Jason went back to the chair he had left by the broken window and sat down. The cool, clean air coming in as the rain continued to hammer down was a stark improvement over what had been sealed away in the old hospital. Before he made a move, he needed to go through the system messages that he had been ignoring. He pulled up the first one.
- You have entered a region of magical desolation. The levels of magical density and magical saturation are extremely low, insufficient to produce spontaneous magical manifestations.
- Stamina recovery reduced by 50%.
- Health Recovery reduced by 75%.
- Mana recovery reduced by 99%.
- Consuming a spirit coin of your rank or ten spirit coins of one rank lower will restore your recovery rates to normal for eight hours. This duration is reduced by using active magic abilities.
- Rituals and summoning abilities require spirit coins to enact, in addition to any spirit coin cost they already have. Rituals will be unable to function without artificially enhancing the density of local ambient magic.
- Summoned familiars will need to consume a spirit coin of their rank or ten coins of one rank lower to sustain their vessels. Consumption of spirit coins will allow them to maintain their vessels outside of the summoner for one day before requiring additional coins. This duration is reduced by using active magic abilities.
Clive had long surmised that the dimensional membrane of Jason’s world was much more restrictive than that of Clive’s own. The reduced levels of magic it would allow to seep in from the astral would account for the absence of magic that Jason had described. The analysis of Jason’s interface ability was completely consistent with that hypothesis, reflecting a level of magic so low as to be, for most practical purposes, absent entirely.
The absence of magical manifestation meant no monsters, no essences and no awakening stones. Unless someone already had magical tools and abilities, interacting with the world’s meagre level of magic would be impossible.
Fortunately, Jason was not short on spirit coins. The astral space had inverted the normal ratio of shops to monsters, leaving Jason with silver spirit coins numbered in the low thousands. He had enough bronze coins to use indefinitely, while his iron coin supply was enough to swim through like Scrooge McDuck.
“The Builder could learn a lot from Disney,” Jason muttered to himself, opening up his inventory to take out a coin. Doing so, he noticed that his supply of monster cores now occupied currency counters like spirit coins, instead of taking up space in his inventory slots. He presumed it was one of the effects of his inventory power evolving. It didn't free up a lot of slots, given that the amount of cores he could store per slot had expanded greatly when he reached bronze rank. He currently had a thousand bronze-rank cores and dozens of silver-rank cores. As for iron-rank cores, he had long ago ditched them, even if it only freed up the one inventory slot.
Spirit coins and monster cores were only the beginning of the treasures that had his inventory bursting at the seams. Between looting monsters and scavenging the astral space, Jason and his team had dumped all their iron-rank loot to make room for the good stuff. The treasure had been split between Jason, Humphrey, Clive and Belinda, who each had their own storage spaces. Even carrying just a quarter of the team’s haul, Jason had essences and awakening stones enough to produce a dozen essence users with full sets of abilities.
The essence users in question would be rather uniform, as the environment of the astral space produced a lot of duplicate essences. Half of them were plant essences, with most of the others spread between venom, might and a handful of animal essences. Those were all common-rarity essences, but he also had a few uncommon growth and life essences, plus a precious handful of more exotic ones.
The rest of the haul was filled out by various magic items they had picked up. Most had been kept for selling, the team already having claimed anything they wanted for themselves. There was even more in the cloud house, which could serve as a large, if less convenient dimensional space. That was where they had kept items that would occupy the most space in their storage abilities, along with things they had a lot of but knew they wouldn’t be using. Basic bronze-rank weapons and armour weren’t fancy, but there was always a market of newly-ranked-up adventurers looking for relatively inexpensive gear.
He moved on to the next system window.
- Your repeated defiance in the face of more powerful enemies and willingness to sacrifice everything for a cause has marked your soul. Your resistance to aura suppression is further enhanced and ignores rank disparity.
- Your aura signature has changed. Your unwavering resolve floods your aura and can be detected if your aura is examined by an aura sensing power or when projecting your aura. Allies within your aura have increased resistance to aura suppression.
