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While Rimaros was considered a single city, the islands that comprised it were spread over hundreds of kilometres. With three main islands and many sky islands that were themselves often sizeable, it was a city of many flavours, with each island having its own feel.

The most populous island was the easternmost of the three main islands, Provo. As well as being the general trade hub of the city, it was home to the majority of the non-magical citizenry. Its infrastructure was all designed to support a large population with biological needs that essence users no longer shared.

Livaros was just the opposite. The island of adventurers was an adventurer city from the foundation up. It wasn't strictly unwelcoming to the non-magical, but most felt uncomfortable being a Clark Kent in a world of Supermen. The thoroughfares of the island were specifically designed to accommodate floater platforms, magical vehicles or simply riding around on familiars. Local transport wasn't expensive to rent for those earning adventurer money, but for normal people on normal wages, it was prohibitive.

Even with everything working against it, there was still a small population of normals living and working on Livaros. They were shop assistants, functionaries and other jobs that were essential, but not particularly valuable. There was one trait that every normal-ranker on Livaros shared; a collective knowledge passed between the non-magical like a secret language: The locations of the island’s very, very small number of toilets.

“The adventuring districts of any major city are set up like this,” Rufus explained as he and Jason rode void-black horses with glowing white manes and hooves, side by side through the city. “It's just that being divided by islands makes the delineation especially apparent, here.”

Rufus was more well-travelled than Farrah, who did not share his wealthy upbringing. She was the result of generations of effort to obtain not just any essences but a powerful combination. Her family had also managed to afford a retired adventurer to give her the training she needed to hold her own in a competitive field. Farrah had fulfilled that ambition as her success, even as just a bronze-ranker, uplifted her entire family.

While Jason and Rufus were heading for a local tailor, Farrah was on the sky island that held the Magic Society campus, accessing the water link chambers. Liara had used her influence to schedule a call between Farrah and her parents, who hadn’t seen her in more than three years and, until recently, believed her dead. While he knew the intent was to keep him from getting too rebellious over being used, he at least appreciated the consideration with which the gesture was made.

Rufus continued his explanation, covering how those with backgrounds like Farrah’s strove to make it in big, magical cities.

“The lure of a place like Livaros for normals is the higher wages. Many use that money to lift themselves up by saving for essences. Even if someone doesn’t become an adventurer until they’re thirty or older, once they get there new worlds open to them.”

“But getting essences is just the start, right? You need training and monsters that aren’t three ranks higher than you. Without a rich family cultivating their fights for them, won’t these self-made adventurers just get themselves killed?”

“Definitely,” Rufus said. “People come here and earn money because the wages are higher and the essences, on average, are cheaper. Once they have them, though, they tend to leave. With the high-rank monsters and well-trained elites in a place like Rimaros, they’re better off starting over somewhere with less-potent magic. Lower-magic zones are much better suited to more borderline adventurers. Few places have the low magical density of Greenstone, but there are plenty lower than the Sea of Storms.”

“You met Gary and Farrah in a place like that, right? Fighting zombies?”

“I did. It was a big operation, pulling in the locals and people from Vitesse. It wasn't a very high-ranking threat, just a widespread one, so lots of use from the academy were sent out for some valuable experience. Gary and Farrah were operating out of the same branch, knew each other in passing but never really met before. Things got a little wild, as they always do, and we ended up doing a lot of fighting together. Their talent stood out from the locals, especially Farrah, and I asked them to come with me back to Vitesse.”

“So, the adventurers that stay in places like Vitesse and Rimaros are the good ones? The ones from families with the money and power to train their people properly?”

“There’s more to it than that,” Rufus said. “Most of these hardscrabble adventurers aren’t a Gary or a Farrah. They’re not looking to make something of themselves when they leave. They want to make something of their children. They might not be the best adventurers in the world but they can make enough to get their children a better set of essences and then send them to an academy or a training hall. Maybe not in Rimaros itself, but there are places in the Sea of Storms where the competition isn’t so fierce. Not every academy is like the one my family…”

Rufus trailed off as Jason took out a glass of liquor and drank it in a gulp.

“Some days,” Rufus said, “I wish you’d let the blood cult throw me in that pit.”

Jason chuckled as he returned the empty glass to his inventory.

“I think I know what you’re talking about,” he said. “I visited a city in the western reaches during my delivery run. The adventurers there were a step up from Greenstone, but a step down from even the non-guild people here in Rimaros.”

