The layout of the Adventure Society campus reminded Jason of a university. One of the nice ones, with expanses of lawn, gardens and tiled pathways leading through impressive stone arches. The marshalling yard was like a small town square for larger expeditions to assemble. When Humphrey and Jason arrived together, a dozen people were already waiting. An entitled cliché walked out of the group to sneer at Humphrey.
“Here he is,” the young man said. “The pride of the Geller family. But that out-of-town prick failed you, just like the rest of us.”
Like everyone other than Jason himself, the person approaching them was somewhere in his mid to late teens. This made the assemblage of would-be adventurers young men and women, but Jason could only think of the sneering idiot as a boy.
“We all have areas in which we can improve,” Humphrey said. “There’s no shame in admitting that.”
“Shouldn’t your hair be more oily?” Jason asked.
“What?” the man asked, turning from Humphrey to Jason as if surprised to see him there.
“Your hair,” Jason said, pointing. "When the sneering idiot who will inevitably be humiliated comes out to do his sneering, his hair should be properly greased back. Clearly, you've overdone it with whatever goo you put in there, but I really feel like you could have slathered in some more."
“Who are you?” the boy asked. He was looking at Jason with the same expression he’d give to furniture that unexpectedly started talking.
“I’m no one important,” Jason said.
“Clearly,” The boy said. “Do you have any idea who my father is?”
“Does anyone?” Jason asked. “Your mother’s a friendly woman.”
Humphrey winced, while the onlookers all looked shocked, none more so than the boy himself.
“Are you looking to die?” the boy asked.
“Is your father going to kill me?” Jason asked. “You don’t strike me as someone who fights his own battles.”
“Uh, Jason,” Humphrey interjected. “That’s Thadwick Mercer. His father actually might kill you.”
“You’re Thadwick Mercer?” Jason asked.
“That’s right. Feel like apologising, now?”
“I do, actually,” Jason said. “I shouldn’t have said that about your mother. I have neither the knowledge nor the right to criticise how she conducts her personal affairs and I apologise unreservedly. I only met her briefly, but she struck me as a woman of style and intelligence. Now I’ve met you, I can see why people wonder how you turned out this way.”
“What?” Thadwick asked.
“It was actually the first thing I heard about you,” Jason said. “What was it Rufus said, Humphrey? The most incompetent person he’d ever seen attempt to join the Adventure Society? And Rufus grew up in a school, so he’s seen the bottom-end of a lot of classes.”
“I’m going to destroy you, you no-name little prick,” Thadwick spat. “I’m going to scrape you off my shoe.”
“Is that a challenge?” Jason asked. “Like a duel, or something? How do you want to do it; dance-off, or yo-mama fight? I'd prefer a dance-off because I actually like your mother. Also, I’ve got the moves.”
“You say that a lot,” Jason said, “and you always look kind of confused. You’re not the sharpest tool in the shed, are you?”
Thadwick raised a hand at Jason, electricity crackling over it.
“THAT’S ENOUGH,” a voice bellowed. Everyone turned to see a man wearing an Adventure Society pin approaching the group. Jason had never seen Vincent Trenslow before, although Rufus had described his glorious moustache. As promised, it extended past either side of his head. Behind Vincent was another official that Jason did recognise, as did Humphrey. It was Guy, the official present at their Adventure Society intake.
“Mercer,” Vincent barked, “if I see you try to use an ability on a fellow candidate again, you will fail on the spot. And you, Asano, is it? I suggest you clamp that mouth shut before someone puts a fist through it. Which will be recorded in my report as a self-inflicted injury. Geller, do try and keep your friend in check.”
"Yes, sir," Humphrey said. Thadwick flashed an insolent look but remained silent. Jason was barely listening, transfixed by the man’s moustache.
Rufus had spent a week working closely with Vincent Trenslow during the last field assessment. After hearing Vincent would be taking Jason’s assessment, Rufus told Jason what he could anticipate.
“There may be some level of corruption in this branch of the Adventure Society,” Rufus had told him, “but Vincent Trenslow is exactly what I expect from a Society official. I know you have your own ways of showing respect, but try and use mine, for once. Humphrey Geller will be there, so follow his lead.”
