Farrah and Rufus watched Jason slump into the cloud house like a beaten dog. He didn't even use the doors, the walls opening in front of him and closing behind as he trudged in a straight line. They shared a look and got up, using the actual doorways to get to his room where they stood outside, knowing he would be aware of their presence. They waited, but there was no reaction. Rufus was about to call out to him but Farrah shook her head.
“Shade,” she said quietly. “What happened?”
Shade answered, his voice coming from Farrah’s shadow.
“Mr Asano regressed. Fell into old habits he had told himself that he wouldn’t.”
“That’s hardly new,” Rufus said. “He’s kind of all bad habits. It’s part of his charm.”
Farrah looked at Rufus, then gestured with her head. They had a brief exchange using only expressions until Rufus shrugged and wandered off.
“Can you open the door, Shade?” Farrah asked.
“Mr Asano has given me a measure of control over the cloud house in case it is necessary during his absence.”
“Then open it.”
“He is not absent now, Miss Hurin.”
“But it is necessary. Open the door, Shade.”
The cloud house always radiated Jason aura’s inside. As a mobile spirit domain, it wasn’t just a soul-bound object but an extension of his soul. It didn't reflect his condition at any given moment, however, being a reflection of his aura in a neutral state. It was a stark contrast to the aura that flooded out when the door to Jason's room dissipated, no long longer holding back the aura of Jason himself.
Farrah took a step back as an aura so thick it almost felt tangible washed out of the room. Although it wasn’t visible to the eye, Farrah felt like she was caught in a sweltering bog, thick and heavy humidity turning the air into foul soup. She waded in to where Jason was sitting on the end of his bed, head bowed, and sat next to him. Her arm pressed into his as she leaned gently against him, not saying anything. Jason’s aura subsided but neither spoke, Farrah waiting for Jason to talk when he was ready. It took a very long time.
“Why do I keep making the same mistakes?” he asked.
“Because you keep facing the same problems,” she told him. “You’re surrounded by people with too much power whose interests converge on you. We could just walk away. If you want to turn this house into a boat, say screw the Adventure Society, screw the royal family, screw the Builder and sail off into the sunrise, Rufus and I will stand right beside you.”
She reached out and gave his hand a gentle squeeze.
“But we both know you won’t,” she continued. “You put up with it on Earth because of the people that would get hurt if you didn’t. I won’t pretend to know what it’s like to have a whole world of people whose life and death are in my hands. Now there are so many people hiding behind the walls this Irios family built, and if their political rivals start interfering with their affairs…”
Under her hand, Jason’s clenched into a fist.
“That's why you're doing it here too. I won't say that the way you handle things is always the best. Or ever the best, really, and I don't know what mad thing you did today. But if that's what it takes to get you through, then do it. Be who you are and forget about everything else.”
“I wasn't meant to be who I am. I was meant to be better, but they won't… It wasn't meant to be like this. It can't just be Earth all over again. Not here.”
His voiced cracked, coming out as almost a sob.
“I won’t make it through that again, Farrah.”
His head hung lower and he held it in his hands, not saying any more. His aura was leaking out again and, to Farrah, it felt like being inside a wound.
“Okay,” she said and stood up.
“I need to go to Livaros. Open me a door?”
Jason flicked his hand and a portal rose from the floor in front of her. She squeezed his shoulder and stepped through. After a few moments, he reached out to close it with a gesture when Shade rose from his shadow.
“You may wish to leave it open, Mr Asano. A messenger construct arrived a short while ago to notify you that a contract is awaiting you at the jobs hall. It is a group contract and the group will be assembling at first light in the morning. You are requested to confirm or decline your participation by the end of the day.”
“Thank you,” he said, his voice barely a whisper. After a long while, he pushed himself to his feet as he was shrouded in dark mist. It swiftly dissipated, revealing his tropical attire to have been replaced by a combat robe in shades of dried blood. He stepped through the portal.
Every sky island in Rimaros shared a feature: a column of water, a dozen metres across, rising from the sea to connect with the underside of the island. A solid stream, it was like the trunk of a tree, with the island as the branches. The column was the traditional pathway to enter a sky island, with only insiders allowed to move directly through the protective dome magic. For this reason, Farrah was on a boat that moved across the water towards the column beneath the royal sky island. It was a small boat with only eight seats, all filled.
The boat pushed into the column, water engulfing the force dome that sprang up to keep the occupants dry. The column carried the boat up through the air, the water pushing into a hole in the bottom of the island. With so much water going in, Farrah absently wondered where it went. A few small streams were spilling off at various points around the sides, but far from enough to offset the huge amounts pushed up by the column.
Reaching the underside of the island, the column of water carried them into a shaft that bored right through the island and up into a lake at the centre of the royal palace. This was a common design for sky islands, where buildings were constructed around a large pond or small lake that served as the entrance. The Irios-designed defences completely encapsulated the lake, invisible to the eye but overbearing to magical senses.
