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A crowd of hundreds was gathered at the Adventure Society campus, in front of the cloud palace as they waited for Emir to emerge. There was a sea of iron rankers, plus all manner of city luminaries and others all eager to witness the commencement of Emir’s grand event. Along with the mystery surrounding it, finally on the cusp of giving out answers, many were looking for a change of pace. Ever since the expedition, a pall had been hanging over the city’s adventurers and the major families to which they belonged.

Emir’s contest offered danger as well as opportunity. Many Greenstone families had taken the expedition as a lesson and were not allowing their scions to participate. After the results of the last astral space incursion, they were unwilling to throw people into another. With an enigmatic enemy targeting astral spaces for unknown reasons, the idea of sending their most inexperienced members into another one gave many families pause.

Not every family took safety as the highest priority, however. The inquiry had been sweeping with the demotions and the most affected families were desperate for ways to snatch back their lost prestige. While the astral space expedition had technically been a success, having excised the problem that was affecting the astral space, many viewed it as a failure.

Most of Greenstone's major families had never cared about the expedition's actual objective, instead, seeing it as a chance for individual glory. With the massive losses sustained in the fighting retreat, from that perspective it was a failure. Emir’s expedition was a chance for them to rewrite their image after the expedition.

Then there were those families who, like the Gellers, simply wanted the next adventure. They recognised that there was always danger, but that was the nature of the adventuring life. If their young people were ever going to be the equal of the Gellers or the visiting adventurers, they had to push themselves harder, confronting greater threats.

The iron-rankers in the crowd were divided into three general groups: the locals, the Gellers and the outsiders. Even with many local iron-rankers sitting out, the locals were the largest group. The Gellers were the smallest of the three groups, with seven teams participating, not including Humphrey and his team. The Gellers were mostly from distant lands, but the family’s deep roots in Greenstone kept them from being true outsiders.

Humphrey’s team wasn’t counted due to being made up of locals, with even Humphrey himself being Greenstone born and raised. Only Jason was not local but he still counted as more of Greenstone local than he did anywhere else in the world.

The outsiders and the Gellers were throwing each other a lot of assessing glances, largely dismissive of the locals. The outsiders had answered Emir’s call from many different lands, but competition had been fierce for a spot on the boats Emir had brought in. No one underestimated the abilities of those who had made it.

As for the Gellers, their high standards were known the world over. This was hammered home by the presence of Danielle Geller. The time witch was more famous than most gold-rankers and it was well known she was close to joining their ranks herself. Once she did, she would stand at the pinnacle of the adventuring world.

Amongst the visiting adventurer teams was the one who had attended Farrah’s memorial and wake, although only four of the five were present. Like all the teams awaiting Emir’s appearance, they were made up of people in mid-to-late teens. Less usual was the complete absence of humans from their team. The leader, Lance, was an elf whose swordsmanship relied as much on the finesse of his magic as the finesse of his hands. Like Jason, his preference was for flowing combat robes. He had fair skin and his light brown hair was cinched back practically behind his head.

Next to Lance was Padma, with the onyx skin and fiery eyes typical of her people. Also typical of her people were her heavy clothes as she was wholly unaffected by heat. The effect of the delta on the climate was to keep things hotter than elsewhere in the region, even as autumn moved closer to winter. To a smoulder, though, even the most scathing desert was as cool as a mild spring day.

The team healer, Oscar, was a celestine man whose handsomeness eclipsed even the elven team leader. The comparison was made all the stronger as he mirrored Lance's hairstyle by tying it back in a simple cinch. Of the same ethnicity as Sophie, he had chocolate skin with silver hair and eyes. His clothes were white, neat and fashionable in the Vitesse style that Rufus favoured. They were also adventure-ready, the combination of form and function speaking to their extravagance.

Standing with him was the tallest person currently in Greenstone, the only member of the draconian people present. Maximilian was an imposing figure with his size and long, hairless head. Instead of skin, his scales in dark shades of green and purple were glossy under the bright sun. His clothes were designed to show them off, little more than tasselled shoulder pads and a loincloth.

A human they didn’t know was walking towards them, only for her appearance to change to that of a female leonid, their team member, Natalie. Compared to male leonids like Gary, the women were smaller, lithe and sleek, with shorter fur and facial features closer to that of humans, elves and celestines. In the case of Natalie, her lissom body was attractive even to human eyes, her naturally sinuous movements exuding sultry like it was their job.

“Nate,” Lance greeted. “We were starting to wonder if you were going to turn up.”

“You’re the one who asked me to do some digging around,” Natalie said. “There was more to unearth than I expected.”