“That’s the kind of place you’ll find the less prestigious institutions, but that in no way makes them bad. Those instruction halls are where the majority of adventurers get trained and plenty of them have the potential to rise to the top.”

“Those are the ones who've come to Rimaros, looking for that guild membership?”

“They are. The lack of training halls like we’re talking about is the reason a place like Greenstone falls short. There, if you don’t come from a prominent family, like Humphrey or Neil, then you’re pretty much hoping that someone with more experience will mentor you. Danielle Geller established a training hall there, after the expedition disaster.”

“I remember,” Jason said. “She was just getting started before we went into the astral space. I even taught aura control there for a few weeks.”

“It’s more developed now,” Rufus said. “It doesn't offer the level of training that the Gellers give their people in-house, but it's open to all essence users. They're even deferring payment until people get Adventure Society membership and earn enough to pay back the tuition fees. I even arranged for the Remore Academy graduates coming to Greenstone to do some basic instruction there. A tricked I picked up growing up surrounded by teachers is that having students teach each other is a great tool to consolidate learning. I've found it complements the training annex programs very nicely. It’s still early days, but I can see Greenstone’s adventuring culture going through a qualitative shift over the next few decades.”

“It sounds like you enjoy running a school.”

“It’s just a training annex.”

“That you conceived of, developed, established and ran. You're allowed to be proud of yourself, Rufus; it won't make your hair grow back.”

“Why would…”

Rufus stopped himself. In their time apart, he'd forgotten the dangers of asking questions about Jason's nonsense.

“If I’m being honest with myself,” he said, “I’ve enjoyed establishing the training annex more than I’ve missed adventuring. Helping others to avoid my mistakes is a lot more fulfilling than the constant dread of making the next one.”

Jason's aura senses were utterly transformed from what they had been when he knew Rufus in the past and now his friend was an open book to him. Jason always knew that his team getting captured at the time Jason first met them, and then Farrah's death weighed heavily on him. Now he could feel it inside Rufus like a wound. Even Farrah's return hadn't erased it. He had a feeling that just like Gary had turned to his smithing, Rufus would turn to teaching rather than go back to the adventuring life. As for what that meant for Farrah, it remained to be seen.

“That’s nothing to be ashamed of,” Jason said. “Honestly, at this point, I think I’d rather be a tourist. All the fun parts of adventuring, but without stuff constantly trying to kill you and your friends. Sadly, that ship has sailed for me. I’ve got the Builder, then whatever comes next.”

“Next?”

“All I’ve gotten from Dawn so far are ominous warnings. Whatever it is, I need to keep getting stronger, so it’s the adventuring life for me. Honestly, I do like it when I’m not fighting and/or being used by great astral beings or gods or forest nymphs who live in a baby oil factory.”

“What?”

“I’ve got to get lucky one of these days, right?”

Rufus shook his head.

“It’s adventuring for me as well. The training annex is a pleasant distraction, but I chose to be an adventurer. If I step away from that, every person I could have helped and didn’t is my responsibility. I’ve paid the price for my mistakes, so now I have to use the lessons I took from them.”

“You’re an idiot.”

Rufus swivelled his head to look at Jason.

“Excuse me?”

“Rufus, are you a good teacher? Wait, don't answer that. You'll say some humble crap and I'm trying to make a point here. I know you're a good teacher because you taught me and I'm awesome. Even with my overwhelming natural talent, smouldering charisma and dashing good looks helping you along, that's still a pretty good result.”

Rufus gave him a flat look.

“Now,” Jason continued, flashing an impish grin. “Let’s just say you go back to adventuring and save one person’s life a week. On average. Now let’s posit that instead, you go teaching young adventurers full time. How many of them can you help avoid the mistakes that you made? How many of them are going to go off and save one person’s life every week? If you look at it that way, then going back to adventuring is equivalent to killing a whole bunch of innocent people because you failed to train the adventurers that would have saved them. Are you going to kill a bunch of innocent people, Rufus? That’s cold.”

“Jason, I'm not Humphrey. I'm not going to accept some problem-riddled argument because you talked fast enough.”

“Mate, it's about the point, not the details. I've saved a lot of lives, Rufus. Not mine, as much as I'd like, but other people’s. I’m sure Farrah told you all about Earth when I wasn’t around.”

“She didn't think you'd want to tell it yourself.”

“That’s because she’s smarter than us. My point, Rufus, is that every life I saved is a life that you saved. You taught me how. You and Farrah and Gary. So, when you tell me that going off and being a teacher is somehow abdicating responsibility, what I'm hearing is that everything you taught me, and everything I've done with it, isn't worth a damn. That you don't respect it.”