Jason respected Rufus’ judgement and intended to do his best, while acknowledging his best wasn't that great. He also recognised that Rufus had very much undersold the magnificence of the man’s moustache.
Vincent explained the procedure for the Adventure Society field assessment. The group would depart for one week, during which time the candidates would attempt to complete postings from the adventure boards in towns and villages of the delta.
“For the duration of this assessment," Vincent said, "you may refer to me as Instructor Trenslow and my fellow official as Instructor Spalding. For the second month in a row, we have extended numbers. We are taking a different approach this month and splitting the group in two.”
The other official, Guy, stepped forward.
“Last month there were problems finding enough postings for everyone on the notice boards,” Guy said. “Therefore, the groups will be assessed separately, taking different routes through the delta.”
“There weren’t enough monsters last month?” Jason whispered at Humphrey.
“There were plenty,” Humphrey whispered back. “Watch how they split the groups.”
Jason spotted that while he hid it well enough, Vincent had a hint of disdain around the eyes as Guy divided the group.
“My group,” Guy said, “will consist of those who have passed the assessment before, but their records were lost. I’ll be administering a specially-tailored program of reassessment for all of you that takes into account past achievement.”
“And now you see it,” Humphrey said softly.
“Yes I do,” Jason agreed.
There were seventeen candidates, ten of which went off with Guy for their special assessment. The remaining seven followed Vincent.
“So that’s how the Society came down,” Jason said. “The people who weaselled their way off the books weasel their way back on, while the rest of us pass an actual test.”
"Mr Asano," Vincent called out sharply. "If and when you have passed this test and become a member of the Adventure Society, you can comment on how the Society conducts itself as much as you like. For the next week, however, you are a worthless flesh-sack nestled vulnerably in the palm of my hand. It would serve you well to disincline me at every opportunity from wanting to make a fist.”
“Uh, yes, sir,” Jason said.
Travel through the delta was mostly along the raised embankment roads. The group travelled in the back of an animal-drawn wagon, which didn’t sit well with everyone. They were from wealthy and privileged families, unused to such rough treatment. A few complained loudly until browbeaten by Vincent, after which they restricted themselves to unhappy muttering. Others followed Humphrey’s lead and took the conditions in stride.
Walking along a narrow embankment road, Jason glanced at Vincent, then at Humphrey. Both had crystals floating over their heads. The one over Vincent was silver-grey, while Humphrey’s was a glowing blue.
“What’s with the crystals?” Jason asked. “Should I have gotten a crystal from somewhere?”
“My crystal isn’t a magic item,” Humphrey said. "It's an essence ability that restores my mana. The one Vincent has is a recording crystal. You haven’t seen them before?”
“I haven’t,” Jason said. “What do they record?”
“An image of whatever is in front of them, plus whatever they can hear,” Humphrey said. “He’s recording everything for later assessment. After the last time, Mr Remore took me through all the things I did wrong, in excruciating detail. He kept playing them, over and over.”
“Where would I get something like that?” Jason asked.
“The Magic Society makes them,” Humphrey said. “They sell them at the markets on the Island, and at a few stores in the guild district. You can get them at the trade hall in the Adventure Society, too. Assuming you pass and are allowed in.”
The group was walking through an expanse of leafy, knee-high plants when Vincent quietly called for a stop. The plants were some kind of crop Jason wasn’t familiar with, divided into fields by bamboo fencing. Vincent pulled out another crystal and tossed it into the air in front of him, where it started floating. In front of it, an image shimmered into being and Jason realised this new crystal worked like a telescope. It showed a distant part of the sprawling fields, where a pack of rodent-like monsters were gorging themselves on the crop.
The monsters were half as tall as a human but looked like oversized mice. They stood on their hind legs, hunching forward. Instead of forelegs, they had long arms that ended in eerily human-like hands. They used them to pluck leaves and stuff them into their mouths.
“Ratlings,” Vincent said. “Thirteen of them. They’ll run rather than fight, and if they reach their burrows, that’ll be it. They won’t surface again until they go berserk, at which point it won’t be crops they’re after.”
Vincent turned to look at Humphrey.