More than just the new scars on his chest, Jason could feel that his soul had once again passed through the crucible. He had been told that soul scars were rare, yet his soul had been battered and beaten to the point that his entire torso was a landscape of ragged marks and lumpen scar tissue. Even though his body was brand new, the tribulations of his soul were made manifest upon it.
He wondered if the deepest damage remained hidden. Looking into the rainy night of his own world, he wasn’t sure if he belonged after what he had become. Not as a magic being, but as a person. He was no longer human, but how much of his humanity had he thrown away?
The first person he killed was Landemere Vane, by accident in a mad scramble to defend himself. It had shaken him to the core, leaving him a near-catatonic wreck. It was not the last, that first day, and Rufus had warned him that it would only be the beginning. He had been so self-righteous, looking down on Rufus, Farrah and Gary for their callous attitude, resolving to be different. Now he had killed as much as any of them, unsure if it was his naiveté or his decency that he discarded along the way.
He would never know how many Ustei tribesman had fallen to his afflictions in the battle on the sand barge. He regretted his participation now, but that didn’t bring the people he killed back to life. At the time he had been caught up in the wild rush of the adventuring life, not even considering the reality of what he was doing. That day he had just followed orders, killing wantonly and hadn’t even felt bad. So much blood on his hands, yet he’d been excited about his first attribute advancement instead of horrified at the slaughter he’d participated in
Maybe there hadn’t been a better solution and the battle with the Ustei was inevitable. It was certainly true that they had to be stopped, but was any real attempt made at a peaceful solution? He wasn’t foolish enough to think he was done with killing, but he at least wanted to be confident in himself that it was the right thing, instead of just accepting the assurance of others.
He had made other mistakes on his search to find a balance within the violence. His callousness had grown and people had died at his hands that shouldn’t have. The third-rate adventurers Thadwick sent after him could have been sent packing with the same ease that he slaughtered half their number. He had taken their lives, caught up in his own dark mythology. Killing had become easy, casual almost. He had told himself that it had been necessary to send a message to the next people who came after him. He ultimately realised he was caught up in his own ego and power.
Rufus had warned him that he would need to harden himself to the realities of a violent world. It was simply necessity when monsters threatened innocent people and power turned the selfish into tyrants. What none of them had warned Jason about was going too far and become one of those tyrants himself. The god Dominion had seen it, and apparently approved.
He had tried to balance himself out. He hadn’t wanted to go after the desert bandits that took over a town, because he knew it would be too easy to justify the killing to himself. Yet, he still let himself be talked into it. The final count of bandits he killed came to thirty-seven. Three dozen people in a single afternoon. He could not say he went unaffected by the magnitude of his actions but the most damning thing was that he didn’t regret them. It was a grim job carried out with grim satisfaction.
The person that arrived in the magic world was not the person that returned. Looking out at the dark, starless sky of his own Earth, he couldn’t help but wonder if his old world had a place for him. He wasn’t sure he deserved one.
Jason shook his head to dispel the dark thoughts. For all his dark deeds, he had done a lot of good as well. All he could do was move forward and continue trying to do his best. In the meantime, he brought up the next system window.
- You have received the blessing of the World-Phoenix.
- If you accept the blessing, your outworlder racial ability [Astral Affinity] will evolve to [Nirvanic Transfiguration].
- If you reject the blessing, your ability will remain unchanged and can be evolved by normal means or other blessings in the future.
He had no idea what the World-Phoenix wanted from him, or why it had slipped him a token as his soul was dragged through the astral on his way to becoming an outworlder. According to Clive, the World-Phoenix’s area of concern was dimensional stability. It’s interests lay in events that impacted the astral and whole realities, with little care for mortal affairs. When the World-Phoenix did act on that small a scale, it was oblique and subtle. Was the World-Phoenix trying to make Jason the butterfly whose wings led to the rise of a hurricane?
Jason had no insights into the World-Phoenix’s objectives or intentions for him, which was exactly the problem. Entities existing in realms he couldn’t imagine were playing games on a board he was too small to see. He had no interest in being someone’s pawn and, if he could find a way, would rather flip the board over entirely.
