Jason’s yacht arrived at the narrow reef passage to a lagoon on the island of Arnote. Normally inaccessible to large water vehicles, the cloud vessel had no problem skimming over obstructions that would ground vessels with all but the most shallow of drafts.
Jason, Rufus and Farrah stood on the yacht’s bow as it moved into the lagoon, taking in the postcard-perfect circle of white sand and turquoise water. To their left, pristine sands curved halfway around the lagoon. There they met the base of the cliffs that ringed the other half of the lagoon’s span.
Behind the beach was a town that rose up over low hills, with colourful houses set amongst palm trees and lush greenery exploding with tropical flowers. The cliffs weren't a sheer drop. Instead, it boasted more plants and trees, with winding pathways offering passage from the beach to the houses built along the clifftop. A waterfall spilled over the edge, tumbling down over the rocks to join the water of the lagoon.
“I told you right?” Jason said. “You can’t go wrong with a lagoon.”
“It is very nice,” Rufus acknowledged. “A little quiet.”
“We’ve earned some quiet,” Farrah said.
“Yes, we have,” Jason agreed.
Children were playing on the beach, their parents watching over them. They stopped to watch the boat, much larger than most vessels that entered their lagoon. The kids understood that a boat that big meant magic and magic meant excitement. Not everyone was looking for quiet.
There was only one pier, which was far too small for the yacht to even pull alongside. What room there was had already been occupied by a handful of shallow-draft boats and a couple of magical water skimmers. Jason placed the cloud flask down to reclaim the yacht and opened a portal to the pier, allowing Farrah, Rufus and himself to step through.
Jason glanced over at the beach, smiling as the parents stopped the kids from rushing over to harass the unknown adventurers. A laconic middle-aged man came strolling along the pier, biting into a piece of fruit in his hand. Like most of the local celestines, he had caramel skin. His lanky hair was the colour of iron, matching his eyes and his iron-rank aura. He was wearing only a pair of shorts and a straw hat.
He stopped in front of the trio, looking from them to the yacht dissolving behind them. It was being drawn back into the cloud flask like a genie returning to its lamp.
“Adventurers, then?” he drawled.
“That’s us,” Jason said. “Looking for a nice, quiet place to settle in for the surge.”
“If it’s nice and quiet you’re after, you’ve come to the right place,” he said. “Just make sure that is what you’re after, yeah?”
“We’ll get more excitement than we’re looking for on the job,” Jason said. “We want a place where we can leave all that behind. I’m Jason; this is Farrah and Rufus.”
The man swapped the fruit to his left hand to shake hands with Jason. “Emmett Dillivan, but folks just call me Argy.”
“Like the fruit,” Argy said, waggling his half-eaten fruit in front of him. It looked like a large tangerine. “My family’s grown them here longer than most can remember. Sell ‘em at markets all over the island. Including here in Palisaros, if you’re interested.”
“Believe that he is,” Farrah said. “Palisaros is the name of your lovely town?”
“You didn’t know before you came here?” Argy asked.
“This one was just obsessed with finding a lagoon,” Rufus said, thumbing a gesture at Jason.
“And it was completely worth it,” Jason said. “It’s a genuine paradise you’ve got here, Argy.”
“It is at that,” he agreed.
“I don’t suppose you know where a bloke could lease or even buy a plot?” Jason asked.
“You’ll want to talk to Pelli,” Argy said. “Once you’re done with your ship in a bottle, I’ll take you along.”
“We'd appreciate that, Argy,” Jason said. “Is Pelli the local land broker?”
“Mayor,” Argy said. “She has been since before my family started growing fruit.”
Argy led them down the pier and into the town. Farrah and Rufus were largely silent as Jason and Argy chatted, forming an easy rapport, Jason happily falling into Argy’s laconic pace.
Argy led them onto streets that were sealed with something that felt like asphalt but was more on an earthy light brown colour, flecked with white. Argy exchanged greetings with people dressed in light clothes, with loose shirts and sarongs the norm for both men and women. There were also plenty of skimpier clothes in evidence, with many men wearing only shorts and woman in shorts or sarongs and bikini-style tops. Footwear was either none or sandals and many had straw hats like Argy’s.
