Rufus looked up as Gary emerged from his room, stretching his long arms and yawning.
“You’re not breakfast,” Gary said.
“You’re just getting up?” Rufus said.
Farrah emerged from her own room, rubbing her eyes.
“Oh, welcome back, Rufus. No breakfast?”
“Why would I have bought breakfast? I told you to relax the training, not give it up entirely. Jason needs to develop good habits now.”
“Forget that guy,” Gary said.
Farrah nodded her agreement.
“He went to see the goddess of knowledge few days ago,” she said. “Since then he’s been like a monster. All we wanted was a few relaxing days before you got back, but he won’t stop. The closest he comes to taking a break is having a drink with Jory down at the clinic, and I’m pretty sure that’s only because it lets him train his resistance ability.”
“Turns out booze is poison,” Gary said. “I’m not going to stop drinking it, but it makes you think.”
“Did you at least show him around the city?” Rufus asked.
“Oh, we showed him,” Farrah said.
“Now he does an evening run each night around the Island,” Gary complained.
The door opened up and Jason pushed in a trolley containing two rows of covered food trays.
“Rufus, you’re back,” Jason said happily. “You can join us for breakfast.”
“From what these two were saying, I thought you’d be training.”
“Yeah, I ate a spirit coin this morning, ran into the clinic and did some weight training. Then I ran back and got to work on breakfast. These two have been slacking off while you were away.”
As he talked, Jason transferred food from the tray to the dining table. Gary and Farrah sat down, Gary rubbing his hands together.
“I’m starting to get a handle on the local food,” Jason said. “I’ve been checking out the markets when I’m taking a break. But we can crank up the training intensity now that you’re back, yeah?”
Gary’s hands stopped moving.
“What do you mean by crank up the intensity?” he asked.
“We can stop slacking off. I’ve been slacking off a bit, cooking, making my way through Jory’s liquor cabinet.”
“Rest is an important part of training, too,” Rufus said.
“Exactly,” Gary mumbled around a mouthful of sausage.
Gary and Farrah were already tucking in as Jason poured out glasses of juice from a large pitcher.
“Have something to eat,” Jason told Rufus, pushing a laden plate his way. “Tell us how your field assessment thing went.”
Rufus picked up his cutlery.
“It does smell good.”
“So, I know this guy Humphrey,” Jason said to Rufus. “He was part of your group, right?”
“Humphrey Geller?” Rufus asked. “You know him?”
“We went in for induction on the same day,” Jason said. “Nice guy. How’d he do?”
“He failed,” Rufus said. “His skills are solid and he has a good grasp of his abilities. The ones he’s awakened, at least. His problem is one of mindset.”
“What do you mean?” Jason asked.
“Humphrey’s confluence essence is dragon,” Rufus said.
“Makes sense,” Jason said, thinking of Humphrey’s familiar. “I have to imagine that’s a good one.”
“They’re all good, if you use them right,” Farrah said.
“And there’s the problem,” Rufus said. “Humphrey is considerate, thoughtful, cautious and humble. Does any of that sound like a dragon to you? He needs to be confident, bold. He knows how to use his abilities, but he’s too indecisive about doing so.”
“I get it,” Jason said. “He’s a nice guy with the powers of an arrogant prick.”
“Actually, that’s exactly it,” Rufus said. “He wasn’t alone, though. There were nineteen people and we passed six.”
“Ouch,” Jason said.
“That’s a big group,” Farrah said.
“Some of the local aristocrats were looking to make a social connection,” Rufus said darkly. “Some of the records of their recently accepted adventurers were mysteriously lost, forcing them to re-take the assessment.”
“That sounds shady,” Farrah said “The Adventure Society let them get away with that?”
“You haven’t seen what it’s like in these outlying branches,” Gary said. “They don’t have the same funding, so they have to compromise with local powers.”
“Corruption,” Jason said.
“It’s easy to call it that,” Gary said, “but sometimes compromises have to be made. You pay adventurers with money, not principles.”
