Phoebe Geller walked through the Adventure Society campus to the north shore. The cloud palace loomed off the end of the dock, dwarfing any building in Greenstone. Emir’s chief of staff, Constance, came across the cloud bridge to meet her.
“Mistress Geller,” Constance greeted. “This way, please.”
“This is a treat,” Phoebe said as they crossed the cloud bridge to the entrance. “Everyone wants to take a look in here.”
“Mr Bahadir has had many fruitful dealings with the Geller family,” Constance said. “He is happy to welcome you, albeit vicariously through me. Adding to his own affairs, recent events have been a heavy claimant on his time.”
“I wouldn’t expect a gold-ranker to make time for an iron-ranker like me. Even a silver-ranker, like yourself, is more than gratifying.”
The cloud bridge spanned a few metres over the water below, leading to the large door that served as the main entrance. Like all doors on the palace, it was not an actual door but a section of wall marked out from the rest by its blue colouration and gold edging.
“Wait here a moment please,” Constance requested as she walked straight through. A few moments later, the door started rippling like the surface of a pond.
“Please enter,” Phoebe heard Constance say. After a brief moment of hesitation, she stepped through. Inside was a huge atrium with vast open space and large windows that just looked like more wall from the outside. There were doorways, two grand staircases and plants all over, in planters, decorative pots and even growing right out of the walls. Most impressive was a plant-ringed pond between the two staircases, fed by a small waterfall from two floors up.
“Wow,” Phoebe said. “He really fits all this in a bottle?”
“The plants are the trickiest part,” Constance said. “It’s almost impossible to place living material inside dimensional storage, and even then, only some carefully chosen plants are viable. Your aura signature had been added to the cloud palace’s registry, so you’ll be able to access any of the unrestricted areas of the palace. That’s now, or on any future visit.”
“Thank you,” Phoebe said, still craning her neck as she looked around.
“Miss Wexler is in one of our training rooms. If you’ll follow me, please.”
Constance led Phoebe through the palace, and out from the main building, along a walkway that rested on the surface of the water towards one of the four surrounding wings. A fresh breeze played through the open-air passage as water sloshed against the side. They entered the guest wing, passing a ballroom, a lounge and a dining hall on the way to an elevation platform that took them up two levels.
They stepped off in a training hall that occupied the entire level and was the height of a three-storey building. The walls were almost all transparent, giving views of the shore, the ocean and the other wings of the palace. The platform deposited them in an observation area, separated from the rest by a translucent barrier. It was raised higher than the main combat area and included two change rooms, rows of seats and a drinks cabinet, all pointed out by Constance.
On the other side of the barrier was the main combat area, currently full of artificial terrain made from cloud-stuff. The cloud was wildly coloured in blue, purple, orange and gold, making for a strange, alien landscape. Moving through it at blistering speed was a woman being pursued by faceless people and monsters; training dummies, rendered from the colourful and apparently quite versatile cloud-stuff.
"That is Miss Sophie Wexler," Constance said as they watched the woman dart about the room. The dummies chasing her were various shapes and sizes, from humanoid to monster, waist-high to bigger than a long-haul wagon. The smaller figures were quick and chased after her directly. The larger forms clambered right over the terrain or sent lengthy tentacles snaking around it.
Sophie had her hair tied back in a simple ponytail that flicked around behind her head. Her clothes were light and loose, white against her dark skin. She was practically flying around the room, making the most of the terrain with her speed and agility. Using movement to spread out the pursuing dummies, she would isolate a few at a time and turn the tables, thrashing them with a flurry of attacks before escaping, leaving the encroaching reinforcements behind.
Phoebe noted there was some kind of power attached to each of Sophie’s strikes as only a few blows would tear the smaller dummies to pieces. Against the larger ones she employed hit and run tactics, taking them down across multiple attacks. Big or small, however, each fallen dummy was immediately replaced with another, creating an unwinnable challenge.
Phoebe sat down to watch as Constance took her leave. The acrobatic techniques Sophie used seemed wild and inefficient to Phoebe’s eyes, yet she made it work. She was unarmed, yet the terrain became her weapon as she flitted about like a dragonfly. Her speed and agility were incredible, to the point Phoebe had a hard time believing she was iron rank.
