Jason was disembarking from the airship that had just returned his expedition to Rimaros. He was moving with the group across the open-sided walkway stretching from the docking cradle to the port tower when he froze on the spot.
“Mr Asano?” asked the expedition leader, Jeni Kavaloa.
“We’re done, right?” Jason asked. “Expedition over?”
“The contract is complete, Mr Asano. I’ll be handing in the report but you can get a copy of…”
She stopped bothering when Jason leapt from the side of the walkway without another word. She shook her head.
“You’re not meant to do that.”
Unbeknownst to Jason, at the moment he had been leaving the airship, his friends had been leaving the royal sky island’s magic barrier under the escort of Trenchant Moore. As they left the island’s magical defences, which easily blocked his silver-rank powers, their presence was brought to his attention.
- Contact [Humphrey Geller] has entered communication range.
- Contact [Sophie Wexler] has entered communication range.
- Contact [Belinda Callahan] has entered communication range.
- Contact [Gareth Xandier] has entered communication range.
- Contact [William Hurin] has entered communication range.
- Contact [Amelia Hurin] has entered communication range.
- Contact [Arabelle Remore] has entered communication range.
- Contact [Travis Noble] has entered communication range.
- Contact [Taika Williams] has entered communication range.
- Contact [Neil Davone] has entered communication range.
- Contact [Clive Standish] has entered communication range.
As he dropped through the air, Jason conjured his cloak to help him swerve around the walkways connected to ships docked further down the tower.
“Where are they?” Jason asked. “I can’t map their location without spreading my aura over the whole damn city, and I’d get into all sorts of trouble for projecting like that. Should I do it anyway?”
“Perhaps before doing anything drastic,” Shade suggested, “you could try asking them where they are.”
Jason landed at ground level, getting disapproving frowns from the people around him at the base of the busy docking tower.
“Asking them. That makes sense. I can do that because it’s a thing I can do.”
“I recommend you pause and take a breath, Mr Asano.”
“I don’t need to breathe, Shade.”
“Perhaps you should do it anyway.”
Unaware of Jason's proximity, his team and the others with them were moving down through a column of water in a boat shrouded by a force bubble. For the earthlings, Taika and Travis, the iconic local feature was a wonder. Even for those used to other great cities, like Vitesse, it was an impressive feat of magical engineering.
Sophie felt Humphrey go stiff at her side and he started talking to himself.
“Where are you?” he said.
The others noticed Humphrey acting strangely and listened to what was clearly one side of a conversation. It was something they all recognised but hadn’t seen in some time.
“With a man named Trenchant Moore,” Humphrey said. “Yes, Trenchant Moore. What? I don’t know.”
Humphrey turned to look Trenchant up and down.
“I guess he is,” Humphrey continued. “I suppose he has very piercing eyes. I don’t see why that… he’s taking us to Arnote. I think we’re switching to a larger boat on the big island.”
Humphrey turned to look at Trenchant again.
“Where are we transferring to the other boat?” he asked him.
“Essen Port,” Trenchant said. “A private terminal for a ferry called the Blue Burden.”
Humphrey repeated the details.
"How am I supposed to know that? Yes, it does kind of sound like the ferry is unhappy about carrying people about. What? No, it’s probably not a sentient boat. Even it is some kind of animated construct, I don’t think it will have feelings… what’s a danger boat? Tick, as in the parasite?”
Jason’s team were laughing at the very familiar expression on Humphrey’s face, and the very confused one on Trenchant’s.
"Look, are you going to meet us at the ferry terminal or not? Okay, thank you."
Humphrey slumped his shoulders, looking exhausted.
“And Jason… it’s good to hear your voice, Jason. That’s nice of you to say, but please don’t call me Hump.”
The only portal destination near the port was restricted to reduced port traffic congestion and Jason didn't have a permit. Nor did he have a permit for personal flight in the city. As for ground navigation via mount or vehicle, it would be slower than he wanted through the bustling streets.
Instead, Jason turned to his old techniques for travelling quickly on foot. Compared to the delta where he first developed them, the city was easier terrain, and Jason’s abilities were so much stronger than when he was an iron-rank. His reflexes, perception and straight-line speed were all improved, as was his control over his abilities.
