“I’m taking it up to five,” Rufus’ voice echoed through the mirage chamber. Jason stood waiting in his illusionary body. He was under the dome, but it was hidden by the false landscape. His senses told him he was standing on a desert hillside, ancient ruins all around him and dead enemies at his feet.
The mirage chamber was a strange experience. To Jason’s senses, everything was real, including himself. He felt the impact of every blow and the pain of every wound, even as his body lay unharmed in the control room.
The wounds vanished from Jason’s body and the fallen enemies around him vanished. In their place, five men appeared and immediately jumped to the attack.
Jason’s new art was different in many ways from what he had expected, although in hindsight such differences were obvious. In his own world, martial arts were designed to fight other humans, operating within a fixed range of physical capability. Adventurers had to fight anything from people with superhuman attributes to shark-crabs to spiders the size of a delivery van. It was tricky to put a wrist lock on something that didn’t have a wrist.
The Way of the Reaper consisted of five forms, which shifted the combat style’s priorities to meet changing circumstances. They were not organised to confront specific challenges, but rather to meet challenges in specific ways. The form, Way of the Sage, for example, was the most mobile of the five stances. It was of equal use against multiple opponents in complicated terrain as it was against a giant creature with many legs.
The Way of the Hierophant form was direct and aggressive, while the Way of the Trickster was the exact opposite. Full of strange movements and unconventional attacks, it reminded Jason of drunken boxing. The Way of the Hunter offered debilitating attacks against the unaware victims, and methods to hone in on the weak point of a monster. Against human opponents, the Way of the Hermit put attackers off-balance to set up devastating counters. Against monsters, it was used to defend against unusual attacks from the most bizarre creatures.
All together, it made for a comprehensive style, incorporating strikes, grapples, even acrobatics. How to move quickly and quietly, or with swift, breakneck efficiency. All the things he had been learning came into play, from Rufus’ footwork to Gary’s movement training, even Farrah’s situational awareness techniques.
Despite all of that, Rufus’ proclamations about the nature of fighting came to pass. The result of his sudden martial skills reminded Jason of playing a video game for the first time. His avatar may have an array of amazing abilities, but his fumbling efforts to use them left him beaten, battered and failing to live up to the potential.
Boxed in by the five illusionary enemies, he was pinned down and savagely beaten. Rufus took longer to end the simulation than Jason would have liked, but eventually he did and Jason woke up in his real body. He swung his legs off the platform he was laying on, letting out a groan as he rubbed his side.
“I swear I can still feel it,” he said.
“Phantom pain, “ Rufus said. “You get used to it.”
“Five enemies was a little much,” Jason said. “I could barely handle four.”
“You want to go back down?” Rufus asked.
“No, the challenge is good.”
“That’s what I want to hear,” Rufus said.
“Still better five illusionary goons than one of Humphrey,” Jason said. “I’d call him a monster, but I’ve fought monsters. He’s worse.”
“Humphrey has been training since he was able to walk upright,” Rufus said. “He and I have that in common. A book won’t close that gap overnight.”
“That’s fair,” Jason said.
“What did your parents teach you when you were growing up?” Rufus asked.
“My dad’s parents came from another country,” Jason said. “My mum was very big on having us learn about it. The language, the culture. Dad himself couldn’t care less, and I was the same. It was really my brother’s thing.”
“Well,” Rufus said, “you can speak the language now.”
Jason tilted his head thoughtfully.
“Huh. I guess I can.”
Jason and Rufus left the mirage chamber and started back for the city. Rufus asking about his family had left him uncharacteristically quiet. Jason didn’t have a lot of contact with his family after they had fallen out. When he dropped out of university he didn’t move back from Melbourne. The only ones he saw regularly were his much older sister, along with her husband and daughter. Uncle Jason was the cheapest childcare in town, but for all his complaining, he loved that little girl. From literally a world away, conflicts that once seemed intractable now looked small and meaningless.
As they made their way from the grounds of the Geller Estate, Rufus looked over at Jason, locked in contemplation. He wasn’t used to be the one making conversation.
“How are your essence abilities coming along?” Rufus asked.
“What? Oh, good, yeah” Jason said. “I’m getting better with the shadow teleport. I’ve been testing its limitations.”
“It needs a distinct shadow,” Jason explained. “I can’t just teleport around wherever I like in the dark.”
“So you need at least some light,” Rufus said.
“Yeah,” Jason said, “but I have a solution for that. Shadow jumping isn’t the only ability I’ve been working on.”
“Good,” Rufus said. “Mastering your essence abilities is crucial. What have you learned?”
Jason stopped and looked around. They were on a wide path through a grove of what looked like banyan trees. Like most of the Geller estate’s winding pathways, the vegetation shaded the path from the punishing sun.
“This’ll work,” Jason said. “You remember how my cloak can light up with stars?”
