The lobby of the Adventure Society office was not large, even though it served double duty as the public face of the society and the jobs hall. About a dozen adventurers were standing around inside, with even this small branch made busy by the monster surge. The team of silver-rankers whose auras marked them as a cut above the others were present, looking with weary expressions at two other adventurers, facing off.
Jason had seen that expression before, on the face of Neil when Thadwick was about to do something stupid. Given that the team was superior to both of them, they were likely babysitting one or the other through the surge. Jason guessed it was the loud one.
“I am Argrave Mericulato, son of Ramon Mericulato. You think you can talk to me like that.”
He was a celestine with onyx hair and eyes and pale skin. His almost petulant expression made Jason peg him as genuinely young, not just preserved by his silver rank. As for the smugly derisive look on the other adventurer, it was embarrassingly familiar as well.
“Wait!” Jason called out as he entered the lobby. He started marching across the room. “You’re the son of Ramon Mericulato?”
The adventurer who had been loudly proclaiming his family connections turned to look at Jason.
“Who are you? Why are you interrupting me?”
“I apologise,” Jason said obsequiously. “I was just startled to learn that you’re the son of Ramon Mericulato. He’s an inspiration to me –to everyone, really – and even to meet his son is such an honour. I apologise if I’ve disturbed you at all.”
“See?” Argrave said, turning back to the other adventurer. “This is how you show respect.”
“Don’t bother with this man,” Jason said. “Dealing with people who are small only serves to make you smaller. You need to be the bigger man, if only because you so very clearly are. People like him and me are beneath you. You have no need to bother with us."
The idiot nodded at the praise, noticing neither the other adventurer opening his mouth to retort nor the pinpoint blast of aura suppression that silenced him before he spoke.
“What’s your name,” Argrave asked Jason.
“Neil Davone,” Jason said. “It’s an honour to be known to someone with such a prestigious background.”
“It is,” Argrave agreed, then turned to the elite silver team. “We’re leaving. This nonsense is beneath me.”
Argrave marched out of the room, pushing both double doors open as he passed through. One of the elite team members flashed Jason a grateful look as they followed, closing the doors behind them. Jason released the aura suppression on the other adventurer, who looked like he could breathe again after being caught underwater.
“What was that?” he asked angrily. There were a handful of other adventurers standing around, watching the whole debacle. Jason’s slightly hunched stance and obsequious expression had vanished the moment the lobby doors closed. He gave the other adventurer a friendly smile.
“Sorry about that,” Jason told him.
“Why would someone who can do that suck up to that little toad?”
“It’s like I told him,” Jason said. “If you get involved with someone small, it only makes you small as well. Take it from someone who’s been caught up in pettiness and been made petty himself for doing so. I’ve walked that road to the end and it doesn’t lead anywhere good.”
“He’s a smarmy little prick who doesn’t know how to do anything other than trot out his family name.”
“Yep,” Jason agreed. “People like that are essentially high-maintenance pets. If you feed them a biscuit and leave them to their handlers, they’re simple creatures and will wander off on their own. If you try to discipline them yourself, they won’t stop barking and, sooner or later, you’ll have to deal with the owner.”
“You think I’m just going to accept you crushing my aura like that?”
“Yes,” Jason said softly, the smile dropping from his face. “I do.”
Suddenly a sense of stillness came over the room that went beyond mere silence. The adventurers around them had a feeling that it was somehow related to an aura but couldn’t sense the aura doing it, leaving them unnerved.
“I think you’re smart enough to take some advice from someone who has been where you are and made mistakes,” Jason said, then held out his hand for the man to shake. “I’m Jason Asano.”
“Liston Kitt,” the adventurer said, shaking Jason’s hand. “Which one of us did you give the fake name?”
Jason flashed a grin.
“The name is real. I’m the fake part.”
Jason reported the gold-rank monster and got out of the city before he wound up in any trouble with entitled young adventurers and their more than capable entourages. Back in the land skimmer with his familiars, they started seeing more and more conjoining roads as they drew closer to an important transport hub. They passed several empty port towns, plus a large one that had the defences of a fortress town. It wasn’t on Jason’s delivery list, so he passed it by. Nearing the heart of the transport hub sector, Jason caught sight of an unusual building in the distance.
A huge tower loomed over the jungle, allowing Jason to spot it long before the roadways brought him to it. It rivalled the skyscrapers of Earth for scale and was set out in the shape of an octagon. The walls were large panels of dark green glass, set into stone walls whose lighter shade of green was very familiar.
“Shade, do those bricks look like the ones they export from Greenstone?”
“There is a striking resemblance, Mr Asano.”
“That’s a long way to ship stone.”
“The tower should be the magical farm of the Fertility church,” Shade said. “As the stone in question is valuable for the life and water affinities it inherited from the astral space apertures around which the stone is quarried, it would make sense to be used for this purpose.”
“I guess you don’t spare the expense when you need to keep giant monsters away from the food supply,” Jason said. “I was starting to think that I was rich but it turns out that I’m silver-rank rich.”
“Given that you are quite early on the path to gold, Mr Asano, your fiscal gains have been respectable.”
“Oh, I’m not complaining. I’m just seeing things like sky islands and skyscrapers made of magic stone shipped from the other side of the planet. It’s becoming increasingly evident that this fish has found itself in a very large pond.”
