Days went past as Jason fell into a routine. In the mornings he would do strength training with the equipment in the townhouse, which was barely adequate for his bronze-rank might at maximum weight. Then he would ride to Rushcutters Bay Park to do some running along the waterfront.
He rode Shade in motorcycle form, as he only had one of Shade’s bodies on hand. Shade still kept bodies on Hiro and Taika, while four were assigned to investigating the nest of local essence-users he had found. That left the last with Jason, which was enough to take the form of a sleek, black motorcycle. Jason had gone out and purchased some bike leathers and a helmet for the purpose.
He would wrap up his daily training with some meditation. This was the third pillar of advancing abilities, along with physical training and pushing himself to the limit. As normal for adventuring, being caught up in something like the astral space was heavy on the limit-pushing, with less time for other forms of training. Now that he was away from that, he had the time to balance himself out.
After all the monster fights and the confrontation with the Builder, he could feel the unsettled power within him, waiting to be consolidated. While he was not anticipating monster fights any time soon, he did anticipate his abilities advancing at least one small stage in the short term, maybe even two for the lower ones that were close to advancing already.
His time in the astral space had not been without cost, but it had also massively accelerated his growth. Not only had he crossed the threshold into bronze, but he had jumped into fighting silver-rank monsters much earlier than expected as the magic of the astral space had escalated. The results were striking, bringing him all the way into the lower-mid range of bronze rank.
- Race: Outworlder.
- Current rank: bronze
- Progression to silver rank: 25%
- [Power] (Blood): [Bronze 3].
- [Speed] (Dark): [Bronze 2].
- [Spirit] (Doom): [Bronze 2].
- [Recovery] (Sin): [Bronze 3].
Racial Abilities (Outworlder)
- [Party Interface].
- [Spirit Vault].
- [Tactical Map].
- [Astral Affinity].
- [Dark Rider].
Dark [Speed] (5/5)
- [Midnight Eyes] (special ability): [Bronze 5] 09%.
- [Cloak of Night] (special ability): [Bronze 4] 12%.
- [Path of Shadows] (special ability): [Bronze 4] 41%.
- [Hand of the Reaper] (special ability): [Bronze 2] 94%.
- [Shadow of the Reaper] (familiar): [Bronze 4] 98%.
Blood [Power] (5/5)
- [Blood Harvest] (spell): [Bronze 4] 64%.
- [Leech Bite] (special attack): [Bronze 4] 14%.
- [Feast of Blood] (spell): [Bronze 3] 02%.
- [Sanguine Horror] (familiar): [Bronze 4] 89%.
- [Haemorrhage] (spell): [Bronze 3] 92%.
Sin [Recovery] (5/5)
- [Punish] (special attack): [Bronze 4] 15%.
- [Feast of Absolution] (spell): [Bronze 4] 03%.
- [Sin Eater] (special ability): [Bronze 3] 79%.
- [Hegemony] (aura): [Bronze 5] 04%.
- [Castigate] (spell): [Bronze 4] 31%.
Doom [Spirit] (5/5)
- [Inexorable Doom] (spell): [Bronze 4] 97%.
- [Punition] (spell): [Bronze 3] 74%.
- [Blade of Doom] (spell): [Bronze 4] 26%.
- [Verdict] (spell): [Bronze 2] 82%.
- [Avatar of Doom] (familiar): [Bronze 4] 16%.
After his training routine, Jason would move onto the business of the day. This usually meant burying himself in the internet, catching up on all the things he’d missed. Of particular interest were the ‘terrorist readiness exercises’ taking place around the world, including in Australia.
They had started not long before Jason’s departure, but after his year and a half absence, their escalating rate and continued lack of explanation from world governments was drawing more and more media attention, despite obvious attempts to downplay their importance. Given that one of these incidents was taking place very close to his home at the exact moment Jason had been sucked into another universe, he was deeply interested.
From what he could gather, the exercises involved setting up a restricted area, completely blacking out any attempts to surveil, to the point of using signal jammers and even shooting down camera drones. What they were doing was a mystery he would look into, when the opportunity presented itself. From the rates of occurrence he was seeing, it was only a matter of time.
He also did some online stalking of his family. He watched a few episodes of his sister’s new cooking show, checked out the websites for his mother’s real estate agency and his father’s landscaping business. His father had started a photo blog where he went through the process of developing a double block he bought from a plain stretch of even land into a lush garden home. At least, that was the plan, as he was still in the early stages.
There were other things Jason needed to do, such as continuing the legal process of returning from the dead. Taika had been put at Jason’s disposal, serving as driver and rather excellent body man, making many suggestions for how to resolve any minor issues Jason had.
Although Taika looked like a professional wrestler, with his towering height and broad physique, he was actually a friendly, chatty and intelligent man whose company Jason quickly came to appreciate. He would usually arrive at the townhouse in the mid-morning, after Jason’s training routine was done, to see if Jason needed anything. One such morning, they sat on the couch playing video games.
“I don’t like the courses in this one as much,” Taika said. “I think the Wii version had the best track selection in the whole series.”
