Jason and his team arrived back at the cloud house, exhausted in ways no stamina potion could fix after two weeks on the road. There were some kinds of tired only rest could fix, however potent your potion supply was. The monster surge was now in full swing, with monsters spawning faster than even the most pessimistic predictions had anticipated.
The abnormal rate of magical manifestations was not restricted to monsters, with a commensurate increase in the appearance of essences and awakening stones. This included a strangely high number of the ordinarily scarce dimension essence. One of the most valuable and sought-after essences in existence, for those that found them it was a massive jackpot.
At Humphrey's suggestion, Jason's team had done the same thing they had done after the first time they completed their roster, back in Greenstone. They volunteered to take a road contract as a shakedown cruise to help the team re-establish their teamwork. They had been operating separately for years, ranking up from bronze rank to silver in that time. Their operational dynamic would need to be rebuilt from the ground up.
Road contracts weren’t usually something that happened in the Storm Kingdom. In low-magic regions like Greenstone, towns and villages had noticeboards where locals posted monster sightings for passing adventurers to deal with, only sending word directly to the Adventure Society when the threat level to civilians was high. A high-magic zone like Rimaros had a magical detection system that identified monster manifestations and allowed the closest Adventure Society office to mount a response.
From a practical perspective, it was similar to the grid on Earth, although it was very different magically. The Earth grid was a unified system operating over every landmass on the planet, with minimal energy and maintenance requirements. Earth’s grid was less complex, yet its functionality was so much greater, which had staggered Farrah with the nuanced grasp of magic it implied.
Jason had gone to Liara with his proposed road contract and they negotiated the details. It used a supply contract, like the one Jason had already undertaken, as the basis. The team had moved between fortress towns and Fertility church agriculture towers, delivering supplies. The difference had been that they also took the time to thin out the increasing accumulation of monsters around fortress towns in the outlying regions.
After a good night's sleep, Humphrey had the team going over the extensive notes he had taken during the trip, hammering at their flaws and highlighting potential tactics and strategies for their current ability suites. With the intensity of the monster surge, it was like being back in the Order of the Reaper’s astral space where they had spent half a year slogging through monsters.
Only Jason had been through anything like that intensity in the years since, with even the diligent Humphrey showing his weariness. Despite a few bantering gripes, however, the team had all actively participated in getting themselves back on track. They had each had chances to see proper guild teams in action and knew they had a lot of catching up to do, especially given the nature of their team.
Their team operated on a strategic doctrine starkly opposed to the Rimaros approach of specialisation and maximising effectiveness, where the core objective was to turn any situation into a best-case scenario for themselves. Jason’s team was all about versatility and adaptation; about finding success in the worst-case scenario. They’d seen the pointy end of enough sticks to know that, sooner or later, they’d be seeing more.
Jason had recently watched a guild team in action, smoothly annihilating monsters with a speed and efficiency that his team would never equal, even at their best. But his team had no interest in being the best at normal. When adequate would get the job done, they were satisfied with adequate.
What mattered were the days when everything when wrong. When they were stranded in the dark, surrounded by enemies and with no one to rely on but each other. The days with no second chances, where they had to find a way, whatever it took. Those were the days when they needed to be the best.
After a full morning of strategising, the team went out onto the deck where Taika had set out a smorgasbord lunch on a picnic table. It was made up of Jason’s cooking experiments with local ingredients that hadn't gone horribly wrong.
“Bro, I need something to do. Farrah and Travis have been cloistered away for weeks and you all ran off. Gary and Rufus have been helping me train when they aren’t on mission but I’m spending most of my time sitting around the house.”
“You’re bronze-rank,” Humphrey told him. Without guild backing or at least a team around you, you’re basically a civilian.”
“I did help fight some of the monsters here on the island, at least,” Taika said. “Most of the ones that spawned are too strong, though.” I can sometimes take on a silver-rank one, but not two, let alone ten.”
“Yep, that sucks,” Neil mumbled around a mouthful of cheese enchilada. “You know, I did miss meal times from when we were back in Greenstone. This tortilla is amazing.”