None of the people were using transport, magical or otherwise. It was a small-town lifestyle with none of the residents in any kind of rush. Compared to Livaros, even more busy than usual with the impending monster surge, the town Palimaros was laidback and inviting.
Jason sensed a handful of silver and gold-ranked auras around the town but the people on the street were mostly normals, or irons and bronze-rank, core users. The other auras noticed the presence of Jason and his companions as well, none of whom were hiding their presence or power. The people were mostly caramel-skinned celestines with hair and eyes in various shades of gemstones and metal.
Argy played tour guide as they walked, pointing out the saloon and town eateries, as well as where to find the market. The colourful houses were two or three storeys high and big on open space with covered walkways, balconies and awnings abounding. Jason’s senses picked up that they all had magical amenities, while some hid more impressive magic. Like the disguised versions of constructs from his cloud flask, they were more than what they appeared.
As they made their way up a meandering hill, Shade emerged from Jason’s shadow and handed over the cloud flask.
“Thank you,” Jason said as the flask shrank small enough in his hands to be returned to the chain around his neck.
Reaching the house at the top, Jason’s senses revealed it to not be one of the more magical ones. What he did sense was the gold rank core user behind it.
Although many looked down on those who rank up through monster cores, a gold-ranker who did so was impressive in their own way. The level of resources required to reach that stage was immense. On Jason's world, only a handful had managed it, even with whole nations dedicating themselves to the effort.
Argy didn’t bother to knock or even approach the front door, directly leading the other around the outside. Moving behind the house to the garden, they found a woman crouched down, working in a vegetable garden with rich, dark soil. She had her back to them at their approach, which she didn’t acknowledge. Argy stopped, gesturing the others to do the same and stood to wait patiently. Jason, Rufus and Farrah were smart enough to do the same.
It was another celestine, this one with sapphire blue hair tied back behind her head. It was an unusual colouration amongst the locals but one Jason had seen a couple of times before. The female gold-ranker in the anti-Builder taskforce had it, as did the princess, Zara Rimaros.
Eventually, the woman stood up, trowel in hand, before turning to look over the group. She has the youthful appearance of an essence user but Jason felt a profound age in those eyes. The way they looked at him reminded him of Dawn.
“Emmet boy,” she said, her elderly tone incongruous with her young face and voice. “What are you doing bringing adventurers into my yard?”
“They're looking for a place to stay through the surge,” Argy told her. “Nice and quiet is what they said.”
“Step forward, then,” she said to Jason, Farrah and Rufus. “Let’s have a look at you.”
The trio formed a line in front of the woman. She started by looking over Farrah and giving her an approving nod. Then she looked at Rufus, her gaze settling on his face.
“You look a lot like your grandfather,” she told him.
“You know my grandfather?” Rufus asked.
“That old bastard has been running around longer than I have. Still, shouldn’t hold that against you. He teach you proper, boy?”
“I’ve done my best to learn from him, ma’am.”
“The name’s Pelli and I’ll thank you to use it,” she said sharply. “How did he take you being a magic swordsman, rather than a swordsman straight up?”
“My father already fought that battle, ma’am… Pelli,” Rufus said.
“I see. I heard he’d mellowed after he took over some little guild somewhere.”
“Well, no accounting for taste.”
She turned her attention to Jason, looking him up and down. Her eyes lingered on where the large scar on his torso was hidden by his shirt.
“Aren’t you just the tough little nut,” she said. “You’ve seen some action, boy. Real action.”
She didn’t ask Jason anything so he decided to stay silent. She nodded.
“Are you going to bring trouble to my island, boy?”
“I’m looking for a place to leave trouble behind,” he told her.
“And why here?”
“I grew up in a little beach town,” he said. “Not as nice as yours, but I had the chance to go back for a while a couple of years ago. It was a nice few months, before life came calling again. It was the last bit of peace I’ve had in a while.”