The techniques were a holistic combination of movement skills taken from the Order of the Reaper, precisely-toggled weight reduction and jumping through shadows in rapid sequence. It allowed him to navigate obstacles and go largely unnoticed as he raced through the city, a flickering shadow passing through market stalls and alleyways as he followed his map ability in the direction of the port.
Essen was one of the primary ports for traffic between Livaros and Arnote. It was where Jason and Farrah had been reunited with Rufus, and now where they would reunite with the rest of their friends. Jason found the ferry terminal, but the port authority guards would not permit him entry. What they would do was point out the dock where boats coming from the royal sky island usually moored.
Having been contacted by Jason while he was on the move, Rufus and Farrah were ready when Jason opened up a portal to the cloud house for them to come through. While the nearby terminal guards were watching him closely, he was opening a portal to somewhere else and not portalling in blindly, so it was permitted. Farrah was less forgiving than the guards as she marched out of the portal, into Jason space and started jabbing a finger at his face.
“What were you thinking, going off like that?”
She snatched him into a hug.
“If Shade wasn’t with you, how stupid a thing would you have done?”
“It was pretty bad,” Jason said.
She let him go, hands on his shoulders as she gave his face an interrogating look.
“What are we going to do with you?” she asked. “I wish Rufus’ mother was here.”
“She’s on that boat,” Jason said, pointing out at the water behind her.
“Mother came too?” Rufus asked.
Jason, Rufus and Farrah watched as the boat approached. It wasn’t much more than an outsized skiff and they could see familiar faces on the deck. Gary’s grin was so wide it threatened to split the top of his head right off as we waved. A falcon came darting over the water from the boat, shooting at Jason like an arrow. Right before impact, it turned into a hairy dog the size of a tiger, bowling him over and crushing him under its weight.
“YAY!” the dog cheered with a child’s voice.
“Stash,” Jason croaked. “You got big.”
“I can get bigger. Want to see?”
“Stash,” Humphrey admonished as he landed on the dock. “Get off him.”
The dragon wings that had carried Humphrey over the water in pursuit of his enthusiastic familiar vanished as he alighted on the dock.
Stash transformed into a small bird that started flapping around in the air over Jason as Humphrey helped him to his feet. Jason didn't let go of his hand, pulling the big man into a hug.
“Good to see you, brother.”
“Good to see you alive,” Humphrey said. “We should have known that if anyone was going to treat the laws of life and death as rough guidelines it would be you.”
A portal appeared on the dock, a rainbow circle, edged in floating runes. Gary barrelled out of it and caught Farrah in a huge hug. The big man picked the small woman up entirely, spinning around in his joy.
“You realise that if I didn’t have a strength power,” she told him, laughing as he spun her around, “you’d have just crushed me to death.”
Sophie, Belinda and Clive followed Gary through the portal at a more sedate pace before it ran out of energy and closed. Jason approached them with a grin. He could sense the nervousness in Humphrey and especially Sophie, and the interplay between their auras. He chuckled to himself as he moved up to greet Clive.
There were handshakes and hugs all around as friends once thought gone forever came back together. Jason basked in their welcoming auras, without making a single eighties reference they didn't understand. The boat arrived at the dock, allowing the rest of the group to disembark. Trenchant Moore brought up the rear, Jason noting how the man’s gaze went straight to Farrah. He couldn’t read the man’s aura and was left wondering why, but had far more important things to attend to.
Neil and Jason faced each other as Neil came off the gangplank.
“I see someone finally taught you how to dress,” Jason said.
“This coming from a guy wearing that,” Neil said, gesturing at Jason’s floral shirt and shorts. “I see you’ve been enjoying your time in the tropics. Meanwhile, two weeks ago in Vitesse, we were working our butts off to get you back when a pile of your trouble gets dumped right on our heads.”
The hostile expression of the two men cracked and they laughed, shaking hands warmly. Jason then looked to his side.
“Speaking of trouble, what are you doing here, Travis?”
“That’s kind of a long story, Mr Asano.”
“You were sucked into a magic thing and fell out here?” Jason guessed.
“I guess it’s not that long,” Travis conceded.
“And how many times do I have to tell you to call me Jason?”
“Sorry, Mr Asano.”
Jason chuckled as he turned to Taika, sharing a grin with the big Māori.
“I got you here after all,” Jason said.
“It’s pretty crazy, bro. I’m kind of freaking out.”
“You and me both,” Jason said, throwing a look to Arabelle and exchanging a nod of greeting.