As the skimmer followed it towards the tower, Jason started sensing magical infrastructure. The road itself seemed to be some kind of magical conduit, part of a wide-scale mana accumulator feeding magic to the tower. Jason had seen something similar in the past when Farrah had used a similar setup to fuel the defences of Asano village.
They started passing over large defensive formations embedded into the ground. Jason felt them sweep through the vehicle, his familiars and himself with potent magic; a protective array stronger than anything he'd encountered before. Perhaps Emir's gold-rank cloud palace could match it, but Jason's senses had not been advanced enough back then to compare.
The magic wasn't hidden but instead projected, to the point where even normal people might sense it.
Any monster with even minor supernatural senses would easily detect the threat in time to flee, let alone Jason's powerful senses. Jason recognised that the purpose was to deter monsters and save on the cost of activating the formidable protections.
Jason pushed on, being very open with his aura as the magical arrays probed it. He could tell the defences were designed for far greater dangers than he presented and he didn’t want any accidental misfires because he was playing games.
Drawing close to the tower, the skimmer slowed to a stop in front of a bronze-rank elven woman in green robes, waiting for Jason’s arrival. The robes were marked with a baby holding a grain stalk in each hand, the symbol of Fertility. Gordon vanished into Jason’s aura and Colin soaked into Jason’s skin. Shade and the skimmer both disappeared into Jason’s shadow. Jason stood up as the skimmer dissolved around him.
“Are you the adventurer bearing our supplies?”
“I am. Jason Asano.”
“It is good to meet you. My name is Flor. I’m unfamiliar with the house of Asano. Should I address you as mister, young master or lord?”
“Lovely to meet you, Flor. My preference would be Jason, if that’s not unduly informal.”
“Of course not, Jason. Would you please follow me?”
The exterior of the tower had uniform windows of dark green glass, except for the bottom level and the two or three at the top. The ground floor had two doors set into each side of the building that Jason had seen, all heavy-duty metal engraved with protective sigils. Of the two doors per side, one was a large freight door and the other a normal-sized one. The priestess led Jason in through the closest of those.
Inside, they followed one hall and then another until they arrived at an octagonal elevating platform shaft. She touched a crystal next to the shaft and they waited for the platform to descend.
“You’re a few days ahead of schedule. That is much appreciated.”
Although Jason felt like he was meandering, he had forgone the recommended method of stealthing carefully south while avoiding fights. Instead, he had lured in monsters with the skimmer moving at a fast, but not too-fast pace. As a result and even with stopping to fight, he was well under the delivery deadlines he'd been assigned.
“It’s a beautiful part of the world,” Jason said. “The wildlife is a little stroppy but the scenery is amazing. I’ve been told that this isn’t a highly-coveted job but I’ve been more than satisfied with the experience.”
“That is a good attitude to have, although perhaps not one that will serve the ambitious.”
“I’m almost aggressively unambitious,” Jason said, before adding with a sullen mutter, “for all the good it’s done me.”
The priestess gave him an assessing look but made no further comment.
The elevating platform arrived from above and they stepped onto it. It carried them upward and the glass walls of the shaft gave Jason a good view of each storey. Above the ground floor, every level they passed was a single giant room, each containing what looked like a vast and densely packed hydroponic garden.
"This method of alchemical cultivation is a little resource-intensive, thus the nutrient bath supplies we need on a regular basis," Flor explained. "Outside of monster surges, it is not a cost-effective method of cultivation and the alchemically-focused orders of the church use these facilities for research purposes. During a surge, however, this methodology allows us to grow enough food for a very large amount of people in a small and secure space. With the Storm Kingdom’s civic authorities offsetting the costs, we, of course, do our best for those isolated in the fortresses and cities.”
“I’ve seen similar techniques where I come from, although I’ve never seen it on a scale like this,” Jason said. “Those methods were non-magical, however, so the results here are no doubt more impressive. I imagine that accelerated growth rates are only the beginning of your achievements. There have been food shortage problems over the last few years where we could have used these techniques.”
“Are you speaking of another world?”
“You’re familiar with outworlders?”
“Familiar might be too strong a term,” she said. “I have encountered just one in the past. I believe there is another residing in Rimaros right now.”
“At least one,” Jason said.
They passed the third-highest floor of the building, which was very different and looked like some kind of industrial plant. The platform stopped at the penultimate floor and Flor led him out. This was a storage level that looked a lot like the supply depots in Rimaros.
“The top three floors are service levels,” Flor explained. “The level below us contains the systems that deliver the resources stored on this level to the growing floors. We have a sorting area where you can deliver your supplies. The floor above contains the shrine, the living areas and the coupling rooms.”
“Would you like to see them? You’ll need to go through some testing first but you’ll be absolved of all parental responsibilities, of course.”
“No, I’m good.”
“Are you sure?” she asked, looking him up and down. “I wouldn’t mind–”
“Very sure. Thank you, though.”
She shook her head sadly.
“They say men only think about one thing,” she muttered, “but show them one assertive woman and they shrivel up.”
“Hey, I love assertive women. Also, there’s no shrivelling going on here.”
“Of course not,” she said sympathetically.
“It’s easy enough to prove…”
“You’ll just have to take my word for it.”