat awkwardly and Danielle laughed.
“You know, Mr Remore,” she said, “many of our family’s young ladies are arriving ahead of the monster surge. Perhaps if I set up a little soiree…”
“Thank you, Lady Geller, but I have quite enough to be going on with, without romantic entanglements complicating my affairs.”
“Oh? The young men would be there too.”
“Gracious,” he said, “but my answer remains the same.”
“Such a shame,” she said.
“I’d like to compliment you on your home,” Rufus said. “It makes one want to wander off and explore.”
“Then shall we?” Danielle asked with an inviting gesture. “I imagine we can discuss the reason for your visit just as well amongst the gardens.”
“I would very much like that,” Rufus said.
Danielle picked a path under an archway overgrown with flowering vines, leading him deeper into the grounds. Rufus soon discovered them to be every part the equal of their promise.
“Your estate grounds truly are a joy to experience,” Rufus said.
“Thank you. My family came here as the region was first being settled. The walls of our estate are older than the walls of Old City. Last I heard, we even have a member of that generation still around somewhere.”
“She reached diamond rank a couple of centuries ago. Not so good at keeping in touch, though. You know what diamond-rankers are like.”
“Agelessness engenders an unusual perspective, I imagine,” Rufus said.
“Let us hope we both go far enough to see for ourselves,” she said. “What brings you out here today, Mr Remore?”
“Seeing the ancestral home of the Geller family isn’t reason enough?” Rufus asked. “I’m a little surprised to find you in residence.”
“We call most of our bronze and silver-rankers home when a monster surge is imminent,” Danielle said. “The family has placed me in charge of defending the estate, this time, and my husband and daughter will be back sometime in the next few months. Really, though, I’m back to overlook my son’s final training.”
“You really train all of your family members here?” Rufus asked.
“We do,” Danielle said. “Our facilities might not be the Remore Academy, but we’re proud of it, nonetheless.”
“And rightly so, by all accounts,” Rufus said. “I have heard my grandfather express his respect on more than one occasion.”
“High praise indeed,” Danielle said.
“If I may ask,” Rufus said, “why here? I know this is where your family first rose up as a power, but now you’re established in major cities around the world. Why send people born in high magic areas to train here?”
“We send everyone to train here,” she said. “Those high magic areas are just the problem. Before you came here, did you ever go out on an expedition without at least a silver-ranker to watch your back?”
“No,” Rufus said darkly, “which led to a recent mistake on my part. Overconfidence led to insufficient caution. It almost cost my people everything.”
“That is precisely the reason we still use this place,” Danielle said. “The low magical density makes the monsters weaker. The dangers smaller; the consequences, less severe. Not to say there aren’t real dangers, but we can send out our iron-rankers to face them alone. No-one to rely on but themselves and each other.”
“You let them make their mistakes when those mistakes are less likely to kill them,” Rufus said.
“In light of my own hard-learned lesson,” Rufus said, “I cannot see that as anything but an excellent practice. There may be a lesson for the way my own family does things.”
“That’s very flattering,” Danielle said. “You really are a Remore, aren’t you? You’re all obsessed with improving your academy’s training methods.”
“Speaking of training,” Rufus said, “that is the reason I’ve come today. I’ve heard that your family’s training facility includes a mirage chamber. I was hoping to borrow it from time to time during my stay here.”
Danielle gave him an apologetic smile.
“Indeed we do have one,” she said. “Sadly, as much as I would like to accommodate you, I cannot. As I mentioned, the local magical density is quite low. We can only operate our mirage chamber at a bronze-rank level for limited periods, and I can’t take that valuable training time away from my own family.”
“Actually, it isn’t for me,” Rufus said. “I’ve found a person in rather desperate need of training and have taken it upon myself to give him a rush-course.”
She gave him a sideways glance, eyebrows arched.
“From what I hear,” she said, “every aristocratic family in the Greenstone has been asking you to guide their young hopefuls. Including ours. I have to wonder how someone managed to catch your eye.”
Rufus let out a self-deprecating laugh.
“I mentioned my mistake,” he said. “It would have gotten me killed if not for a rather unusual man.”
Rufus shook his head.
