While still a bustle of activity, the Adventure Society campus wasn't the shoulder-to-shoulder throng it had been in the opening days of the surge. The queues no longer reached outside the jobs hall building and Jason could go straight in. He went up past the floors for the lower-rankers, noting that they weren't especially full. The iron and bronze-rankers were treated more like soldiers during a monster surge, formed into large units and deployed accordingly. When monsters appropriate to their rank did appear, they tended to arrive in extreme numbers and the Adventurer Society responded in kind.
Normally, vast numbers would be dealt with by area-attack specialists rather than sending small armies of adventurers. With activity picking up heavily, though, that wasn’t always possible. The Adventure Society was responding to threats as best as they were able, while also waiting for the other shoe to drop from whatever the Builder was planning.
The office for handing in completed contracts was separate from where they were assigned and had a different feel. The adventurers there were all fresh back from the fight, the tension of heading out into the monster surge relieved for at least the current moment. Unless something went wrong, they were happy and joking around with one another.
Monster surge contracts didn’t offer direct payment the way normal ones did. Instead, every contract completed would help them tally up on the rewards list. This incentivised adventurers to stay busy since extra effort would reap considerable benefits. For many, though, the most coveted prize wasn’t handed out by the Adventure Society. It was widely known that the guilds used monster surges to scout out diamonds in the rough. For most ordinary adventurers, there could be no greater reward than gaining the attention of a guild and being offered even a chance at membership.
The guilds managed their own affairs, largely separated from the Adventure Society's organisational structure. The society handed the guilds large activity quotas and left them to manage them on their own, with only some liaison officers as go-betweens. This was a test for the guilds to prove they deserved the privileges they enjoyed.
This system alleviated the pressure on the Adventure Society, which could then focus on managing all the non-guild adventurers. This meant that the bulk of the people in the jobs hall were non-guild, but it was common knowledge that Adventure Society officials would make recommendations to guilds they had connections with.
The resulting atmosphere was quite boisterous, a combination of joy at having come back from a contract with success and a need to play themselves up on the off chance of getting noticed. Jason made his way up to the third floor, where silver-rank contracts were managed, and quietly joined a very loud line.
“You handing in the contract for your team?” the adventurer in front of him asked. It was a runic, the people with dark blue skin marked with glowing runes that looked like magic tattoos but were an inherent trait.
“I got caught away from my team when the surge hit,” Jason said. “They’ve got me doing delivery runs.”
“That’s rough. Running solo; no chance to make a big impression on the guilds.”
“I’m just looking to make it through the surge, get out of town and back to my team. They’re a long way from here.”
“That’s a good attitude. It’ll keep you alive. A lot of people take big risks during a surge, trying to make a name for themselves.”
“But not you?”
He flashed Jason a grin.
“Oh, definitely me.”
“Good luck, then.”
There were multiple desks keeping things moving along and Jason soon found himself in front of one of them. He handed over the contract documentation, with acknowledgement of materials picked up and received at the various supply depots, fertility church facilities and fortress towns. The Adventure Society functionary checked Jason’s documentation and looked over his report.
“You spotted a gold-rank monster and it didn’t come after you?”
“I’m not sure if it was oblivious or docile; I ran for it rather than sticking around to check.”
“I detoured to the closest society branch, reported it and got back to my contract.”
“Very wise. You portalled a fort commander to meet with another?”
“I was asked to spare some supplies for a fort that didn't get a scheduled delivery. I didn't have the authority to hand over my supplies but I was able to facilitate a meeting so they could organise it amongst themselves. It was less than an hour of my time and there are notes from both fort commanders at the end of the report.”
The official flicked through the pages and took a glance at the notes before turning back to the report.
“Good choice. You showed sound judgement in realising that it wasn't your call to make while still finding a way to help without compromising your contract. I'm going to mark you down for a reward bonus. It won't be much, but keep doing good work and it'll add up.”
“Lastly, under combat activity, your report reads...”
He looked down to quote the report directly.
“...several combat encounters, schedule unaffected.”
“That’s right. I hit all my deadlines with comfortable margins. It was all signed off by the fort logistics officers.”