“I think we should stop obstructing the dock and make our way onto the ferry,” Trenchant suggested.
“When’s it scheduled to leave?” Jason asked.
“It belongs to the royal family,” Trenchant said. “I’m under direction from Princess Liara to bring them to your abode on Arnote.”
“Your boss was dragging his feet,” Jason said. “What changed?”
Trenchant’s gaze flicked briefly back to Farrah before returning to Jason.
“You have loyal friends, Mr Asano.”
Argy was overseeing the loading of a crate of the argy fruit for which he was nicknamed when something unusual appeared in front of him.
- You have received a voice chat request from [Jason Asano]. Accept Y/N?
“Argy,” Jason’s voice came directly into Argy’s head. “I’ve got friends in town and I’m looking to chuck a barbie. Help a bloke out with sourcing some food?”
“No problems, fella,” Argy said.
“Thanks, mate. I'll have Shade swing by with some funding. It's going to be an intimate affair, so maybe don’t invite the entire town this time? Try and keep it below a third?”
“I’ll do what I can,” Argy said, “but you know how people get to talking. You going to need drinks?”
“I think we might, yeah.”
Trenchant Moore escorted the group all the way to the cloud house before departing. He left quickly, finding something disconcerting yet unplaceable about the cloud construct, which was wholly impenetrable to his senses. Inside, an impromptu party started as the group started drinking and telling stories about all that had happened in their time apart.
Food and barbecues started to arrive and they moved outside as Jason started organising things. He was starting to get good at managing large-scale entertainment events, at least his particular brand of them.
After the celebratory gathering, the group split off for more intimate reunions over the course of the evening. Farrah and her parents, Rufus and his mother. Rufus, Gary and Farrah, reunited for the first time since the disastrous expedition that claimed the lives of many adventurers alongside her. Clive was chomping at the bit to ask Jason about every single aspect of every single thing that happened in his time away.
“Clive,” Jason said with a laugh as he set out tubs of marinade on the table. “We’ll have plenty of time to get to that. Just put in these meat strips, like I showed you. I’ll have to magic them up a bit since I can’t leave them in as long as I’d like.”
Jason took the time to speak with everyone at some point during the night's revelry. Farrah's parents were effusive in their gratitude for bringing their daughter home to them. Jason teased Clive mercilessly with hints of the astral magic he'd been involved with and traded good-natured barbs with Neil. Taika and Travis assured Jason that his family were safe and sound, although Jason had them save the full story for later.
It was late in the evening when Jason found himself on a balcony on the cloud house, overlooking his friends and neighbours as they enjoyed a night of not worrying about the monster surge. Not everyone had that chance. He’d seen for himself the conditions of people boxed into fortress towns like cattle, to the point of having the cattle penned right alongside them. The local equivalent of the cow was an awkward-looking, hexapedal lizard, which Jason found significantly less adorable, but equally delicious.
Jason felt the need to remind himself that for all the things piled on him, he had the power, money and resources to do something about it. For all his struggles, the world was full of powerless people who would have traded places with him in an instant, given the chance. Now that he had his family back around him, it was time to stop worrying about his own problems so much and start thinking about the people who needed help more than he did.
“Which is easier said than done,” he murmured to himself.
Belinda came out of the house and joined him in leaning against the rail.
“Brooding and talking to yourself,” she said. “I think Sophie might have dodged an arrow with you.”
“Yeah,” Jason said. “She probably did. So, her and Humphrey.”
“Yep. Sorry you gave up your chance?”
“No. She was looking for something in me she’ll actually find in him. Plus, he’s reliable. I think we both know I’m bit of a flake. She’s a smart woman, Humphrey’s mother.”
“What’s she got to do with anything?”
“You have to have realised he’s a mum’s boy by now. If she doesn’t approve, it doesn’t matter if Humphrey wants it. If she does approve, I think it still doesn’t matter if he wants it.”
“So, no hard feelings about Soph?”
"I had someone, while I was away. She helped me a lot. Helped me find Farrah. All I brought her in return was death. If I ever just become some adventurer instead of the eye of a giant crap-storm, maybe I'll look for someone new. I wouldn't inflict me on anyone at the moment. I'm kind of a mess right now."
“No, you’re stuck with me,” Jason said. “I’m not letting you all get away from me again.”