As Farrah and Gary walked along, Jason would step into a shadow on one side of the street and reappear on the other.
“He seems to like that ability quite a lot,” Farrah said.
“I remember someone who was quite excitable when she got her fire jump power,” Gary said.
“He can use it in quick succession,” Gary observed. “Seems cheap on mana, too; he’s been at it for a while.”
“The benefit of being restricted to shadows,” Farrah said. “Regular teleport may use more mana and be available less often, but I still think I’d prefer it. If you get caught without any handy shadows, Jason’s ability is useless.”
“I don’t know,” Gary said. “Normal teleport you have to pick your moment so it isn’t wasted. This shadow-jumping business you could use enough to make it a centrepiece of your combat style.”
“Too reliant on the environment,” Farrah said. “How often do you get to pick your battles as you like?”
Jason emerged from a nearby shadow and joined them, wincing with a low mana headache.
“It’s still taking me too long to activate the ability,” he said.
“Are you sure that’s not just how long it takes?” Gary asked.
“It should be almost instantaneous,” Jason. “I can feel it.”
“Keep practicing,” Farrah said. “You’ll get there.”
“How far can you go?” Gary asked.
“As far as I can see, I think,” Jason said. “As long as I can spot the shadow and it’s big enough, I can jump through it. I tried going through a small one, but it didn’t work.”
A wagon rumbled past, filled with manure. Farrah turned up her nose at the stench.
“Remind me why we aren’t shopping on the Island?” she asked. “I became an adventurer to get away from the smell of dung.”
“The markets on the Island are just trying to rip off rich people,” Jason said. “Besides, I promised Jory I would swing by the clinic.”
In the grimy heart of Old City’s warehouse district was a huge stone building called the Fortress. Older even than the city walls, it had been built to last. In the earliest days of the city it had been where Greenstone’s residents would take shelter during a monster surge, but those days were long past. Now it served as Greenstone’s largest den of iniquity; it’s rooms and halls contained all manner of illicit behaviour, delights and horrors both.
The city authorities paid little attention to the goings on in Old City so long as the business interests of the city elite remained secure. That made Old City’s three biggest crime lords its de facto rulers, who made sure that the Island elites had no reason to look any closer. So long as the money kept flowing, the Big Three were free to divide Old City between them.
The Fortress was neutral ground. It was the one place where the Big Three shared operation, dividing both responsibility and profit. It was also the best place in Old City to glimpse the Island elites. Whether to secure their interests or indulge their appetites, they would receive only the best of treatment in the Fortress.
Of the many itches one could have scratched in the Fortress, the fighting pits offered the greatest spectacle. Some were literal pits, others cages. At night, even adventurers could be found battling it out inside. Some sought challenge, others to pay off debts for their own costly indulgences. Some decided a life fighting monsters wasn’t for them and sought to earn a spot working for the Big Three. The top enforcers of the crime lords were paid in not just coin, but also monster cores.
Among the seating arrangements at the fighting pits were a number of enclosed viewing rooms with glass fronts. These were more recent additions to the centuries-old building. Some were available to anyone with the coin, while four were permanently reserved. The Big Three each possessed one of the boxes, where they conducted much of their business. The fourth belonged to the Fortress’ most frequent and prestigious patron.
Lucian Lamprey was an elf whose muscular frame was uncommon for his people. Expensive clothes aside, he would not look out of place in the fighting pits himself. He was not a member of the local elf families, instead having been banished to Greenstone for previous improprieties. He was director of Greenstone’s branch of the Magic Society, a vaunted position within the city, but one for which Lucian held no respect. They could make him king of the isolated desert city and he would still yearn for what he viewed as true civilisation.
The Fortress was Lucian’s consolation; a paradise to openly indulge the vices for which he was sent to Greenstone in the first place. His viewing box was more of an office to him than the one at the Magic Society campus. He even managed to get work done, as the lower-card fights rarely drew his attention.
While the pits might operate all hours, only the essence users of the night fights got Lucian’s blood boiling. Magic displayed any active fights on the giant window of his viewing box, but in the early afternoon he gave only them occasional glance. This time of day had single-essence fighters, only escalating to full-blown, iron-rank fights after sundown. Lucian would have preferred to see bronze-rankers as well, but they were too valuable to risk in the pits under any but the rarest of circumstances.
Only a precious few bronze-rankers lowered themselves to work for the Big Three, and were their most valuable assets. If they ever appeared in the pits, it was to settle grudges between the Big Three without spilling blood on the streets. Gang war meant drawing the attention of the Island authorities, which all of the Big Three knew to avoid.
Lucian’s ability to use the Fortress as his office was largely due to his deputy director. Pochard Finn maintained things at the city campus while frequently travelling to the Fortress himself. He was also an elf, in his case, a local. Both elves enjoyed the relationship, as Lucian had his workload lightened, while Pochard was the de facto director of Greenstone’s Magic Society. They had quickly moved from colleagues to friends as Pochard also came to enjoy the pleasures of the Fortress.