“I grew up surrounded by adventurers. I was raised not just to be one of them, but to be so good I could teach others. Everyone around me, as long as I can remember, told me I was going to be a great adventurer. It got to the point that I never even doubted it. The only exception was my grandfather. He said you never learn who you are when everything goes right. It’s in your darkest hour that you understand what it is to be an adventurer.”
They stopped walking at the edge of a pond, Rufus looking down at his own reflection.
“In my darkest hour,” Rufus continued, “I met a man who had never even heard of the Adventure Society. One essence, no combat abilities. He didn’t even know how to use spirit coins. But when all seemed lost, he showed me, like my grandfather said, what it means to be an adventurer. That when all your training and powers fail you, you have to find something inside yourself you never knew was there. Then you can do things you never thought possible. It’s the difference between a good adventurer and a great one.”
“That’s a valuable lesson,” Danielle said. “It seems your time here wasn’t wasted.”
“It hasn’t been,” Rufus said. “Having received such a valuable lesson, I want to impart what I know, in turn.”
“Well,” Danielle said, “If what you are looking for is some time in our mirage chamber running at iron rank, I can accommodate you. I would appreciate a little reciprocity, however.”
“I mentioned my son and his final training. The time has come for him to join the Adventure Society, and I’d like you to do his field assessment. I’m sure the Society would be happy to accommodate.”
“I won’t show your boy any favouritism, if that’s what you’re looking for,” Rufus said.
“Oh, I’d hardly need you for that,” she said.
“You’re not suggesting the Adventure Society is subject to corruption?” Rufus asked.
“You have to realise, Mr Remore, this isn’t Vitesse. The Adventure Society is a major force in Greenstone, but the isolation means the local branch is more reliant on local powers. Compromises must be made.”
Dark clouds appeared in Rufus’ expression.
“The neutrality of the Adventure Society is one of its central tenets,” he said.
“I agree,” Danielle said. “However, if the core branches want to export their values to remote branches like Greenstone, they need to export sufficient resources along with them. Ideals are well and good in the heart of a kingdom, Mr Remore, but here we are more-often overlooked than not. In the provinces, we all have to deal with the realities.”
Rufus looked rather dumbstruck.
“I’m not sure what to say to that.”
“There’s nothing to be said, Mr Remore. Welcome to the wilderness.”
“Surely it can’t be that bad,” Rufus said.
“Oh, it’s not,” Danielle said. “Especially with the new branch director. She worked her way up from the bottom, so she knows what it is to fight through the influence of families like mine. Remarkable woman actually, but there is no getting around the fact that the Adventure Society here is reliant on local powers.”
“Is that why the adventurer standards are so low here?” Rufus asked.
“That’s precisely the reason,” Danielle said. “Exceptions have a way of being made for those whose capabilities are not the equal of their connections. Eventually, standards just declined in general. That is why I want my son assessed to your standards, Mr Remore. He doesn’t need help; he needs to be challenged.”
“Then I would be happy to assist you,” Rufus said. “Challenge, I can do.”
Jason was standing at the edge of the bridge, having just arrived on the Island. The security guard handed back Jason’s permit after checking it.
“Everything’s in order, sir,” the man said. “First time on the Island?”
“It is,” Jason said. “I don’t suppose you could point out the quickest way to the Adventure Society?”
The guard gestured down the boulevard that followed straight out from the bridge.
“Head up this way and you’ll find the transit terminal. Big building; you can’t miss it. That’ll get you where you need to go.”
Jason started walking up the street, past houses with gardens and grounds secured behind green brick walls and artfully wrought metal gates.
“Transit terminal,” Jason muttered to himself as he walked along the street. “Do they have magic trams or something?”
Soon Jason came to some kind of local shopping district dominated by eateries and boutique stores. Jason wanted to stop and chase some of the enticing smells, but it was already afternoon. First, he needed to find the Adventure Society, then somewhere to stay before sundown so he could stay on the Island.
The shopping area was dominated by a large building with a sign declaring it the NORTH MARINA TRANSIT TERMINAL. He went inside, finding it to be set out like a train station. He found a large sign that showed the routes; a pair of loop lines going in opposite directions.
According to the map, Jason could reach the Adventure Society from platform B. There didn’t seem to be any place to buy tickets, so Jason took the stairwell marked for platform B, descending to a below-ground level. The stairwell was long, around two storeys worth of switchback stairs before coming out on a platform.
