In the early morning, Jason stood at the edge of a platform in the underground grotto, looking out to the cave entrance and the ocean beyond. Daylight was yet to penetrate the west-facing cave and the illumination was still provided by the colourful glow-stones shining from beneath the water.
“It’s only been a couple of days, but I’m going to miss this,” Jason said.
“It definitely beats hiding out in the back of a disused boat warehouse,” Sophie said, emerging from her own room to join him in leaning on the rail.
“Still,” Jason said, pushing himself off the railing. “There’s a world of wonders waiting out there for us. Shall we go see if we can find it?”
“Sure,” Sophie said, giving him a smile.
As the made their way up the spiral staircase, Jason happily reflected on Sophie finally not viewing any approach as some kind of attack. Reaching the top, an open terrace looking out over the cliff face to the ocean, Humphrey and Clive were already waiting for them.
“Ever since we haven’t been actively hunted,” Sophie said, “Lindy has taken to sleeping in.”
“Very sensible,” Neil said, emerging from the main house. “I know Humphrey has been planning dawn to dusk training for when we get back, so this might be our last lazy morning for a while.”
“Night training as well,” Humphrey said, not denying it. “We can’t be ready for every circumstance, but we can try.”
Belinda and Hester appeared together.
“Thank you for the generous hospitality,” Jason said. “Especially for those of us who haven’t left Greenstone before, this was a great experience.”
The time they had spent awakening abilities, summoning familiars and getting tattoos had only been a portion of their several days in Jayapura. They had also taken in the city, visiting markets and the city’s various places of interest. New customs, new food. New sights and sounds, tastes and smells.
Jason had always wanted to travel, until circumstances derailed his life plans. Instead of finishing university he had taken a job in retail and barely travelled beyond a few city blocks. More and more, his new life had him reflecting on his old one.
Hester opened up a portal and they stepped through, arriving at the district of the Island called Marina North. Jason knew it quite well, having travelled through it frequently. It contained the bridge he most often used to cross between Old City and the Island, and was the place he first met – and was kicked in the face by – Sophie.
They were at one of the marinas for which the district was named. The entire east side of the island was lined with marinas, holding the private watercraft of the city’s elite. Trade shipping was restricted to the sprawling port on the Old City side, with the Island serving as a vast breakwater.
Emir was waiting for them, along with Constance. They were in an open area beside the main marina building, the area pleasantly laid out with subdued green and yellow pavers.
“Excellent,” he greeted as they arrived. “I hope you had a nice trip home, Hester. I need to put my logistics coordinator to work.”
“Of course,” Hester said amenably.
“Constance has the details,” Emir said. “She can fill you in while I attend to Jason. Are you ready for your cloud…well, not palace, yet.”
“I definitely am,” Jason said.
“My cloud palace is still at the lake, since my people are now largely concerned with studying the underwater complex. I’ve taken the liberty of renting marina space for you to use, by which I mean I had Constance do it. She has all the paperwork, so see her about all that after. It’s nothing you can’t afford.”
Emir reached into his jacket and pulled a large flask from the dimensional space within. It was round, with a cylindrical neck, identical to the one that Emir used for his own cloud palace. Through the glass they could see energy swirling inside, a vortex of blue and white. He handed the bottle to Jason, who immediately dropped what turned out to be the profoundly heavy object.
“Oh, right,” Emir said. “I forgot how weak iron-rankers are.”
“Did I break it?” Jason asked in horror, looking down at the bottle laying on the stone pavers.
“Don’t worry about that,” Emir said, gesturing to the stone, three storey building beside them. “You could drop this building on that bottle and it wouldn’t get so much as a scratch.”
He took out a notebook, thumbing through pages until he found what he was after and passed it over to Clive.
“Can you knock that one out for me?” Emir asked. “It might be a little tricky.” Clive only spent a moment glancing over notes before he started drawing out a ritual circle using his power. Passers-by looked over in curiosity as golden light traced out a magic diagram. When he was done, Emir picked up the bottle and carried it into the middle of the circle, directing Jason to join him.