“You didn’t feel these combat encounters warranted more detail?”
“I was told that there wouldn’t be additional rewards for monster kills during supply runs. It makes sense since you don't want delays from people trying to prove they deserve more than delivery contracts. As such, I didn’t think it mattered if I ran into a monster or two or got ambushed from stealth one time. The deliveries were made in full and on schedule.”
“That's an accurate assessment, although do try and avoid combat while on delivery contracts. Wagering the welfare of entire towns to clear out a monster is a poor risk/reward dynamic. We're losing too many people on supply runs as it is because we're stretched far too thin. I know many adventurers consider it an unimportant task but there are people out there counting on us.”
“Your contract is complete, adventurer Asano, and meets your weekly action quota requirements. I would strongly recommend you continue to accept contracts, however. You will find that exceeding minimum requirements is the key to success when it comes time for reward allocation.”
“I would not go taking any fresh contracts just yet, Mr Asano,” a voice spoke from across the room. It was quiet but carried on a wave of gold rank aura that filled the room with a hush. All eyes turned to the doorway to see a gold-rank celestine with the signature sapphire hair of the royal family. The silver-rankers parted like the Red Sea as Liara Rimaros marched up to Jason.
“Princess,” Jason greeted. “Are you staking a claim on my time?”
“That’s convenient for me, at least.”
He took out another piece of paper and handed it to her. She took it and glanced over the contents.
“As you know, I used up a lot of consumables in our little joint operation. I was going to file this with the Builder response unit, but since you’re here.”
Liara gave him a flat look, then slapped the invoice down on the desk in front of the Adventure Society official.
“See that Mr Asano is reimbursed as part of his weekly reward allocation.”
“Of course, ma’am.”
The official addressed Liara in her role as a higher-ranked officer in the society, as opposed to as a princess. This reinforced to the room full of silver-rank onlookers that she wasn’t just throwing her weight around as a gold-ranker or a princess. She gave the official a slight nod of approval.
“Come with me, Mr Asano. It’s time to debrief you after… our joint operation.”
Under the eyes of the other silver rankers, Lira strode out, Jason trundling after like a duckling. She led him downstairs, out of the jobs hall complex and across the campus grounds. Once they were out of the building, she enacted a small privacy screen.
“Those are quite common it seems,” Jason said. “Makes sense, when everyone has superhuman hearing.”
“Joint operation?” Liara asked.
“Don’t even try and tell me that doesn’t play into what you’re doing. Coming to get me personally, in front of all those people? You’re deliberately raising my profile. You’ve decided what to do about the political situation with Zara.”
“That is Princess Vesper’s area, while I deal with you from an operations standpoint. You have met Vesper, yes?”
“Is that Zara’s aunt? The one who went to Greenstone with her?”
“We met briefly. I don’t think she liked me.”
“She didn’t. This little display was her idea. To raise your profile, as you say. This was my idea.”
Liara took a small piece of card from a dimensional pouch and handed it to Jason, who read it and stopped walking.
“Thank you for this,” he said. His expression had no trace of the usual snark. “Genuinely, this is very considerate.”
Her expression softened.
“We did treat you poorly, Mr Asano. I don’t regret doing so as we now have some important prisoners, but you deserve compensation for the liberties we have taken.”
“I appreciate that. And I do want to contribute to the fight against the Builder.”
“I’ve seen your unabridged records, Mr Asano. I believe you.”
They resumed walking.
“So, what now?” Jason asked.
“Have you heard about the dimensional cities?”
“Just rumours. Flying cities full of Builder armies.”
“They don’t all fly. Somewhere in the Great Western Ocean, there is a city floating in the depths. His ancestral majesty has been monitoring it personally as there are multiple diamond-rank auras within.”
“You’re talking about Soramir.”
“Nice to know I’m not the only one he’s keeping tabs on. The diamond-rank auras are why no one has launched a massive invasion on this underwater city?”
“Precisely. Thus far, it hasn't gone past an aura clash. We believe the city had already deployed several expeditions before it was discovered and we are still attempting to track their activity. From what we've found, we believe they may be doing what they failed to do several years ago.”