“Standish was looking for you,” Pochard said, pouring himself a glass of wine. He gestured with the bottle invitingly, pouring a second glass at a nod from Lucian.
“Can’t you deal with it?” Lucian asked. “He’s always up in arms about something.”
“He insisted on seeing you,” Pochard said. “Something about spirit coins, I think.”
“Tell him if he wants to see me, he can come here,” Lucian said.
“I did,” Pochard said, drawing a snort of laughter from Lucian.
“I would love to see that gangly moppet in the Fortress,” Lucian said, then stared out the of the window-wall. “And now I have.”
“You’re kidding,” Pochard said, following Lucian’s gaze.
“He actually came,” Lucian laughed. “Good for him.”
“I hope he doesn’t make it a regular occurrence.”
Lucian chuckled at Pochard’s reaction as they watched the long-limbed Clive Standish navigate the fighting pit’s viewing stands. It wasn’t crowded in the early afternoon, yet the awkward man in the wildly out-of-place scholar’s robe seemed to get in the way of every person he passed. Finally he reached the viewing room, opulent in its wooden construction. Lucian and Pochard looked at each other as they heard a polite knock.
“Shove off!” Pochard yelled, prompting a belly-laugh from Lucian.
“Uh, sir?” a voice came through the door.
“Don’t just stand out there, Standish!” Lucian bellowed, and the door was pulled nervously open. Clive Standish was rather tall, but his narrow frame and hunched posture made him seem lanky and awkward. He wore voluminous scholarly robes, possibly to make him seem less narrow, but they dangled off him like they’d been hung out to dry. In the fighting pits of the Fortress, he looked as out of place as any man Lucian had seen. This was good for Clive, as it left Lucian in a better mood than Clive normally found him.
“Pochard tells me you have some kind of spirit coin problem,” Lucian said.
“Not exactly a problem, sir,” Clive said. “More like a curiosity that I believe warrants further inquiry.”
Clive rummaged through his robes to produce an iron-rank spirit coin.
“This coin, and several other like it have been found in circulation over the last couple of weeks. You’ll note the unusual embossing of a man holding up his thumb,” Clive said. Pochard leaned over to peer at the coin in Lucian’s hand.
“On the back,” Clive continued, “there is an inscription. Thus far, we have failed to identify the language.”
“Don’t you have a translation ability?” Pochard said.
“I do,” Clive said, “although that only tells us what it says, not the language in which it says it.”
“So?” Lucian asked, impatiently. “What does it say?”
“It reads, ‘product of Jason,’ and ‘good day, friend.’ The second part is contextualised as a greeting.”
“It’s certainly odd,” Lucian said. “It’s a real coin?”
“I’ve had every coin we’ve found tested, sir,” Clive said. “They’re all real.”
“You checked it against the registry?”
“It definitely didn’t come from a registered spirit coin farm,” Clive said.
“You think someone’s set up an unregistered farm?” Pochard asked.
“It’s possible,” Clive said. “Certainly worth looking into. But we haven’t seen a lot of these coins, and most shady coin farms try to imitate a registered imprint. Given the idiosyncratic nature of these coins, and the fact that we’ve only found a few, I think there is an alternative explanation.”
“Oh?” Lucian asked.
“You are, of course aware, that some essence users develop an ability to loot monsters without the use of the usual harvesting rituals,” Clive said. “Usually the prosperity essence is responsible, often in conjunction with a human awakening one of their racial gifts. Such abilities are known to produce spirit coins.”
“What’s the legality of that?” Pochard asked.
“If it’s an ability, then it’s perfectly legal,” Clive said. “Fascinating, but insignificant on an economic scale. That’s just conjecture, however. If it does turn out to be an unregistered spirit coin farm, then it obviously needs to be found and shut down.”
“Alright, Clive,” Lucian said. “You came all the way here, dressed like that, so I’ll go along with it.”
“This is how I always dress,” Clive said.
“Oh, I know,” Lucian said. “Pochard, put up a contract with the Adventure Society to look into an off-the-books farm. Try and get them to put it up as a three-star contract, so we get someone who’ll actually do the work. Adventurers get lazy with open-ended contracts.”
“If it involves the spirit coin farms, the Adventure Society will make it three-star,” Pochard said.
“Good. As for you, Clive, I’ll authorise you to use Magic Society resources to pursue your other idea. If these coins are just some guy with an ability, find him, so we can put the issue to bed.”
“Thank you, sir,” Clive said.
“You want some wine, Clive?” Lucian asked.
“Ah, no, sir. Thank you. I’d best get back.”
“You’d better shove off, then,” Lucian said. “Anyone staying here has to drink.”