Phoebe looked on in fascination as Sophie fought off waves of endlessly replenishing monsters. Inevitably, Sophie started to flag and her opponents came closer and closer to boxing her in. Eventually, she was overrun, going down fighting before the dummies and terrain vanished as she collapsed beneath their attacks. The sudden empty combat area left Sophie on her back, panting on a suddenly flat, wide-open area.
She rolled over onto her front, pushing herself heavily onto her knees then and then feet. She glanced over at Phoebe through the transparent barrier and trudged over, up the slope leading to the raised barrier and straight through the wall.
“You can only walk through it while the room is inactive,” Sophie said, seeing Phoebe’s surprised expression. “You don’t have to worry about a loose dummy getting thrown through it.”
There were two open-faced drink cabinets on the wall. One was filled with various kinds of liquor and a stack of small glasses. The other had glasses of chilled water, from which Sophie took one and drained it. She threw it at the wall, into which it vanished without a sound as she took a second from the cabinet. New glasses emerged from the back of the cabinet to replace the one she took, water pouring from above to fill them.
Phoebe still had traces of her family’s Greenstone origins, but was lighter-skinned than the locals, being from a distant branch family. Her hair was light brown, in a pixie cut that was short and practical but flattered her round face and delicate features.
“You don’t look much like Geller,” Sophie said.
“If you mean Humphrey, we’re only distant cousins. I’m Phoebe Geller.”
“Sophie Wexler. I’ve heard you can fight.”
“I’ve heard the same about you,” Phoebe said with a challenging grin. “You mostly seemed to be running away, though.”
“Oh, is that how it is?” Sophie asked.
“Think you can prove me wrong?”
Sophie pointed at one of the changing rooms.
“You can get changed in there.”
Jason caught the loop line back from the Davone residence and spotted a familiar face as he emerged from the Adventure Society transit terminal.
“Gary,” he called out with a wave and hurried over to his friend. He hadn’t seen him in weeks and clasped the big furry man in a quick hug.
“Cripes, Gary. I don’t like to question a man’s hygiene but I haven’t seen you in two weeks and I don’t think you’ve seen a shower. You want some crystal wash?”
Gary looked tired and dishevelled, although not so much as the man next to him. He was a human in scholarly robes with a lopsided Magic Society official’s pin on his chest. He had an unruly mop of hair and an unkempt beard. His iron-rank aura meant his mid-thirties appearance was probably accurate. All in all, he looked like a slightly older, homeless version of Clive.
“I’m pretty ripe on the vine, alright,” Gary said. “We’ve been in a workshop all week, sleeping on cots. Me and Russell here have been going over the remains of the construct monsters the expedition brought back,” Gary said. “I’ve been stripping them down for Russell to figure out how they work.”
“We’ve been trying to work out how someone either snuck in or built from scratch a whole army of animated constructs without anyone realising,” Russell said. “What Clive told us this morning about the origin of the people we’re facing filled in some important pieces and we had a breakthrough.”
“He had a breakthrough,” Gary said. “I was just taking the things apart.”
“Don’t even try and play down your contribution,” Russell said. “Without your expertise in deconstructing the intact specimen, the crucial piece could have been damaged, overlooked or lost entirely.”
“Take the compliment, Gary,” Jason said. “Russell, I think we’ve met.”
“Yes,” Russell said. “I was present for your initial Adventure Society intake. I’ve heard about you a lot since.”
“If nothing else,” Russell said, “Lucian Lamprey really, really doesn’t like you.”
“The feeling’s mutual.”
“I’m Russell Clouns,” he introduced himself. “Nice to meet you again.”
“Likewise,” Jason said. “Clowns, you say?”
“As in, more than one clown?”
“I’m not sure I follow.”
“I’m talking about multiple clowns.”
“The Clouns aren’t a big or prestigious family,” Russell said, confusion still plain on his face.
“But you’re a whole family of clowns,” Jason said.
“Uh, yes? I’m still not sure why that matters.”
“I thought you’d have bigger shoes.”
“Shoes?” Russell asked, looking down.
“Jason,” Gary said, “we’re both too tired for you right now.”
“Yeah, you should probably just go,” Jason told him, then turned back to Russell. “Do you all travel around in one tiny carriage?”
“Some portion of this conversation definitely seems to have gotten past me,” Russell said.
“No, that’s just Jason,” Gary said. “He takes some getting used to. Jason, we have to go report some findings and then get some sleep.”