“You won’t need to enact the ritual, Clive,” Emir said. “Jason just needs to drop a little blood into the bottle. Just a few drops will do it.”
Emir took the glass stopper out of the bottle and Jason nicked a finger with the blade under his wristband. He kept it there even when not wearing his combat gear in case he needed to call out Colin in a pinch.
The droplets of blood fell into the bottle and Emir stoppered it again as the contents swirled about wildly. Despite only losing a few drops of blood, Jason felt suddenly drained. The mana and stamina bars at the periphery of his vision emptied and he staggered before righting himself.
- You have bound [Cloud Flask] to you.
- [Cloud Flask] is currently iron rank.
- You can summon, dismiss and alter the iron-rank options of your [Cloud Flask].
After Jason tipped mana and stamina potions down his throat, Emir held out the flask for Jason to take.
“That didn’t go so well last time,” Jason said, but took the proffered bottle, nonetheless. To his surprise, the bottle now was so light as to be almost weightless. He could feel a connection to the energy inside it, not dissimilar to the sense of his familiars he had while they were subsumed within his body.
Item: [Cloud Flask] (iron rank [growth], legendary)
- This item is bound to you and cannot be used by anyone else.
- Use the energies within the cloud flask to create buildings and vehicles made of clouds. Available forms are restricted by rank.
- Items contained within the cloud construct when it is returned to the flask are stored in a dimensional space and cannot be recovered until another cloud construct is formed.
- Available forms (iron rank): Cloud house (grand), cloud house (adaptive).
“Soul-bound items are rare, even compared to other growth items,” Clive said. “Ten years in the Magic Society and this is only the third one I’ve seen. The advancement requirements are usually quite prohibitive.”
Jason looked over the growth requirements.
- 1000 [Air Quintessence (bronze)].
- 1000 [Water Quintessence (bronze)].
- 200 [Dimension Quintessence (bronze)].
- 10,000 [Bronze Spirit Coins].
“Oh, that’s a lot,” Jason said. “Really, a lot.”
“Not to worry,” Emir said. “I have everything you need to upgrade it to bronze. You can grab it all next time you’re in the cloud palace. After that, you’re in charge of your own supplies, though.”
“Thank you,” Jason said gratefully. “That’s very generous.”
“I think it’s time to try it out,” Emir said. He led the group to find the right pier, where he had leased three adjacent berths to make sure Jason had the room he needed.
“So, how does it work?” Jason asked. “Do I just open the bottle?”
“That’s the first step,” Emir said. “Do that now.”
Jason opened the bottle and mist flowed out, shifting in colour as it formed a small image of a house in the air. It looked like a small manor, in the sunset colours they all recognised from the cloud palace.
“Here you can choose which configuration of house you want to use,” Emir told him. “What you’re looking at now is the grand form. Put your hand into the image and turn it.”
Jason did as instructed and the image changed, from a manor to a large house boat.
“That’s the adaptive form,” Emir explained. “It won’t be as large as the grand form but it will fit into its surroundings much better, even camouflaging itself. Good for unusual environments or when you don’t want to make a spectacle. Once I used the adaptive form of the palace in a forest and got a series of tree-houses connected by swinging bridges. It was amazing.”
“How do I set it off?” Jason asked.
“Once you’ve picked your form,” Emir said, “concentrate on where you want it to go and just give it a push.”
Jason left the small image in the form of a houseboat and shoved it with his hand. The image broke apart as fog started pouring out of the bottle and into the empty space along the marina dock. They watched as the fog slowly took the form of a large houseboat, with three imposing storeys and clearly too ponderous to move. It took some ten minutes to achieve its final shape, after which the cloud-stuff from which it was constructed started taking on the look of painted wood until it was indistinguishable from an actual wooden houseboat.
“I would have picked you for going with the grand version,” Emir said. “What’s the point of having a cloud palace if no one knows about it?”