“Is there going to be any backlash?” Farrah asked.
“Probably,” Rufus said. “The ones who’d passed before their records mysteriously vanished had already been working as adventurers, but after I failed them, their membership was revoked. They won’t get it back until they pass another field assessment.”
“I bet they loved that,” Farrah said.
“The Duke of Greenstone’s nephew is part of that group,” Rufus said.
“You flunked out the city ruler’s nephew?” Gary chortled.
“I did,” Rufus said. “I suspect the people I failed will have an easier time with their next assessor.”
“Have you considered that you might not be the one to take the pain for this?” Farrah asked. “You might have dropped the local Adventure Society officials right in it.”
“Actually, the branch director was urging me on. Seems she’s trying to flush out at least some of the external influence.”
“Oh,” Farrah said thoughtfully. “Good for her.”
“So, what about Humphrey?” Jason asked. “You’re all about training up adventurers, right? I bet you have plenty of ideas to get him on track.”
“Humphrey’s mother is a family acquaintance,” Rufus said, “so I’ll help him out a little. I know exactly what he needs.”
“Oh?” Jason prompted.
“I’ve seen almost every kind of would-be adventurer there is,” Rufus said, then looked at Jason. “Almost every kind. Back at my family’s academy…”
He trailed off as Jason, Gary and Farrah all picked up their glasses of juice, draining them dry simultaneously.
“What was that?” Rufus asked as Gary refilled their glasses from the pitcher.
“What was what?” Jason asked.
“Never mind,” Rufus said. “Back in my family’s academy…”
Again all three picked up their glasses and chugged back the contents.
“What is happening right now?” Rufus asked. “Wait, are you playing that drinking game?”
The other three erupted into laughter.
“What is wrong with you people?”
“It’s just juice,” Gary said, as he started refilling the glasses again. “It is just juice, right?”
“Fresh-squeezed,” Jason said.
“So, now every time I mention my family’s-”
“Hold up,” Gary said, waving his hand at Rufus. “I can only refill these so fast.”
Rufus panning his glare around the table drew fresh peals of laughter.
“I hate you all.”
“This is where you grew up?” Jason asked as they walked through the verdant grounds of the Geller ancestral home. Jason and Rufus were being guided by Humphrey Geller and his mother, Danielle. Jason’s comment came as they walked through a tunnel of leafy vines grown into a tunnel on a bamboo framework. Splashes of sunlight stabbed through the foliage, punctuating the shade with beams of light.
“I would have loved this when I was a kid,” Jason said. “Who am I kidding? I love it now.”
“Thank you, Mr. Asano,” Danielle said.
“Jason is fine,” Jason told her.
“You’ll have to forgive Mr. Asano,” Rufus apologised. “He’s not well-versed in formality, in spite of any quite-thorough explanations he may have received earlier in the day.”
“Yes,” Jason said, “I’m not very smart and simple formalities are super-hard to figure out. It’s definitely not that I find them to be a set of arbitrary behavioural norms that serve as a tool of exclusionary tribalism and that eschewing the rituals of cultural performance facilitates the fostering of new relationships by having both sides step out of their preconceived societal modes.”
Danielle laughed while Rufus glared at Jason.
“I’m not sure how my translation ability handled that one,” Jason said.
“I should have left you in the desert,” Rufus muttered.
“Mr. Remore did mention you were an unusual man,” Danielle said. “I’m delighted to discover he was right. Please feel free to call me Danielle.”
Danielle Geller demonstrated that at silver rank, the beautifying effect of essences reached the realms of the supernatural. In addition to looking far too young to be Humphrey’s mother, she was stunningly perfect. Neither women nor men used cosmetics in this world, but Jason realised there was little point. All the people that could have afforded it used essences, which was like air-brushing real life.
“So, have you spoken to Gabrielle, yet?” Jason asked Humphrey, who turned white and started shaking his head to silence Jason.
“Gabrielle?” Danielle asked. She may have looked too young to be Humphrey’s mother, but that tone of having latched onto a weakness was unmistakable.