“That’s not what I’m saying.”

“I hate to break it to you, cobber, but that’s exactly what you’re saying. You’re also bizarrely claiming that being a teacher is somehow selfish. That’s a pile of crap so huge that you could make a living selling Rufus-brand prime fertilizer. You think back to the people who taught you at this academy of yours. How many of them are shirking their responsibilities?”

They continued riding along the street on Shade’s horse forms, Rufus falling into silent contemplation. He didn’t share Jason’s pathological need to get the last word.

***

In a water link chamber, Farrah was talking with two water clones of her parents. The magic was sufficiently developed that they were indistinguishable from her actual parents to the eye. Magical senses revealed their nature as projections, which hadn’t stopped her from taking a half-step in the instinct to hug them when they appeared.

After a very emotional sort-of reunion, they were coming to the end of their time in the chamber. Liara had scheduled a generous block, but communication was at an absolute premium.

“We’re trying to get you here, along with Gary and Jason’s companions,” Farrah told her parents. “It would be easier if we came to you, but Jason can’t go anywhere without getting caught up in some huge mess.”

“Yes, we met him and he’s a very nice boy,” Farrah’s mother, Amelia, said. “A bit odd, but nice. If he brought you back to us, though, then he’s family, now.”

“At worst, we’ll make our way to you once the monster surge is over,” Farrah assured her.

“You just make sure and stay safe,” said her father, William. “No foolish risks. We want you coming back to us safe and sound.”

“Don’t worry,” Farrah said. “I have an object lesson is foolish risks running around with me. I leave that sort of thing to him, now.”

***

Jason and Rufus dropped lightly to the street as Shade's horse forms dissolved into Jason's shadow. They were outside a boutique store; a simple cream-coloured building with a light linen suit hanging on a dummy in the window, topped by a Panama hat. There was no other indication of the shop’s name or signage of any kind.

“Oh yeah,” Jason said. “I’m getting one of those hats.”

Jason opened the door for Rufus, then followed him inside. The interior was surprisingly spacious, the small storefront obscuring the fact that internally it was quite large. The left and right walls were covered in racks of fabric samples that leaned heavily toward light fabrics and shades, appropriate to the climate. There were doors to the sides, large armchairs and the back wall was completely open to a courtyard with what looked like an outdoor bar-café.

There were tables shrouded by parasols where people were sitting and chatting as they ate or drank. There were young couples, a trio of old men playing cards. Everyone was exquisitely, if casually dressed. There were two people behind the bar, plus a cook in the kitchen behind it. The whole courtyard was filled with lush tropical plants.

Two celestine men were coming in from the courtyard. One was tall and handsome with sharp cheekbones and gunmetal hair and eyes. His aura placed him at the peak of bronze rank. The man with him Jason recognised as one of the Als, although this one looked younger than the other’s he’d seen because of his silver rank. His aura was thick with monster cores, which was common in magical craftspeople. Most felt that chasing after monsters was a waste of time better spent dedicated to their profession.

Alejandro Albericci had sea-green eyes and identically coloured hair that spilled back off his head in waves. He wore a flatteringly-draped suit of white fabric, his cufflinks, shoes and pocket square all matched the colour of his hair.

“Thank you for coming in, Young Master Irios,” Alejandro was saying as the two men walked across the room.

“You were recommended to me. They said I should come in around now to catch you when you weren’t busy.”

Jason smiled thinly. He’d received the same recommendation, which he now suspected came from the same source. He tapped a small pin on his shirt, a new purchase, and an invisible sound screen surrounded Jason and Rufus.

“Remind me to punch Vesper Rimaros in the boob,” he said.

“No,” Rufus said, reaching out to tap the pin on Jason’s shirt and shut the screen off.

Jason and Rufus stepped aside as Alejandro led the young man to the door. Alejandro’s gaze took in Jason at a glance, while the young man’s eyes lingered a little longer on Rufus in passing.

“You will be contacted when your clothes are ready, Mr Irios,” Alejandro said.

“Thank you, Mr Albericci.”

“Please, call me Al.”

As the young man Jason was certain to be named Kasper Irios closed the door, Alejandro turned to Jason and Rufus.

“You must be Jason Asano,” he said. “I was instructed to offer you nothing but the best.”

The door that had almost completely closed froze in place, the young man’s hand still gripping the handle.

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Shirtaloon (Travis Deverell)

  • Australia

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