“Enjoying it for yourself,” Jason said. “I’m not gold rank, Emir. I have to be judicious about how and when I make a spectacle of myself.”
“You do?” Clive asked.
“It seems more like you’re making it up as you go along,” Neil said.
“Of course I am,” Jason said. “But when it works out, you have to tell everyone that you planned it all along.”
Emir burst out laughing. “Exactly right.”
They went aboard, discovering that the houseboat’s facade was just that, with the interior being constructed from the familiar cloud-stuff. They toured around, discovering several bedrooms, two entertaining decks and a formidable kitchen.
“Every cloud building has certain similarities,” Emir explained as they explored. “They all have their own nuances, however, reflective of their owners. My houses, for example, never have kitchens in them.”
“That’s actually common with soul-bound items,” Clive said. “No magic item can match the potential contained within a soul, so items connected to one tend to take on it’s properties. This becomes more pronounced with growth items as they advance in rank.”
“So, you could use a person’s soul-bound items to judge their true nature,” Humphrey said.
“Oh, yes,” Clive said. “If you meet someone who seems like a good person but has a hideous and twisted soul-bound item, stay clear. Compare that to Emir’s cloud palace, which is so obviously a reflection of him. Outrageously grandiose, yet welcoming and beautiful.”
“Clive,” Emir said warmly. “That may be the nicest thing anyone has ever said about me. Speaking of revealing the true nature, though, Hester said you were getting a personal crest, Jason. I have to admit to being curious.”
“It’s just me eating a sandwich with a big stupid grin,” Jason said. “It’s kind of embarrassing, to be honest.”
Emir gave Jason a sceptical look but didn’t challenge his assertion.
“You should be careful not to rely on the security of this cloud house,” Emir warned, turning the subject back to Jason’s new abode. “Yours is only iron rank, so a bronze-ranker could force their way in given enough time. With the right skill set, someone could even sneak their way inside. I imagine that even Clive and Belinda could do just that, if they put their heads together. As it ranks up you’ll find it becomes increasingly more resistant to all forms of trespass.
Jason discovered, as they roamed around, that he was quickly gaining a sense for the houseboat, even able to sense the people inside. Emir walked Jason through the various functions, such as taking aura imprints to allow others to have various permissions.
“There are some other things that I’ve figured out from using my own cloud flask,” Emir said, giving Jason the notebook he had handed to Clive, earlier. “Everything I’ve learned is collected here. I direct your attention especially to the section on plants, which is the product of many years of trial and error.”
“Thank you, Emir,” Jason said, taking the notebook.
“I’m glad it was you,” Emir said, “although, I will admit to being a little surprised. You had some impressive competition, which you apparently made friends with. The boats have left already, but several notable groups stayed behind and will have to make their own arrangements. They’ve been waiting for you to get back.”
“It sounds like a housewarming party is in order,” Jason said. ‘I’ll have to get some supplies.”
“Nothing too raucous,” Humphrey said. “Tomorrow, we start training in earnest.”
“We also have to sort out living arrangements,” Jason said. “With the cloud palace off at Sky Scar Lake, you and Lindy, Wexler, should probably shack up here. Unless you want to make your own arrangements.”
“And give up cloud beds?” Belinda said. “No chance.”
“There’s about eight bedrooms in here,” Jason said. “Any of the rest of you are welcome to join them. It could be good for team building.”
“I’ll take you up on that,” Clive said. “I’ve been living in the Magic Society dorm for years.”
“That’s a great idea,” Humphrey said. “We can regulate our training so much better if we’re all together.”
Neil groaned. “You’re really going to let Humphrey push us through training every waking minute?”
“You say that,” Jason said, “but you train as hard as anyone. You can act as disaffected all you like, but we all know how driven you are.”
“And what happens when Humphrey starts planning the meals for maximum effectiveness?” Neil asked.
Jason’s eye’s went wide.
“Now that I think about it,” he said, “maintaining a respectful separation may be what’s best for the team.”