“Let's start with our competition, then,” Lance said. “What do you have on the Gellers?”

“What you’d expect, mostly,” Natalie said. “Well-trained, well-resourced. Good team synergies.”

“Any stand-outs?”

“The ones to watch were apparently the team lead by a Rick Geller, but he’s had to rebuild the team after losing people. The big clash here with those people invading astral spaces. Lots of dead adventurers.”

“Like Farrah,” Padma said.

“Yes,” Natalie said. “This Geller team lost two people. The leader added his sister and a local to replace their losses but their team cohesion isn’t fully there yet. They had to change most of their methods for the new composition.”

“What about locals?” Lance asked.

“Worse than you would expect, even for an out of the way place like this. Only one team is considered to be competitive.”

“How competitive?” Lance asked.

“Enough that the Geller teams consider them a real contender. They had a mock battle with the team I was just talking about and another team led by a Geller. Danielle Geller’s son.”

“Humphrey Geller?” Lance asked.

“That’s right,” Natalie said. “He’s just recently put together a team of locals instead of using his family members and connections.”

“Interesting,” Lance said. “I chatted with Humphrey a little bit at the wake, but we didn’t talk business. I know him a little from when his mother brought him out to Vitesse a few times but that was before either of us were essence users. I don’t even know what his essences are.”

“His confluence is the dragon essence,” Natalie said.

Maximilian gave an unhappy groan.

“False dragon,” he complained. Draconians took pride in their claimed dragon ancestry and often had issues with other races wielding the dragon essence. Maximilian had the dragon essence himself.

“Don’t start with that again,” Oscar said.

“I’m not starting anything,” Maximilian said unhappily. “He just shouldn’t go around acting like he has true draconic power.”

“Max, he’s not claiming to actually be a dragon,” Oscar said. “Not any more than Lance, with his sword essence, is claiming to be an actual sword.”

“How well do you know this Humphrey?” Natalie asked Lance.

“Just in passing, socially. I’m surprised to hear his mother let him make a team of locals, though. I can’t imagine she would let him add just any local idiot to his team.”

“Oh, he didn’t add just any local idiot,” Natalie said. “From what I hear, this idiot is special. Trying to make sense of the things I heard about the guy was crazy. I still don’t know how much of it is true.”

“Who is he?” Lance asked.

“Padma’s new friend,” Natalie said. “Jason Asano; the one Farrah was helping train with Rufus.”

“Jason?” Padma asked, startled. “He was really nice. Other than putting me up in front of everyone like that.”

“Well, the things I’ve heard about your new friend are pretty wild. Some people are scared of him, others think he’s an idiot or a madman. Some have even called him a genius, working his way up the social hierarchy. He ended up on Humphrey Geller’s team, after all.”

“What’s your assessment?” Lance asked Natalie.

“I honestly have no idea,” Natalie said. “Either most of what I’ve heard is false, which would make sense, or the man is some kind of insane magic pixie. Remember at the wake, the local Magic Society director getting drunk and confronting him? Apparently, there’s some kind of feud there, where Asano somehow came out on top.”

“What would an iron-ranker be feuding with a Magic Society director over?” Padma asked. “And how would he win?”

“Word is, it was over an indentured servant,” Natalie said, “which brings us to the next thing. You remember that commotion last week before the big meeting?”

“That was over an indentured servant,” Oscar said. “I can see why, having seen her myself. An arresting woman.”

“That was Asano,” Lance realised, thinking back. “Didn’t Bahadir kick him off the cloud palace for that? They seemed friendly during the wake.”

“That whole incident was a ruse,” Natalie explained. “Turns out it was some kind of plan to bait these astral invaders. I’m not sure on the details but it apparently worked.”

“It sounds like Jason is in the middle of a lot,” Padma said.

“That was my impression,” Natalie said. “I came across to many conflicting stories about him, though. There was apparently some kind of rivalry with the Adventure Society director, but she promoted him to three stars anyway. I heard he spent months healing the poor for free. I also heard he went a dozen to one with a bunch of adventurers in a shopping arcade in the middle of the day, killing half of them. I even heard he’s an outworlder.”

“That sounds made up,” Oscar said. “You can’t just kill a bunch of adventurers.”

“Twelve against one is even less plausible,” Maximilian said.

“The locals are sub-standard,” Natalie said. “Any of us could probably go twelve against one. Apparently, there's a recording of the people going at him first, so self-defence. I've heard about a few recordings of the guy floating around, including that mock battle they mentioned. He's apparently really big on recording crystals.”