According to Clive, there was no way for a great astral being’s blessing to be used as a means to control the recipient, beyond ordinary methods like gratitude and obligation. The ability, once granted, could not be revoked like that from a divine awakening stone. Some great astral beings were even known to give blessings to those that opposed their interests, when their ideologies meshed, nonetheless. Jason himself had already received a power evolution from a blessing, courtesy of a Reaper token. His system had not asked for confirmation at that time; apparently his use of the token counted as consent. He looked over the description of his potential new power.
Ability: [Nirvanic Transfiguration]
- This ability will be evolved from the ability [Astral Affinity].
- Your body and soul will be combined into a gestalt entity both physical and spiritual in nature. This state will grant inherent resistance to effects that utilise the soul-body disconnect.
- The nature of your new body will render you immune to resurrection effects, including those of high-rank healing magic. If your body is discorporated, your soul will return to a purely spiritual state, unable to reinhabit a physical form or re-enter a physical reality. This prevents the natural formation of an outworlder body on entering a physical reality. These restrictions will change on reaching diamond rank.
- When suffering lethal damage, instead of dying, your new body will undergo a nirvanic rebirth, returning to a state of full integrity. This effect cannot be triggered again until you have increased in rank from the last time it was used. This ability will change on reaching diamond rank.
- The strength of your aura will significantly increase.
- Your resistance to hostile dimension effects and disruptive force damage will be increased. This is an enhancement of the [Astral Affinity] ability.
- The potency of your dimensional abilities and transcendent damage will be increased. This is a legacy effect of the [Astral Affinity] ability.
- Physical reality around you will be more stable. You will be able to sense nearby astral space apertures and proto-astral spaces coterminous to your location.
- You will be able to traverse astral space apertures, including those that are closed or have been sealed.
- You will be able to directly enter proto-astral spaces coterminous with your location or directly leave a proto-astral space to a coterminous location.
- While within the astral you will be able to create and maintain a small zone of physical reality around you. This does not grant the ability to enter or traverse the astral.
The power seemed wildly suspicious. For one thing, no racial gift Jason had heard of came close to that complexity. It was more akin to an essence ability after ranking up multiple times. For another, it seemed very specific. It was clearly designed to push Jason into certain directions, for reasons that remained hidden from him. Whatever the World-Phoenix’s agenda, Jason was certain this power was designed to serve it.
Jason had two further misgivings. The major one was the removal of resurrection options. To someone from a world without magic, that might seem like a cheap cost, but Jason had already died twice. He knew full well that high-ranked healing magic had miraculous effects, to the point of bringing back the dead if the healer moved quickly enough.
While the nirvanic rebirth effect was some compensation, it would take Jason decades to reach diamond rank, even under the far-from-certain assumption that he would at all. In all that time, he would have only one chance to revive at each rank, compared to the potentially countless times a healer could bring him back from the brink.
His other concern was that it precluded using the outworlder effect of having his soul traverse the astral and form a new body in a new world. He didn’t know if it was possible to engineer this effect without a transcendent power like the World-Phoenix token, but accepting this power would rule it out entirely.
That was not something Jason was comfortable with. His intention was to settle affairs with his family, then find a way back to the magical Earth. He had expected to be higher rank before that ever became an issue. Bronze-rank seemed too low to find a means of traversing worlds, and there weren’t any monsters to grind his way up with on his own Earth. Figuring out how to artificially trigger an outworlder effect was the only idea he had, thus far.
Those concerns, plus a healthy scepticism about the agendas of great astral beings, left Jason unwilling to accept the power. The World-Phoenix certainly knew how to lay out tempting bait, however. Much of the ability seemed tailor made for taking the fight to the Builder’s minions, which he suspected it was.