“I won’t argue,” Jason said. “Trying to get an online game of that now is a bit rough, though.”
“Tell me about it.”
Jason’s phone rang, which was unusual. He had, thus far, only received calls from Taika and Hiro. He got up from the couch and answered it.
“Mr Asano, this is Craig Vermillion.”
The vampire’s tone was more personable than the controlled clip he had used when they met in person.
“Craig is fine, when I’m not on the job. I have to play it sinister and mysterious around the normals. Maintain the mystique, you know?”
“Sure,” Jason said.
“If you’re still looking to meet, are you free for lunch?”
“You’re not going to explode when sunlight hits you, are you?” Jason asked, drawing an odd look from Taika.
“I’ll be fine,” Vermillion said, amusement in his voice.
They made plans to meet at a café and Jason went outside, Taika with him.
“You need a ride, bro?” Taika asked.
“No, I’ve got my bike,” Jason said, nodding at Shade’s bike form. Like all of Shade’s vehicle forms, it looked like he’d stolen the plans from Batman.
“Sweet bike,” Taika said. “That wasn’t out here when I came in.”
“My friend left it out here,” Jason said.
“I thought you were going to say it was a self-driving bike.”
“I didn’t know they were a thing,” Jason said. “I’ll have to look into it.”
While Taika moved forward to admire the motorcycle, Jason switched his outfit, mist obscuring him for a few seconds while Taika was looking the other way. When Taika looked back, Jason was in his driving leathers and helmet.
“How did you…?”
“What?” Jason asked.
“You changed your clothes.”
“Nah, mate. I was always wearing this.”
“You’re a mysterious guy, bro. There’s a lot about you that doesn’t add up.”
“Mate, you’ve got no idea.”
“When you picked a café, this isn’t what I expected,” Jason said. Vermillion had led him from the crowded downstairs area to a private upstairs with empty tables and a window wall looking out over the street. The décor was subdued, with hardwood floors and earthy colours.
“I own the place,” Vermillion said. “It offers comfort and convenience for private business.”
“Just give me a second to change,” Jason said, mist shrouding him to replace his bike gear with a casual winter suit. Vermillion was dressed much more casually than their last meeting, with plain slacks and a woollen sweater.
“Are you alright leaving your motorcycle on the street like that?” Vermillion asked.
“That wasn’t a motorcycle,” Jason said, but offered no further explanation. Vermillion looked out on the street, seeing that the bike was no longer where Jason had left it.
“I always envied the convenience of conjured vehicles,” Vermillion said.
“That’s a thing, here?”
“Only one that I know of, here in Sydney. It’s unusual where you spent your time away?”
“Vehicles specifically, yeah, but there’s lots of magic items, magical beast riding. My mate Humphrey rides around on a shape-changing dragon.”
“It’s a baby dragon.”
They sat at a table with comfortable chairs.
“Someone will come up shortly to take our food order,” Vermillion said.
“What kind of dietary restrictions do you have?” Jason asked. “Is it a liquid diet? I don’t know a lot about vampires. The only ones I’ve met were created by a giant blood spider. We didn’t really talk, since they were trying to kill me and my friends.”
“Lesser vampires,” Vermilion said. “They were created by a giant spider? This also happened during your time away?”
“Yep,” Jason said. “It was a rough day, but vampire monster army? That was some epic stuff.
“And where was that?”
“Would you believe an abandoned jungle city in a pocket universe?”
“Not really” Vermillion said.
“Let’s just say southern Africa, then. More or less. What did my gold tell you?”
“What makes you think I have your gold.”
“I got full market price for that gold, which I shouldn’t have, given its shady origins. That means that someone higher up stepped in. It could have been Tollman, looking to make a good first impression, but he would have said something when he was trying to recruit me to his cause.”
“Why would I want it?” Vermillion asked.
“Best guess? You – or the people behind you – saw an essence user acting outside of the norm, almost like he didn’t know what was what. But how could someone like me be an independent? Where would they get the resources? Why are they doing something as petty as selling mundane gold? So you bought it and you’ve probably put it through every test you can conceive of.”
“You seem very confident,” Vermillion said.
“I do, don’t I?” Jason said, looking smug. “I’ll confess that I’m curious about what you found.”
Vermillion shook his head.
“My people are very interested in where that gold came from,” he said. “Apparently we tried to trace where it came from and the results were extremely anomalous.”
“I’ll bet they were,” Jason chuckled. “Who are your people, exactly?”
“The Cabal,” Vermillion said. “I would have thought that was obvious.”
“Never heard of them,” Jason said. “I’ve been out of town.”
“The Cabal is everywhere.”
“I’ve been really far out of town,” Jason said. “I suspect your concept of everywhere is due for expansive revision.”
“By all means, expand my horizons,” Vermillion said.
“I can do that,” Jason said. “I’d like to get a handle on the local colour, first.”
“If you genuinely don’t know what the Cabal is,” Vermillion said, “then you certainly have some catching up to do. How much do you know?”