“They have a tropical crop here they turn into a weirdly fantastic flour,” Jason said. “It’s not even magical.”
“Tastes magical,” Neil said happily.
Shade rose up from Jason’s shadow.
“Mr Asano, a message arrived from the Adventure Society while you were in your strategy session. They would like your team to attend a meeting this afternoon to discuss several topics.”
“Any sense if it’s a good thing or a bad thing?” Jason asked.
“Princess Liara and Princess Vesper will both be in attendance.”
“So, bad then,” Jason said.
Vesper and Liara walked together through the halls of the Adventure Society complex, talking within the confines of a privacy screen.
“You shouldn’t have let them run off for two weeks,” Vesper said. “We missed the best window to introduce Jason to society in the wake of the expedition with the Builder and his team arriving with a diamond-ranker.”
“Asano has been separated from his team for years. I don’t know what he’s been through in the intervening years, but his Ancestral Majesty has intimated that it was extreme. I know you’re happy with how the expedition you went on turned out but you can’t argue that his behaviour on it was stable. A support network can bring him that, and maybe make him feel less like we’re the enemy.”
“I know,” Vesper grumbled. “I just don’t like missing a prime opportunity.”
“You’re not seriously going to tell me you have no way to stoke the smouldering embers?”
“Of course I do. Jacinda Irios has been looking to meet with the boy, after that run-in I engineered with Kasper. I will say this for Asano: while he is a pain to work with, he does have a knack for stirring up the right kind of trouble.”
Jason and his team filed into a meeting room within the Adventure Society administration complex, shown the way by a society functionary. The princesses were yet to arrive so Belinda conjured a deck of cards and started playing with Sophie and Neil at one end of the conference table. Humphrey and Jason went to the other end, Humphrey sitting with good posture while Jason kicked back. Clive didn't sit at all, moving to examine the wall panel with an embedded crystal that activated the room's privacy screen.
Rather than one of the conference room’s chairs, Jason was in a comfortable cloud chair. Now that his full item set was back in his possession, he was able to use the various set abilities again. For the cloud flask, this meant simple cloud constructs that could serve as a shield or a platform for movement but mostly ended up being chairs, hammocks and, in one case, a mud toboggan.
Jason looked over at Stash, sprawled in Sophie’s lap in puppy form getting his tummy scratched.
“Stash doesn’t seem to have changed from ranking up as much as I would have thought,” Jason said to Humphrey.
“Oh, he’s changed,” Humphrey said. “He’s a lot smarter, for one thing.”
“I don’t really see it,” Jason said.
“That’s because he’s smart enough to know that if he keeps looking like a puppy and acting like an infant he can get away with a lot more.”
“Is this still about the team name?” Jason asked. “Humphrey, it’s fine. Everyone, tell Humphrey it’s fine. Again.”
“Yep,” Belinda said, not looking up from her hand of cards.
“I don’t care,” Clive said as he peered into the now open wall panel, prodding the hole behind it with a crystal rod.
“I gave up on any appearance of dignity the moment I joined a team with Jason in it,” Neil said.
“Hurtful, but thanks, I guess,” Jason said.
“Not a problem,” Neil said. “I’m happy to tell that to as many people as you like.”
He glowered at the cards in his hand.
“Belinda, have you been rigging the deck again?”
“Don’t blame your terrible luck on me,” she told him.
“But it is a matter of dignity,” Humphrey insisted to Jason. “It’s how we present ourselves to the world. We can’t change the name until the monster surge is done and administration reopens non-essential services. By that point, it's how we'll be known, for good or ill.”
“Look at it this way, Humphrey,” Jason said. “If we have a name like this, then the respect we get will be respect we’ve earned in spite of it. Unless you'd prefer our respect come from what we tell people about us instead of what we do as a team. You don't want our accomplishments to be superficial braggadocio do you?”
Humphrey groaned as he shook his head.
“I’d forgotten what it was like, talking to you.”
“It’s a treat, I know,” Jason said brightly.