The royal palace was set out in a ring, which was a dominant style in Rimaros architecture spawned by the design practicalities of the signature sky islands. The areas around the lake were the relatively low-security areas in which foreign dignitaries and other visitors were hosted. The palace was designed in a series of rings, with the outer and innermost rings having the least security, while the middle rings had the most.
The boat surfaced in the lake and docked at a smaller example of the piers and marinas dotted around the lake. Moving from the boat to the pier meant going through the oppressive magical defences, which even a gold ranker would be a rash fool to attempt. Farrah was an expert in formation magic but the royal palace’s defences were at a level of power and sophistication that she only touched on any understanding of.
Leaving the palace through the barriers was a much easier proposition, the air shimmering around several royal guards as they stepped from the pier to the boat and started checking the passengers. The passengers were silver-rank at most, as were the guards sent to check on them. The guards were thorough, checking documentation and testing everyone with magical devices for shape-changing or dangerous objects hidden in dimensional spaces. One of the guards arrived in front of Farrah.
“I need your entry documentation, ma’am.”
“I don’t have any.”
“Then you will have to go back with the boat, ma’am. No documentation means no entry.”
“I don’t need any. If a certain diamond-ranker doesn’t send someone to come get me, he’s going to regret it.”
All the guards turned on Farrah, either drawing or conjuring weapons that were levelled at her throat.
“If you don’t have documents, you have to leave,” the guard said. “If you make threats, you don’t get to.”
A man moved along the pier with gold-rank swiftness and stepped onto the boat. He wasn’t in a royal guard uniform but the guards stood at attention as he boarded.
“Commander Moore. I didn’t realise you were on duty, sir.”
“Special assignment,” the gold-ranker said.
He had pale skin, jet black hair and eyes like clear fragments of ice. His gaze fell on Farrah as he handed a document to the leader of the guards.
“My name is Trenchant Moore. You will come with me.”
The guards checked the document, then swept Farrah with various devices.
“You’ll need to leave your dimensional bag, ma’am.”
Farrah unhooked the heavy pouch from her belt and handed it over, not taking her eyes from Trenchant.
“Lead the way,” she told him.
Liara came to an unremarkable door in the royal palace and stood waiting until it opened and she walked through. Inside was a balcony lounge that looked out over the palace rooftops to the lake at the heart of the palace. Soramir was standing on the balcony, hands clasped behind his back as he looked out. Liara moved behind him, maintaining a respectful distance, and bowed her head.
“Ancestral majesty, I may have made a mistake with Asano.”
“A level of hostility was inevitable,” Soramir said. “Aura reading is not mind reading but I have seen the volatile frustration that has been building inside Asano since long before he came here. I already knew he was a pot ready to boil over.”
“He did. I’m not sure how willing he will be to accommodate our needs, now. I think I have made Vesper’s job a lot harder.”
“Why do you think he agreed to help us?” Soramir asked. “I’m sure you understand by now that he doesn’t care about the royal family or its authority.”
“We promised to bring his team here.”
“That is what he asked for, but he would have helped us anyway.”
“I have my suspicions, but we have a guest who I believe can hand us definitive answers.”
Trenchant led Farrah through the royal palace.
“You are here about Jason Asano,” he said.
“You met him, right? They had you playing nursemaid on his airship ride.”
“Silver-rankers do not make demands of Soramir Rimaros, Miss Hurin.”
“You don’t know Jason well, then. I’m just doing what he would do. If he was in better condition.”
“Something has been happening as long as I’ve known him. What did you think of Jason?”
“He wasn’t intimidated by my rank.”
“He isn't intimidated by gods. Do you know what a person has to go through to get to that place? He's been in over his head as long as I've known him, burying the fear and panic under snark and mad bravado. This was meant to be his chance to stop dealing with diamond-rankers and great astral beings, but now he's neck-deep in the royal family's mess, with a whole fresh set of people way more powerful than him to deal with.”
They reached a door that opened itself to let them in. Inside were Liara and Soramir Rimaros, standing out on an opulently appointed balcony lounge. They turned to face Trenchant and Farrah as they entered, Trenchant dropping to one knee.
“Ancestral majesty,” he said solemnly.
“Please stand, Commander Moore,” Soramir instructed.
Trenchant stood up, mirroring Soramir’s stance with his hands clasped behind his back.
Farrah did not have Jason's experience in dealing with diamond rankers. She had met them, most notably Rufus' grandfather, Roland, but confronting them was an entirely different matter. She steeled her resolve in the full knowledge that everyone in the room would sense her struggles by reading her aura.
“Perhaps you could explain why you have come, Miss Hurin,” Soramir said.
Farrah clenched her fists at her side.