“Just imagine that I got sucked into an alternate universe and came back with magic powers to find out there was magic hidden in my world all along.”
Vermillion raised his eyebrows.
“Hypothetically,” Jason added.
Vermillion leaned back in his chair.
“I can certainly tell you what isn’t any great secret,” Vermillion said. “To people like us, anyway. To regular people it would be the biggest secret in the world, but we’re a long way beyond regular people.”
“Vast magical power does change your perspective, somewhat, doesn’t it?”
“The first thing you need to know about the magical world is that there are three dominant forces within it. There are smaller, localised groups, scrabbling after table scraps. They know about magic, but that knowledge is fragmentary at best and they have little, if any magic they command for themselves.”
“Like our friend Victor.”
“Exactly like our friend Victor,” Vermillion agreed. “There are also some groups that orbit the larger organisations. Families that have known the truth for centuries, that kind of thing. They vary in power, directly related to their influence within the groups to which they are attached.”
“And it’s these three big groups that are the real players?”
“Exactly,” Vermillion said. “The oldest, and most reclusive, is the Cabal. I’m a member, and my knowledge is extremely limited. Most of what I do know, I’m not allowed to share.”
“That’s fine,” Jason said. “What’s the outside perspective of your group?”
“The Cabal represents the old magic of this world. Things older than history that dwell in the dark places.”
“Like vampires,” Jason said.
“Yes. Proper vampires, not the puppets of some essence magician.”
“I’ve heard of essence users making vampires,” Jason said. “Where I’ve just been, it’s frowned upon.”
“As it is, here,” Vermillion said. “These lesser vampires, running around killing people. Even putting aside the moral repugnance, which I don’t think you should, it just makes things harder for those of us doing the right thing.”
“I was meaning to ask about that,” Jason said. “I’ve been wondering about your views on killing and eating people, because I take a dim view on it. People have tried to kill and eat me before and I didn’t care for it.”
“That is the purview of lesser vampires,” Vermillion said. “They can’t feed without killing, so we put them down whenever we find them.”
“And what about you?” Jason asked. “You do drink blood, yes?”
Vermillion was about to answer when a waitress came in from downstairs. She only had one menu, which she handed to Jason.
“It’s your place,” Jason said. “What’s good.”
“Beef carpaccio,” Vermillion said without hesitation.
“Okay,” Jason said, handing back the menu without looking at it.
“Same for me,” Vermillion said. “Thank you, Anika.”
The waitress withdrew downstairs.
“Blood is an unfortunate necessity,” Vermillion said. “There is no need to kill for it, though. In fact, people can’t wait to give it away.”
“We’ve cultivated entire subcultures,” Vermillion said. “With a leather coat and tight, black pants, we get more blood and sex than we can consume. Literally more. I know people who have done their best to thin out the supply, as it were, but they didn’t even make a dent. There are always more young people, looking for a thrill.”
“Is it harmful?”
“No more than donating blood,” Vermillion said. “In fact, being fed on actually heightens resistance to most diseases.”
“It surprised us too,” Vermillion said. “Back in the eighties, the Cabal conducted some studies into the potential dangers of blood-borne disease transmission by our more sanguinely-oriented members. It turns out that rather than spread disease, the people we feed on are statistically less likely to get some of the nastier diseases floating around.”
“You conducted studies?” Jason asked.
“We didn’t have them published, obviously. They were conducted with rigour by experts in the field, however, and disseminated through our own channels.”
“And obviously, sunlight is not an issue for your kind,” Jason said. It was the kind of cold, clear winter day where the sky was pristine blue. Sunlight washed in through the large window, pleasantly lighting up the room.
“It’s a matter of magic,” Vermillion said. “Weaker members of my kind are affected by sunlight, and I’ve heard of stronger vampires being affected by it in unusual situations where the magic around them is more powerful.”
“Interesting,” Jason mused. “I’d have to assume the ambient magic infuses the sunlight with properties antithetical to your condition. I have a friend who probably understands the process. How harmful is sunlight, exactly?”
“When it’s strong enough to affect us, we’re weaker and slower. Not down to a baseline human level, but I couldn’t speak for some of those higher-magic situations. I don’t know the circumstances in which they took place, so I’m largely going from second-hand knowledge. It also makes our more unusual powers harder or even impossible to use.”
“You don’t seem hesitant about sharing your weaknesses,” Jason observed.
“These aren’t secrets,” Vermillion said. “Once you’ve spent any time in the magical community, you won’t find that information hard to come by.”
“But you aren’t affected by this level of magic?” Jason asked.
“Not at all,” Vermillion said. “Only the weakest of our kind are.”
“But your Cabal doesn’t have just your kind, do they?”
“No,” Vermillion said. “Aside from individuals looking to follow their own paths, all the old magic falls under our aegis. We have many factions, within our ranks, but we unified as the normals became more dangerous with the rise of technology.”
“Old magic, as opposed to new magic?” Jason asked.
“Yes,” Vermillion said. “You are an essence magician, yes?”
“That is what we call the new magic.”