Clive closed the wall panel and joined the others at the table shortly before Vesper and Liara arrived, Trenchant Moore with them. Liara and trenchant sat down opposite Jason, Humphrey and Clive while Vesper moved to the control panel to activate the privacy screen. Neil, Sophie and Belinda moved up the table to sit with the others.
“There was a problem with the privacy screen,” Clive told Vesper, “so I took the liberty of fixing it. It seems like someone had tapped into it so that anything that went on in the room while the privacy screen was active would be recorded and sent to a remote location. Obviously, doing that without notifying all attendees of an official meeting in a privacy-secured Adventure Society meeting room is a breach of Adventure Society protocols.”
“It is?” Jason asked.
“It is,” Humphrey said, eyes locked on Vesper. She, in turn, was frowning at Clive.
“Thank you,” she told him flatly.
“You’re welcome,” Clive said.
“Naturally,” Jason added, “we’ll be reporting the issue to the Adventure Society administration. They’ll need to do a sweep through all the conference rooms and make sure it isn’t a widespread problem. Can’t be too careful in these uncertain times.”
“You needn’t bother yourselves,” Vesper said through a jaw-clenched smile. “I’ll take care of that.”
“Oh, no bother,” Jason said. “I can assure you we'll take genuine delight in–”
“Jason,” Humphrey chided. “Don't play with your food.”
“Sorry, boss,” Jason said.
“Princess Vesper,” Humphrey said. “My friend takes a perverse pleasure in political games but I do not. I am a straightforward man, so if you are straightforward with us, we will reciprocate. Won’t we, Jason?”
“If we have to,” Jason grumbled. Humphrey gave him a sharp look.
“Fine,” Jason said. “I’ll be good.”
“You can choose to go in another direction,” Humphrey told the princesses, turning back to face them. “You can bring us into an ostensibly private meeting and record us. You can send us on missions without telling us that we’re bait. You can play games but, as I said, I don't like games. I'll step away and you can go back to dealing with Jason, so if you've enjoyed doing so thus far, I’d appreciate you telling us now and saving me the time.”
“If I'm being honest, Mr Geller, dealing with either of you feels very similar,” Vesper said. “You both seem quite imperious when speaking to royalty.”
“It’s not Mr Geller, Princess Vesper,” Humphrey said. “It’s Young Master Geller. I understand that my aristocratic lineage, being from a provincial, low-magic city-state, is inconsequential to a princess from Rimaros. But while my friend doesn't care if you call him Mr Asano, Jason or Susan the flower girl, I take pride in my name and my house. Unless you wish to forgo formal decorum, I will thank you to respect them both.”
At Humphrey’s use of the term ‘formal decorum,’ Liara and Vesper both flicked their eyes over Jason, lounging in a cloud chair with his feet up on a cloud footstool. Humphrey showed no indication of having noticed either their gazes or the incongruity of making his assertions made while sitting next to Jason’s aggressive casualness.
Neither princess would be foolish enough to dismiss a Geller as inconsequential. Like the non-aristocratic Remore family, the source of their prestige was not their name but their generations of accomplishment. Both families had been offered prestigious titles over the centuries by powerful rulers, and all had been refused. The Gellers kept only their humble title linked to their original rise to prominence, while the Remores carried no title at all.
“I’m sorry if you feel that we’ve been hostile,” Liara said. “Our goal has always been to work with Mr Asano, not to treat him as an enemy.”
“Lady that's a hard sell when he had to all but kill himself so you'd step in after dangling him on a hook while you fished for cultists,” Sophie said.
“Is it true that you didn’t know what fishing was?” Belinda asked Neil.
“I know what fishing is!”
“Gary said you didn’t.”
“Of course I know what fishing is. I just don't see the point of catching them one at a time with a string on a stick when you have fishing trawlers and magic explosions.”
“The point of going fishing isn’t to catch fish,” Clive said.
“Why do people keep saying that?” Neil asked. “That sentence is insane.”
Liara and Vesper watched Humphrey, waiting for him to bring his unruly team into line. Instead, he sat patiently, watching the reactions of the two princesses.