“You look like you’ve been working hard.”
“Yeah,” Gary said. “We found something important, though.”
“Good going,” Jason said. “You can tell me all about it once you wake up.”
“I’m thinking that will be about two days,” Gary said, Russell nodding his agreement. They parted ways, Jason watching as they trudged tiredly toward the administration building.
- [Russel Clouns] has been added to your contact list.
“That’s disappointing,” Jason mused to himself. “Finding out clowns were all a family of interdimensional travellers would have been fun.”
Sophie and Phoebe gulped down large glasses of water, Phoebe following Sophie’s lead in throwing her empty glass at the wall. They took fresh glasses from the cooler cabinet and sprawled into seats. Phoebe sighed as the soft cloud furniture enveloped her.
“You can really fight,” Phoebe said.
“You too,” Sophie agreed. “I’m envious of all those special attacks.”
“I’m envious of that ability that negates them. Only my biggest attacks got through at all and I couldn’t believe how quickly you learned to pick them out and dodge. You’re impossible to pin down.”
Phoebe settled happily in her chair, sipping at her second glass while Sophie moved into a meditative, cross-legged pose. Sophie recovered quickly, looking fresh when her eyes snapped open.
“Is that a recovery power?” Phoebe asked and Sophie nodded.
“Nice. Is it just mana and stamina, or health, too?”
“Nice. Not much good in a fight, but don’t underestimate the value of quick recovery between skirmishes. When things went wrong in the big expedition it was a series of running battles. We’d sometimes only get moments between fights and a power like that would make a huge difference.”
“I’m not looking for any big battles,” Sophie said.
“When you’re an adventurer,” Phoebe said, “they sometimes come looking for you.”
“Adventurer,” Sophie said. “I’m not sure I’m ready to pass that assessment.”
“It’s not that hard,” Phoebe said. “Mostly they’ll test your combat ability and you have no problems there. Always pay attention to what you’re going to be up against. If you can afford it, buy a monster catalogue from the Magic Society so you can look up the next monster. Know what they can do going in and be ready for it. The other thing they’ll test is judgement. If the invigilators try throwing you at something and it doesn’t feel right, then tell them no. It’s what they’re looking for.”
“Thanks,” Sophie said. “This whole thing is crazy. I can’t tell if meeting Asano was the best or the worst thing that ever happened to me. You know him, right?”
“Not well, but he’s not hard to figure out.”
“Jason is a lot like Danielle Geller,” Phoebe said. “She’s subtle and refined where he’s outrageous and disruptive, but they operate the same way. There’s always a sense with Danielle that she’s playing a game only she knows about. It’s like you only ever see her from an angle. Jason is the same, except loud and distracting instead of subtle and nuanced. Basically, they’re both good people who think like bad people.”
“That might explain why I always come away feeling disoriented,” Sophie said.
Phoebe laughed. “Yeah, I know that feeling.”
“But you think he’s a good guy?”
“I do,” she said. “I’ve seen a little and heard a lot. That said, I should really show you this recording of a fight he had with my brother.”
“Geller – Humphrey – said something about a recording,” Sophie said.
“Oh, it’s something to see,” Phoebe said. “I can bring it along if you want to do this again. There has to be a projector in this place somewhere, right?”
“I’d like that,” Sophie said.
“What do you mean, no one’s here?” Gary asked.
“They are all important people, undertaking their own tasks to respond to this threat,” Genevieve said. “They aren’t just waiting around for people to come and tell them things. They will convene this evening and you can request to be heard then. Otherwise, the head of the inquisition team is present. At this moment she is the highest-ranked Adventure Society official in Greenstone.”
"Forget that lady," Gary said. "Russell; go home and get some sleep. I'm going to the cloud palace. Either Bahadir is there or I can get some sleep. It's a victory either way."
As Jason arrived at the cloud palace, his mood and expression both went icy when he spotted Thalia Mercer departing. She spotted him in turn and they met halfway across the cloud bridge.
“Hello Jason,” she greeted.
“I’m sorry about how things ended with you and Cassandra.”
“I don’t care.”
Anger crossed Thalia’s face.
“My daughter isn’t worth enough for you to care about losing her?”
“Of course she is,” Jason said, resuming his passage across the bridge by walking past her. “I don’t care that you’re sorry.”