“I’m not here to explain myself,” she said, drawing raised eyebrows from Trenchant and Liara. “I’m here to tell you that you are going to give Jason what you promised him.”
“You don’t come to our home and make demands,” Liara said.
“He came to ours,” Farrah said, still staring at Soramir. “If a diamond-ranker comes to people like us and asks for something, it’s always a demand. But you’re just the latest in a very long line of people and things who want something from him and he doesn’t have anything left. He’s ready to crack like an egg, so if you want to get what you need from him, you’re the ones putting up first.”
“It’s not that simple,” Liara said. “You might have noticed that there’s a monster surge on.”
“Noticed it? I started it. Jason and I set it off in the first place and you think we care about your family’s reputation? You look down on us and think we’re small, but we’re looking right back, thinking the exact same thing about you.”
Soramir stepped forward, his aura spreading out a feeling of calm that oppressed the agitated Farrah and Liara.
“I will keep my promise to Jason Asano,” Soramir said. “We are working on that.”
“You don’t work on things,” she told him. “You do things. If you want something enough, how many people in this world can stop you from getting it?”
“Everything has a price, Miss Hurin.”
“Yes, it does. And it's time to pay the price for Jason's help or you won't be getting it.”
“That’s Asano’s decision to make,” Liara said.
“You’ve looked into Jason’s aura,” Farrah said to Soramir. “You might know him better than anyone other than me.”
“As I told Princess Liara shortly before you arrived, aura reading is not mind reading.”
“But do you know what he’ll say if I go to Jason and tell him to stop helping you without asking me why?”
“He’ll say yes,” Soramir said.
“You’re damn right, but that doesn’t even matter. You people found a beaten dog and started kicking it. Now you expect it to do tricks. We all need to do something or he won’t be in any kind of state to help you, which means you have two options: Forget about Jason, or do what it takes to bring his friends here and hope that’s enough that he doesn’t walk into the ocean and not come back out or just start murdering everyone.”
Liara was agog at Farrah’s brazenness but took her cues from Soramir and remained silent. She could feel Farrah’s aura tremble under Soramir’s, but her face was unflinching as she stared at the diamond-ranker. Liara was unsurprised that Farrah and Jason were close, both willing to stand in the face of significantly greater power and rail wildly against it. Even with Soramir’s aura pressing down with a sense of calm that bordered on mind control, the air was tense. Farrah’s fierce gaze was returned by Soramir’s unreadable expression as silence extended between them.
“Before you came in here,” Soramir said finally, “the princess and I were discussing why your friend Jason chose to help us. It is undeniable that we have dragged Jason Asano into events he never asked for and I know this has poked a wound he came here to heal. My family is used to getting our way because of our power, authority, and the respect people have for them, but these are the very things that aggravate Asano the most. Would you do me the favour of explaining why?”
“When I met Jason, he was doing something insane to help a bunch of strangers, because that’s what he does. Jason has god-awful flaws, makes god-awful mistakes and is way too slow to learn from either. But from the day we met, he’s been putting everything on the line to protect people with no power – like the ones your political mess will hurt – from people with power – like you. As far as I’m concerned, you can all burn. But he’ll keep stepping up until it breaks him and that’s the point he’s just about reached.”
“You think we don’t want to keep people safe?” Liara asked.
“I’m sure you do, so long as it doesn’t cost you too much. Jason doesn’t want to protect people; he just does it. He pays the price every time because people like you won’t, but he’s running out of things to pay. It’s cost him his family, his life more than once and it’s on the edge of costing his sanity. I spent the last two years watching every hope he had turn to ash because of the things he had to do and the things he had to become. I’m not letting that happen again. If that means walking into a royal palace and yelling at a diamond-ranker the way he would, then that’s what I’m going to do.”
Farrah had been stuck outside two transformation zones on Earth, knowing what he was up against and the price of failure, but unable to help. She had watched him come back each time, victorious but a little more broken. She was done waiting and watching, so she'd chosen to do the exact thing he would do: go somewhere she shouldn't to yell at someone she shouldn't and hope that by some miracle it accomplished something.
Farrah and Soramir continued to lock eyes. Finally, Soramir gave a small nod.
“I’ll do as you say,” he said. “I will see to it that Asano’s team is here within the next few days. In the meantime, Princess Liara, please go and take Mr Asano’s name from the list of participants of the contract he’s been assigned.”
“Ancestral majesty,” Trenchant said. “That contract has already begun. Scouts reported that the target aperture was sealed and the expedition was sent early. I took a message for Princess Liara and was bringing it to her when Miss Hurin arrived and you directed me to bring her.”
“Was Asano with the expedition?” Liara asked.
“Unknown, your highness. The message was directed to you in your capacity as a member of the Builder response unit. Asano was not mentioned either way, but Princesses Vesper and Zara were both noted as having departed with the expedition.”
“What?” Farrah asked. “Who came up with that idiot plan?”