Jason’s shadowy cloak appeared around him like dark smoke. Stars started to appear upon it, lighting it up as Rufus had seen in the past. Then the stars started floating off the cloak, more and more of them drifting out, spreading their cool light under the shady trees. The lights weren’t overpowering, filling the area with shadowy nooks and crannies. Jason started moving around, but the star motes didn’t move with him, floating independently.
“So you can bring your own shadows,” Rufus said.
“That’s the idea,” Jason said. “I’ve been practising at night. Once I have it down, I should be a proper menace in the dark.”
“Well, keep at it,” Rufus said. “Ideally, you will have solid control of your abilities for the Adventure Society assessment. It’s only a couple of weeks away now.”
“I don’t know,” Jason said. “I’ve come so far since I was stumbling around that hedge maze with no pants, but it feels like there’s still so much further to go.”
“The only thing you can do with that feeling," Rufus said, "is to get used to it. I’ve been going through one form of training or another for as long as I can remember, and I still feel like that.”
The interior of Lucian Lamprey's viewing box was spacious and split into two levels. The smaller, higher level was at the back. Behind Lucian’s heavy wooden desk was the luxurious chair in which he spent most of his day. The larger space was a relaxed lounging area, with plush chairs and a comfortable couch. They were arrayed in a semicircle around the viewing window, with a low refreshments table in the middle.
Lucian had descended from his usual perch as a gesture to his visitor, awaiting her in one of the soft chairs in the viewing lounge. Respect was not the same as deference, however, and he didn’t stand as he waved her to another of the chairs. The director of the Magic Society did not stand up to meet a crime lord.
“Thank you for your kind invitation,” Clarissa Ventress said. Her bodyguard, Darnell, remained outside the door. He rarely was away from her side, but Ventress was at a rare disadvantage. The Fortress was the symbol of power in Old City, and she was one of its rulers. In front of Lucian Lamprey, however, she was reminded that Old City’s power was only hers so long as the Island had no interest in taking it from her. Lucian Lamprey represented both danger and opportunity.
“You have been the Fortress’ most important patron for some time now,” Ventress said. “I’m delighted you’ve given me the privilege of a meeting.”
Lucian nakedly ran his eyes over Clarissa. He could sense her bronze-rank aura, see the body sculpted into lithe perfection by the magic of her essences. She wore an exquisite green dress that both commanded and provoked. Lucian had heard the delta contained several breeds of snake that were beautiful in their colouration, but deadly to encounter. He had the same impression of Clarissa Ventress.
“The pleasure is genuinely mine,” he told her.
Lucian’s assistant Cassowary brought refreshments, sitting them on the table as Lucian and Clarissa exchanged some more niceties.
“As you may be aware,” Lucian said, “I am an enthusiast of the fights here in the Fortress.”
“I have heard as such,” Clarissa said.
"Normally it is the evening battles that interest me. Fighters with a full set of essences. But lately, I have found one of the lower-card fighters to be highly compelling. One of your fighters."
Clarissa smiled. The key to controlling a person was finding what they wanted. Now she understood what Lucian wanted, her concerns melted away.
“The Nightingale,” she said.
It was hardly a leap of deduction. A certain kind of man took perverse pleasure in breaking the will of a strong woman. It was the reason Sophie made such a useful stick with which to prod Cole Silva. Clarissa enjoyed such men, as she found them weak and easy to handle.
“Her real name is Sophie Wexler,” Clarissa said. “She came into my employ under the condition that I would protect her.”
“Give her to me.”
“Of course, I would like to do nothing else,” Clarissa said. “But there are complications.”
"You must understand," Clarissa said, "that my deal to protect her is widely known. That knowledge is no small part of where the protection comes from. I have gotten where I am in no small part on the strength of my reputation. If I make a deal to protect a person, then hand them over to someone else, I am no longer able to vouchsafe any agreement on the strength of my word alone."
“And if I just decide to take her?” Lucian asked.
“Then no one in Old City could stop you,” Clarissa said. “But if Old City was all you had to worry about, you already would have. The Director of the Magic Society can’t just go around kidnapping women for his own pleasure, and that kind of thing has a way of getting around. What you need is to have her placed under your power in such a way that will not be given a second glance.”
“Go on,” Lucian said.
“I think, perhaps,” Clarissa said, “there is a way in which we can have both of our needs met. It will take some effort on my part, but the conclusion should be mutually satisfying.”
“Explain,” Lucian demanded.
“You must understand that one's word is not something that can be repaired. Once broken, it stays broken. I made an agreement to protect the girl from external influences, in return for certain services. Should something befall her in the course of providing those services, I cannot be expcted to protect her from herself. You may or may not be aware, but she is a professional thief. If she were caught through lack of ability in her chosen trade, then I could hardly be blamed. Once she was in the hands of the legal system, I have no doubt a man of such staggering influence as yourself could take charge of the matter from there."
“I do believe I could,” Lucian said thoughtfully. “But can you get her there?”
“It will require me to take some pains,” Clarissa said. “But what’s a little pain in service to a man such as yourself?”