“It’s nobody,” Humphrey said.
“Danielle,” Jason said, “as Rufus pointed out, my grasp of the local etiquette is limited. How does one go a-courting in local aristocratic circles?”
“Please stop,” Humphrey begged.
“That would depend on the relative status of the parties involved,” Danielle said.
“Then let me present a hypothetical, then.” Jason said. “Let’s take someone of roughly your social standing. A young member of your family, perhaps. How would they approach, say, an acolyte of the church of knowledge? I imagine there would be a raft of social, political and religious entanglements that would make it rather difficult.”
Jason and Danielle were happily walking side-by-side, with Rufus and Humphrey behind. Humphrey had his head buried in his hands, while Rufus just shook his head.
“Indeed there would be social complexities,” Danielle said. “The best approach the young man could take – I assume it is a young man in this example?”
“Why not?” Jason said.
“The best thing this young man could do,” Danielle said, glancing back at her son, “would be to inform his mother. Someone who can arrange things without youthful enthusiasm causing a political incident.”
“Oh, but you know how young people can be,” Jason said. “I bet he’d rather cut off his own arm than talk about this with his mother.”
“If only he had a friend to step in for him,” Danielle said.
“Jason and I can do some sparring, right?” Humphrey asked Rufus.
“I’ll make sure to schedule it in,” Rufus said.
“That,” Danielle said, “is the mirage chamber.”
It was a huge dome rising out from the trees and plants, segmented like the eye of an insect. If the pathways of the estate weren’t mostly shaded by canopy, the bulging edifice would be visible from most of the grounds.
“So, what is this thing, exactly?” Jason asked. “Rufus wasn’t very clear.”
“It creates false images of monsters,” Humphrey explained, “and a false image of your body with which to fight them. Everything feels completely real.”
“That sounds fantastic,” Jason said. “Do I get a go?”
“Another day,” Rufus said. “This time you’re just here for a look. Today we set Humphrey on the path to passing the next field assessment.”
“Didn’t you say that they’d just wave everyone through next month?” Jason asked Rufus.
“I wouldn’t be so sure,” Danielle said. “I was speaking with the branch director yesterday morning, and she’s very happy with how things went. That said, some kind of compromise is probably necessary.”
Getting closer to the dome, Jason saw that there was a complex of buildings adjoining it.
“That’s the viewing hall over there,” Danielle said, pointing out the largest building other than the dome itself. “We try and set up scenarios our family trainees can learn from, then get them all in to watch. Rufus tells me you’re an affliction specialist, which might be interesting to work with.”
“He’s a long way from any example but bad,” Rufus said.
“Rufus,” Danielle lightly scolded.
“No, he’s right,” Jason said.
“I heard you acquitted yourself quite well at the Vane Estate incident,” Danielle said.
“Then you might want to check your sources,” Jason said. “I got laid out multiple times by a guy with a shovel.”
She raised an eyebrow in Rufus’ direction, who nodded with a wry smile on his face.
“Rufus was saying you train family members from all around the world here,” Jason said.
“We have branch families spread far and wide,” Danielle said proudly. “They all come here at age fifteen, and stay until they reach bronze rank. We also take in some non-family.”
“Our family members have a habit of picking teams even before they get their essences,” Humphrey said. “We take the team members in as well.”
Danielle led them into one of the buildings, which turned out to be a large single room. The back wall had a long glass window through which was only darkness, but Jason’s power let his eyes penetrate the gloom. Beyond the glass was the empty interior of the dome. The dome itself was made of segments; irregular metal pentagons carved with magical symbols.
Underneath the window was a rectangular stone block. Carved into the top were numerous runes and sigils, made up of sophisticated patterns. The last feature of the room were low wooden platforms the size of single beds. They lined the left and right wall, a half-dozen to a side. More mystical symbols were engraved into their surfaces.
“This is the control room,” Danielle explained. “From that panel under the window we can control everything that happens inside the chamber.”
She turned to Rufus.
“So what do you have for us?”