“I thought you didn’t like games, Young Master Geller,” Vesper told him.
“You do the best with what you have, Princess Vesper. What I have is my team and I don’t like the way you’ve been treating one of its members.”
“We aren’t looking to exploit anyone,” Liara said. “We want two things from Mr Asano. One is to help us with a local political problem in which Mr Asano has become unfortunately involved. That is our fault and we are happy to compensate him for his assistance, starting with helping to reunite your team.”
“Which we are grateful for,” Humphrey acknowledged.
“Even if it was mostly Dawn,” Sophie muttered. Humphrey gave her a side glance and she leaned back, looking innocent.
“That is Vesper’s area,” Liara continued. “She represents the royal family in this. I am a member of the royal family but I represent the Adventure Society here. The society offers Mr Asano nothing beyond rewards commensurate to his efforts, as is true of any adventurer. He's a member of the Adventure Society and has a responsibility to step forward and do what he can. We will assign him to tasks as a member of the Adventure Society as best fits our needs. The only reason he merits special attention is his connection to the Builder cult, which is my particular area of authority.”
Humphrey turned to Jason, who nodded. He then turned back to the princesses.
“We recognise that we are just one of many teams during an unprecedented event in the Adventure Society's history,” Humphrey said. “Unfortunately, circumstances have not allowed us to be treated as such. Modesty aside, we are special, which you obviously are aware of due to the special treatment we've been given. I understand that there is a disparity between our rank and the importance that has been placed on us. All we ask is to be treated with respect.”
Vesper looked like she’d swallowed a peach pit but Liara put a restraining hand on her forearm. Vesper nodded, pausing before speaking in a controlled voice.
“Young Master Geller, one of the reasons we have called your team in here is the contract you just completed. The contract Princess Liara personally intervened with the Adventure Society to have you assigned. If you do not see a gold-rank princess who is also a high-ranking Adventure Society official allowing your team to hand-craft your own contract in the middle of the most potent monster surge in history during one and possibly two interdimensional invasions as a gesture of respect, I think we may have reached a point where our perspectives have irreconcilably diverged.”
“She’s not wrong,” Jason said, sitting up as his cloud chair remoulded under him.
“We do appreciate that,” Humphrey said. “And we are here to do what the Adventure Society requires of us. Your political agenda is inextricably entangled in that intention, however.”
“That is the unfortunate reality,” Liara acknowledged.
“We are not trying to be hostile either,” Humphrey continued, then turned to give Sophie a pointed look as she leaned forward to chime in. She leaned back again, giving him an unrepentant shrug.
“My priority is to protect my team,” Humphrey continued. “I do wish to approach our interactions with respect and in good faith. That said, I will be unambiguous about placing my team’s welfare – in every respect – over the political needs of your family. I recognise that those political needs have wider implications, but I am not Jason Asano. As long as I have known him, he has been concerned for the people affected by the decisions of the powerful and I have no doubt he agreed to help you for that reason. I, on the other hand, was raised to believe that those of us born to power have a duty to wield it responsibly. It should not fall on the head of my friend to protect the people under the rule of your royal family.”
Humphrey had been controlled for most of the meeting but there was fire in his eyes and his words as his force of will was palpable.
“You think it's that simple?” Vesper shot back, unshaken.
“Yes,” Humphrey said, his voice cold as he locked away his anger. “But as my mother likes to say, simple is not the same thing as easy. My goal is to be clear on where each of us stands, so we can all move forward constructively.”
“I agree that’s best,” Liara said. “Perhaps, having established that, we can move on to the first topic for which this meeting was called?”
“Of course,” Humphrey said, his voice more diplomatically neutral. “We aren’t trying to be difficult.”
Vesper looked at him incredulously while he maintained a straight face.
Liara ignored them both as she took a file from a dimensional bag and placed it on the table.
“The first thing we want to talk about is the contract you just completed. The Adventure Society is very happy with how it went.”
“Really?” Jason asked, leaning forward. “I don’t hear that a lot.”
“Imagine my surprise,” Vesper said.