“And what happened to your little town when less peaceful things came knocking at your door?”
“I saw it protected and left it behind before anything came looking for me. The town was fine when a lot of other places weren’t so lucky.”
“That was your cloud flask boat down there?” she asked.
“You won’t be needing a house, then; just a patch. Won’t be a problem if it’s a little difficult, yes?”
“That’ll be fine,” Jason said.
“What’s your name, boy?”
She burst out laughing, surprising all present, even Argy.
“Oh, this’ll be fun,” she said. “Emmett, boy, take them up the clifftop. They can have the west side of the waterfall.”
“Yes, Pelli,” Argy said, throwing curious glances at Jason.
Argy led the others back down the hill, through the town and up onto the cliffs. Although there were roads, he took them down to the beach and then up through the forested cliff-face pathway and its impressive views of the lagoon.
“This is a gorgeous town you have here,” Jason told Argy.
“We like it,” Argy said. “How is it that Pelli knew your name, Jason?”
“Not sure,” Jason said. “Until yesterday, I hadn’t set foot on this side of the planet.”
“You have no idea?” Rufus asked.
“I didn't say no idea,” Jason told him. “I said not sure.”
The cliff-side path led up to the neighbourhood that spread inland from the clifftop.
“This is the fancy part of town,” Argy explained. The houses here were slightly bigger and Jason sensed more magic from them, but they didn’t look substantially different from the others. “If you go back far enough you reach the royal estate. It’s all walled off and you can only really get a glimpse of the grounds from the outside. You see them around town from time to time but mostly they keep to themselves.”
“That’s one of the side branches right?” Farrah asked.
“Wouldn’t presume to say,” Argy said. “Just watch your manners if you see anyone with blue hair.”
“Like Pelli,” Rufus said.
“Yeah,” Argy said. “She’s probably got some blood ties to the royal family but no one’s brave or stupid enough to ask.”
Argy led them to a path that followed the clifftop edge, accessible to all the houses running along it. The adventurers could sense some kind of magic at the very edge of the cliff.
“There's magic to keep people from falling off?” Farrah asked.
“Kids and booze exist,” Argy told her. “We find it's for the best.”
There weren't any fences between houses and yards ran one into another. There were plenty of people outside, including a lot of children playing with pets or each other. Most of the pets were a breed of dog that looked like short-haired golden retrievers, but there were also playful lizards, six-legged rabbits and what looked like large otters.
Argy exchanged waved greetings as they went until they arrived at an area of long grass beside the river that spilled over the cliff to the lagoon below.
The river was about twenty metres across and had children splashing about with their pets. They looked upstream to where the river came out of the higher hills to split the neighbourhood in two. The halves of the small residential district were connected by a bridge and, further along, they could see a house that spanned the river itself, the water running beneath it.
“I like that house,” Jason said.
“Mr Warnock's,” Argy said. “Adventurer, like you all, but gold-rank. Nice fella, though. Don't look down on people, you know? Your spot is on the other side of the river.”
Argy pointed across the water.
“Are you folks right to cross here or should we head to the bridge?”
“We’re fine,” Rufus said. As silver-rankers, they could levitate themselves so long as they were able to concentrate without interruption. They floated over the river while Argy walked over the water using some manner of essence ability.
On the far side was another open patch of long grass, but most of it was occupied by a fenced-off area in the middle. The metal bars of the fence prevented children from falling into the large hole in the ground but Jason could sense the barrier was a magic item producing an unseen magical dome.
“Cave goes into the cliff and out behind the waterfall,” Argy explained. “Pelli had a magic barrier put in because the older kids were always daring each other to go down and getting themselves hurt. Broke my own leg, back in the day. Got me a kiss from Trudi Willix, so I’m going to say worth it.”
Jason walked to the edge of the cliff, Rufus and Farrah following. They looked out over the lagoon and out at the ocean beyond. Jason did something he hadn’t done in a long time and took a deep breath. He wasn’t even sure how, given his body no longer had lungs, but the warm air mixed with cool ocean breeze was a balm to the soul.
“This will do just nicely.”