“You’re right,” Padma said. “He’s using one right now.”

She had spotted Jason, some distance away in the crowd as he spoke into a recording crystal floating in front of him. She waved in Jason's direction, the man next to him spotting her and pointing her out. He waved back with a friendly grin.

“So, what's your take on the guy?” Lance asked Natalie.

“Unpredictable and dangerous,” she said. “I didn’t want to spend the whole time investigating one guy, so I decided it was best if you and Padma went and asked Rufus Remore,” she said. “You two know him better than the rest of us.”

“Did you hear how he came to have Rufus and Farrah’s teaching him?” Padma asked. “When I brought it up last night he just said that they found him out in the desert, lost and confused.”

“From what I found out, that’s a very incomplete explanation,” Natalie said. “Not that what I heard was any more likely. I was told that Asano saved Rufus' team from getting killed before Asano was even an essence user.”

“That doesn’t sound likely,” Maximilian said.

“As I said, the things I’ve been hearing about the guy are wild. Enough of it was so obviously false that I can’t trust any of it.”

“What about the rest of Humphrey’s team?” Lance asked.

“It’s an unusual bunch,” Natalie said. “One is a Magic Society official. He’s some kind of astral magic expert who has apparently been instrumental in finding out about these astral invaders.”

“And he’s an iron-ranker?”

“Yeah, but he’s apparently the real thing. The locals have been digging out information the big Adventure Society branches have been keeping under wraps and I’ve heard this guy is a key reason.”

“What kind of secrets?” Lance asked.

“Not sure yet,” Natalie said. “I’ve got a better chance of prying out secrets here than back home, though, once we’re finished with whatever Bahadir has in store.”

“Who else is on Humphrey’s team?” Lance asked.

“There’s some local, minor nobility. Nothing remarkable that I found from a quick check around. I’ve heard he’s a solid healer but not much else. The last member is that indentured servant we were talking about.”

“Really?” Oscar asked, edging forward with curiosity.

“An adventurer is an indentured servant?” Lance asked.

“Seems she was some kind of thief. She was robbing the local nobility for months but no one could catch her. Until Asano did, then went and made her an adventurer after claiming her indenture.”

“Why would he do that?” Padma asked.

“You’ll have to ask him that yourself. I heard a lot of postulation, most of it fairly disgusting.”

“That’s weird,” Lance said. “Who makes their indentured servant an adventurer.”

“A smart man with a gorgeous indentured servant,” Oscar said. “That’s the kind of gratitude that does some real work.”

“See?” Natalie asked. “Fairly disgusting.”

***

“Jason, that team you waved at is talking about you,” Beth said.

“You can hear them from over here?” Jason asked. “Is that an elf ears thing?”

“No!” Beth said, raising her hands to her ears in a gesture of self-reassurance. “It’s an essence power thing. What’s wrong with my ears?”

“Nothing,” Jason said, his eyes on the distant team. “Is that what female leonids look like? I hope this doesn’t awaken anything in me.”

“What are you talking about?” Neil asked.

“I don’t like what’s happening in my head,” Jason said. “Am I a furry now? I don’t want to be a furry.”

“Why would you be furry?” Clive asked.

“I’m not above exploring new things,” Jason said. “I just don’t have time to work on the costumes. Making them, cleaning them, dear gods. Maybe Jory has something that could help.”

“Is any of this making sense to you?” Beth asked, looking at Jason’s team.

“Best not to ask,” Neil said. “You learn that lesson quick”

“I bet it’s a sex thing,” Sophie said. “It’s a sex thing, isn’t it?”

“Uh… no,” Jason said.

“Who are they?” Niko asked. The smoulder member of Beth’s team, he was looking at Padma. “She looks sad. Should I go see if she needs comforting?”

Beth slapped the back of his head.

“Don't be a sleaze,” she scolded.

“How am I the sleazy one?” Niko asked. “Jason has a sexy slave girl.”

“I don’t have Sophie,” Jason said. “That’s just a necessary legal fiction.”

“Damn right, you don’t,” Sophie said.

“Unless I want to,” Jason said.

“Do you want a slap too?” Sophie asked.

“Would you think less of me if I said yes?” Jason said. “My safe word is munificent.”

“You are impossible to deal with,” Sophie said.

“I told you he was the sleazy one,” Niko said.

“Could everyone just act with a little decorum?” Humphrey asked.

“That would be excellent,” Beth agreed.

“Humphrey, you really put together the wrong team for that,” Neil said.

“Everyone quiet,” Clive said. “Emir’s coming out.”

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Shirtaloon

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