The question was why. Was it to push Jason into taking the ability, or was fighting the Builder the entire point? Why would a great astral being even go to the effort for someone like him? Surely there was no shortage of powerful, knowledgeable people who would be willing to act on the World-Phoenix’s behalf. He was self aware enough to realise that his ego was perhaps a touch over-sized, but even he would admit to being unremarkable on a cosmic scale.
Jason had no intention of accepting that power without answering at least some of those questions. He didn’t flat out decline it, either. There didn’t seem to be a time limit on the offer, and if there had been, it would have tipped him into rejecting it outright. For the moment he could just leave things as they were, leaving the decision for when he had more information.
Finally he moved on to the last window. This was a power evolution that he had received the old-fashioned way, by having the crap kicked out of him. He already had an instinctive sense of the power but Clive was right; having it all spelled out was extremely useful.
Ability: [Spirit Vault]
- This ability is evolved from the ability [Inventory].
- You have a dimensional storage space.
- You may call up a gate and physically enter your dimensional storage space. Only you may enter; others cannot be invited or forcibly intrude. You may directly portal from within the storage space to another area using the location of the gate as a starting point, even if the gate is obstructed or destroyed, preventing ordinary egress.
- You may summon familiars within the storage space without the use of a ritual, although any material requirements of the ritual must still be consumed.
“See, now that’s how a power evolution should work. Not eighteen different things, no over-the-top effects. No getting killed, no agendas. Just a nice bit of extra utility, with that little bit of flair that makes you excited to check it out.”
He stood up from his chair and waved a hand over the floor and in response, a line of darkness appeared. He gestured upwards and an obsidian arch rose up, filled with darkness.
“Aren’t you familiar,” he told it. He went to step through, then stopped, picked up his chair and carried it through with him.
He emerged from an identical arch into a luxurious gazebo, elaborately carved from marbled obsidian in swirling black and white. The gazebo was circular and had three more archways spaced equidistantly around it. The archway he had stepped through was filled with a starry void, while the next was filled with what looked like a vertical sheet of roiling blood. After that was one filled with pure darkness, much like his normal portal arches. The last had the blue and orange eye nebula that was Gordon’s signature filling it.
The floor was a tile mosaic that looked just like the personal crest on Jason’s back; a daylight sky inside a cloak, surrounded by the night sky. More arresting was the environment in which the gazebo was located. Untethered from the ground, it floated through a dark, rain-filled sky. Neither rain nor wind encroached upon the gazebo’s interior, despite the open sides. A large crystal that looked to have naturally grown down from the centre of the arched ceiling gave off a cool, pleasant light.
Outside of the gazebo, numerous objects orbited around it, glowing with transcendent light like stars shining in the dark. Looking at them, Jason realised that they were the items stored in his inventory. He threw out the chair he was holding as an experiment and it gained its own halo of light and it joined the other objects in orbit. Jason spied a stack of sandwiches, gathered together gently glowing. With a simple thought from Jason, one of the sandwiches separated itself and floated to his hand.
“Nice,” he said, then took a bite.
He turned back to the archways, clearly associated with his three familiars.
“Alright, mates. Time to front up.”
Items started flying into the gazebo, vanishing into the three archways. Jason had enough materials to summon Shade and Gordon once each, and Colin twice. Along with the material components being consumed, the required spirit coins came hurtling up and in from somewhere below the floating gazebo.
Leeches started spilling out of the bloody arch, forming a pile from which strips of ragged, bloody cloth emerged to start binding the pile into shape. Motes of blue and orange light started streaming out of the nebula arch like a swarm of fireflies, slowly coalescing into Gordon’s form. A dark shape slowly pushed itself out through the final arch, taking the form of Shade. As his shadow familiar appeared, Jason’s own shadow vanished. Additional bodies emerged from the arch, one after another, before melding together as one.
“It is good to see you alive again, Mr. Asano.”
“Good to be seen,” Jason said. “It comes as bit of a surprise.”
“Not entirely,” Shade said. “The World-Phoenix token in your possession was always a comfort to me, in regards to your safety.”
“Wait,” Jason said. “You knew?”
“Of course,” Shade said, in his usual dignified tone. “I’m not a scrub.”