“Mr Geller, the only reason you failed last time was that you lacked decisiveness. So long as you can show me you've learned something in the last month, you're the easiest pass in this group. Can you get all thirteen?”
“Yes, sir,” Humphrey said without hesitation.
Jason watched as scaly wings appeared out of thin air on Humphrey’s back. He brought them towards the ground, pushing him into the air. The dragon wings sent him surging away at a rapid pace. Humphrey’s familiar, which had been sitting on his shoulder in the form of a bird, flew after him.
“Wow,” Jason said.
Jason and Humphrey had trained together several times over the last month. They had focused on martial technique, so each was yet to see all the other’s essence abilities. Humphrey’s martial art was called the Surging Storm style, an explosive and unrelenting combat art that was completely at odds with Humphrey’s personality. Thus far, Jason’s skill-book derived technique hadn't come close to matching it.
The group watched Humphrey climb higher into the air as he grew smaller with distance. Suddenly he plunged out of the sky and all eyes snapped to the magnified image in front of Vincent. They saw Humphrey crash into the monsters like a meteor, a huge sword in the shape of a dragon’s wing appearing in his hands. He came down like a meteor, his boots landing on one monster and his sword on another. They died in a single, gruesome instant.
The other ratlings let out panicked screeches while Humphrey swung the huge sword in a low, horizontal arc. It ploughed through the monsters as if they weren’t there, severing three clean in half with a single swing.
The ratlings scattered, but instead of chasing, Humphrey dropped his sword, which vanished into the air. He took a deep breath, then a stream of fire sprayed out of his mouth like a human flamethrower. He walked the burning line over the fleeing ratlings, torching crops and monsters alike. Three ratlings escaped the flames, having run at different angles to the main cluster. One was being harried by Humphrey’s familiar, which had turned into some kind of predatory cat, around the same size as the ratling. The other two were sprinting away in different directions.
Humphrey’s wings had vanished after he landed, but they reappeared briefly to fling him forward through the air. They only appeared for a moment, in which they hurled him faster than he had been flying earlier. Another sword appeared in his hand, this one smaller, with a blade made up of metal feathers. He brought it down on a fleeing ratling as he landed, cutting it down with one strike. He vanished from the spot he was standing, reappearing in the path of the final ratling. His sword was held out in front of him and the startled ratling ran straight onto it. Humphrey yanked the blade up, spraying blood as the monster fell dead.
“He got teleport,” one of the candidates next to Jason said as they watched Humphrey through the magnified image. “I bet they paid a lot for that awakening stone.”
Humphrey glanced over to his familiar, who was sitting proudly next to a ratling, dead at his feet. As soon as it saw Humphrey notice it, it transformed into a dog and bounded over for Humphrey to scratch behind its ear. Humphrey walked back to the group through the field, his body drenched in monster blood. The others gave him a wide berth, except for Jason.
“You alright?” Jason asked. He knew Humphrey had killed monsters as part of his training, but also knew Humphrey was a kind man. Violence didn’t come naturally to him.
Humphrey nodded. His normally friendly smile was macabre on his bloody face.
“That’s what I like about you, Jason,” he said. “You don’t pretend that what we do doesn’t affect us.”
“I don’t think being numb to it all makes you strong,” Jason said. “Strong is accepting the choices you make and owning up to the consequences.”
Like Jason, Humphrey had a dimensional storage space, from which he took a bottle of clear liquid and tipped it over his head. The crystal wash flowed over him, eliminating every trace of blood and filth.
“I’d like to be strong like that,” Humphrey said. “You know, Jason, sometimes it’s like you’re from another world.”
Jason had long ago realised that Danielle had figured him out, not realising she hadn't shared it with Humphrey. He decided to tell his friend all about it when they had the time. For now, they were surrounded by other people. Vincent looked Humphrey over, now clean, the crystal wash rapidly evaporating.
“You got them all,” Vincent said.
“Yes, sir,” Humphrey said.
“Burned a good portion of a farmer’s crop, though.”
“I thought the farmer would rather lose some harvest now than family later,” Humphrey said. “I made a choice.”
“Yes you did,” Vincent said, putting a hand on Humphrey’s shoulder. “Good job.”