It immediately reminded him of a subway platform in layout. The floor walls and ceiling were combinations of green stone and tile mosaic, with cool, clean light coming from magical stones fixed into the ceiling. There were benches around the walls with people sitting patiently, while others stood.
The difference from a subway station was that in front of the tunnel was a glass wall, with water behind it like an aquarium. Three circular metal frames in the glass wall had doors that looked like airlocks. Moving closer to take a look, he saw the tunnel extended beyond both sides of the platform, like a subway tunnel. On the other side of the tunnel, he could see another glass wall with the same three doors, with another platform beyond that.
The lights illuminating the platform started dimming in a gentle strobe. It was apparently some kind of signal; the other people at the platform started getting up from benches and moving toward the glass wall. Shortly thereafter, a bullet-shaped capsule floated down the tunnel and affixed itself to the wall with clamps that gripping the three metal circles and pressed tightly into the doors. With a hiss of air, the doors slid open and people came out. The people on the platform then boarded, Jason among them.
The interior of the capsule was more like a bus than a subway car, with pairs of seats on each side. The seats were soft and plush, more like a luxury coach than cheap public transport. Jason found a window seat and watched the tunnel go past as the capsule took off. The ride had a floaty feel to it and Jason couldn’t stop himself from grinning like an idiot.
“Submarine subways,” he murmured to himself, shaking his head in disbelief. “I love magical cities.”
The tunnel outside his window was decorated in tile mosaic and lit with different coloured lights. It seemed to be telling some kind of myth, with monsters and heroes locked in epic battle. He became so engrossed in the images going past that he was disappointed to arrive at his destination.
The Adventure Society terminal was two stops from where he started and turned out to be one of several buildings in the extensive Adventure Society campus. Jason followed a sign labelled ADMINISTRATION out of the building onto what looked like a prestigious old university, all stone buildings and sprawling grounds. Jason took what he guessed was the right path and only had to ask directions once before finding the administration building.
He found himself in a large lobby fully appointed in wood, from the various sets of double doors to the three separate stairways. In terms of construction materials, Jason had seen plenty of mudbrick, stone, tile, bamboo, even reeds. The sudden preponderance of wood was a sufficiently stark contrast to make clear the importance of the building.
It was a vast space which fortunately contained what looked like a reception desk, at which Jason presented himself. Behind the desk was what looked like the same paunchy, balding bridge guard who had given him directions. Only the clothes were different, the guard uniform replaced with a more civilian-looking outfit. It had a prominently-stitched emblem of a sword and rod crossed over a shield. Jason had seen that emblem several times since arriving, recognising it from Rufus’ Adventure Society badge.
The uniform had a loose fit Jason had seen on most of the locals, although the man’s hefty midsection rather minimised the looseness. Jason noted there was a pencil tucked atop of one of the man’s ears.
“Do you have a brother?” Jason asked.
“Just come over the bridge, sir?”
“That was my brother, Bertram, sir. I’m Albert, but feel free to just call me Bert.”
“No worries, Bert. Is this where I apply to join the Adventure Society?”
“Certainly is, sir,” Albert said brightly. “I can get you started right away if you’d like.”
“That’d be great,” Jason said.
He pulled out a form and sat it on the desk, then started fishing through drawers.
“Not looking for a pencil, are you?” Jason asked.
“I am, sir. Had it around here somewhere…”
Jason tapped his own ear and a look of grateful revelation came over Albert’s face as he plucked the pencil from its resting spot.
“Thank you, sir,” Albert said. “How about we start with a name?”
Instead of writing it down, Albert gave Jason a curious look.
“Do you know an adventurer named Gareth Xandier?”
“Gareth Xandier?” Jason asked. “Wait, do you mean Gary? Big, leonid bloke.”
“Yes,” Albert said. “The good-looking one.”
“I knew it,” Jason said, shaking his head in disgust.
“I’m sorry?” Albert asked.
“Never mind,” Jason said. “Why do you ask about Gary?”
“He’s been coming in and asking after you for the last couple of days,” Albert said. “Is it alright to tell him you’ve registered?”
“Sure,” Jason said, “although I’d rather tell him myself. Do you know where he’s staying?”