“They’re going after the astral spaces?”
“Yes. Prior to your departure from our world, the Builder cult claimed a number of such spaces. The results were disastrous for the surrounding landscape and anyone living on it. In most cases, however, their efforts were defeated. You and your companion both died making sure that was the case.”
“And now you think they’re making a second run?”
“It is the prevailing assumption, but nothing is being ruled out yet. For the moment, known astral spaces are being monitored. We anticipate that open conflict will soon begin.”
“Just let me know. I’ve picked up some new tricks while I was away that the Builder’s little minions aren’t going to like.”
“Glad to hear it.”
Jason looked around at where Liara was leading him.
“This isn’t the direction of the Builder response unit’s offices.”
“No. Tomorrow is the Builder. Today is politics.”
“For the moment, we’re positioning you as a valuable asset to the Builder response unit. It has the advantage of being true. That’s why you’ll be seen meeting with me, even when you’re meeting with Vesper. Or Zara.”
“I’ve been wondering when that was going to happen.”
“She’s been told that you’re back. She is sorry that she used you.”
“Everybody’s sorry. Never seems to stop them though, does it?”
Liara and Jason passed through a maze of corridors in the Adventure Society’s main administration building. Every hallway was busy except the last, which was completely devoid of people. She led him into a nondescript meeting room, closed the door behind him and then tapped a crystal on the wall. A privacy screen encapsulated the entire room.
The other occupant of the room was Vesper Rimaros, who stood from her chair and came around the table where she and Jason assessed one another. She was largely unchanged from their previous meeting, three years earlier. She had the same gracefully restrained aura, brimming with confidence. It was no longer overwhelming to Jason, now he matched her silver rank, but he respected the level of control she demonstrated. She had the signature caramel skin and shimmering blue hair of the Rimaros family, but hair was longer than Jason remembered. It was now a gemstone waterfall, cascading down over her shoulders.
Compared to the practical hairstyles Jason was used to seeing from adventurers, it was quite striking. Knowing there was a good chance that Soramir was watching his aura, he tried to push aside his concern that he was developing a celestine fetish.
Jason had changed much more, with his strange eyes, facial scars and features smoothed into the handsomeness typical of silver-rankers. His outfit, however, was identical to what he had worn at Emir’s barbecue: bright floral shirt, shorts and sandals.
“Why are you dressed like a fool?” Vesper asked by way of greeting.
“I came by it honestly. I am a fool.”
“Not anymore,” she said while moving back to the table and sitting down. “Now you are a mysterious and – this part is important – dignified young adventurer. You’ve been away from our world, thought dead, conducting enigmatic affairs related to the Builder invasion and now you’re back to play a critical role. Is that understood?”
“I can sell that,” Jason said, taking a seat across the table. Liara sat next to Vesper.
“Can you?” Vesper asked.
“Aside from the dignity part, it’s pretty much true, so yeah.”
“I think you might be overestimating your actual value,” Vesper said.
“I’d be interested in hearing about those affairs related to the Builder invasion,” Liara said.
“I bet you would,” Jason said. “Vesper, if you’re looking to turn me into a respectable young man of society, you’re trying to validate Zara’s claim. You aren’t looking for me to actually marry her, right? I agreed to help you but that’s further than I’m willing to go.”
“We’re going to pass it off as a one-sided infatuation on her part,” Vesper said. “The foolish act of a foolish girl. It doesn’t matter if it’s true, just that it’s at least vaguely plausible enough that people can save face. Which means you need to play the mysterious stranger from another world and stop wearing shorts and absurd, flowery shirts.”
“I have been meaning to update my wardrobe,” Jason said. “I’ll miss the shirts but I’ve already been recommended a tailor.”
“You can’t just use anyone,” Vesper said. “Who are you going to?”
“Sensual Attire for the Sensual Gentleman.”
“Alejandro Albericci,” Vesper said. “Alright, that’s acceptable, but I’m going to be sending him some instructions.”
“I’m sure we can find an acceptable stylistic comprise,” Jason told her. “You still haven’t told me what all this is in aid of, though. We need to have a conversation about Zara.”