Vermillion and Jason paused their conversation as the waitress brought their food, along with wine.
“Magic has always been a difficult and esoteric thing,” Vermillion explained after the waitress left, while Jason nibbled appreciatively at the food. “Some five centuries ago, a new kind of magic appeared. People with no connection to the old ways could suddenly wield a variety of easy to use mystical powers. At that time, they were a limited threat. They were collected into various secret societies around the world, hoarding their knowledge. Most importantly, they seemed to have a limit on their power. While it can take centuries, many of the Cabal’s members can slowly accrue power over time. I have been a vampire for seventy years, which is long enough to reach the second tier of power.”
“How do you name the tiers?” Jason asked. While the naming conventions would be subjective, the thresholds between magical ranks were not.
“There have been many terms of categorisation, across culture and language,” Vermillion said.
“I was taught to call them ranks,” Jason said.
“As the magical communities have become increasingly interrelated, the need for a shared terminology has led to numeric designations that are widely recognised. Whether you call them tiers, categories, realms or ranks, like you, the same numbers are recognised across the board.”
“So, what are the numbers?”
“It starts with zero,” Vermillion explained. “That’s people who don’t have enough magic to cross the first, transformative threshold and become a true entity of magic. This is the one tier where the lines can blur a little.”
“Take blood servants for example.”
“Normal humans who have partaken of vampire blood, without going through the process of transformation. They gain superhuman strength and speed, depending on the strength of the blood. They may even reach the power of the first or even second tier, but this is temporary. Without regular infusions of vampire blood, that power fades.”
“That can’t be good,” Jason said. “As far as I’m aware, backsliding in rank has extremely deleterious effects.”
Jason had heard about the side effects of ex-clergy who had offended their gods and been stripped of divinely-gifted essences. This caused frequently debilitating imbalance in the body and soul.
“Very much so,” Vermillion said. “There is also a strongly addictive aspect to vampire blood, which is why the cultivation of blood servants is a widely frowned upon practice in modern times. Just recently, we had a problem with someone quietly building up a large force of blood servants.”
“So, the other tiers are what you’d expect, lowest to highest?” Jason asked.
“Yes,” Vermillion said. “That puts you and I at tier two of five.”
“Not six?” Jason asked.
“Six? I know there is a small handful of category four creatures within the cabal, but they spend decades at a time in magical sleep, slowly accumulating the magic required to operate for even a short time. The fifth tier is a myth itself, let alone beyond. From everything I’ve ever heard, category five is the limit.”
“The mortal limit,” Jason said.
“I’d be very interested in hearing more about that,” Vermillion said.
“I don’t doubt it,” Jason said. “Consider it a teaser for what I can offer when I’m looking for a favour from the Cabal.”
“I will,” Vermillion said. “I suspect my people will be very interested. In the meantime, I’ll continue my explanation of new magic.”
“For centuries, the power of this new magic was trapped at the lowest tier.”
“That changed, though, didn’t it?”
“Yes. Our people investigated the rise of this new magic, which took place over the space of several decades, all around the world. Even amongst civilisations not yet discovered by the wider world, such as the indigenous cultures of this region of the Pacific. What our inquiries ultimately uncovered was that one person was responsible for all of it.”
“That’s right. One person, whose command of this new magic was more potent than anything seen since. Someone who could change their face and speak any language. We believe this person seeded these secret societies of new magic. Providing what we now know to be the essences that facilitate new magic. For centuries, though, new magic was limited and weak. It had few users, none of whom possessed any great power. But as you said, that changed.”
“What happened?” Jason asked.
“We aren’t certain, but the change appears to have been a fundamental one to the very nature of the world. Somewhere around the turn of the nineteenth century, some manner of global threat began to manifest. It was at this point that we realised that these secret societies had been prepared specifically to combat this threat.”
“What kind of threat?”
“Monstrous entities. Myths come to life. These secret societies had some way of seeing them coming and preventing them from arriving. We only saw what happened when they failed, which was the appearance of strange creatures.”
“Let me guess,” Jason said. “The more they confronted these threats, the stronger these new magicians became.”
“Indeed,” Vermillion said. “I only know limited amounts about these threats, but I know they have grown stronger and more frequent over the last century or so. Over time, these secret societies realised that they were all akin, using the same methods and powers. The means by which they detect the threats is the same.”
“Which is what?” Jason asked.
“Some manner of mystical grid, crossing the entire globe. We believe it was set up by the person who founded the societies, in preparation for their future purpose.”
“So, these secret societies all work together, now?”
“Yes,” Vermillion said. “They call themselves the Network. With their growth in number and power over the last century, they have become the strongest of the three major magical factions.”
“The terrorist readiness exercises,” Jason said.
“The increasing rate of these threats has made the Network stronger,” Vermillion said, “but the danger is escalating faster than the network’s power to meet it. They needed to scale up their operations to a level they simply couldn’t as a hidden organisation. More and more creatures were slipping through the cracks. It became harder and harder to hide. A little over three years ago, they made a very dangerous decision and revealed themselves to a variety of world governments.”
“They didn’t turn to the other magical organisations?”
“The Cabal would never expose themselves to that degree,” Vermillion said. “As for the third organisation, covering up magic is not in alignment with their principles.”
“And who are this third organisation?”
“The Engineers of Ascension,” Vermillion said.
“The Engineers of… are you talking about the EOA?”
“The very same,” Vermillion said. “As you have no doubt surmised, they are much less reticent about revealing themselves than the other organisations. While their true nature remains hidden it’s only barely.”
“Victor Tollman wanted me to stand against the EOA,” Jason said. “I’m confident in my abilities, but I can’t take on one of the dominant magical forces on the planet by myself.”
“Perhaps, perhaps not,” Vermillion said. “The EOA is very decentralised as a movement. They tend to operate in clusters, which makes them flexible and resilient as a whole, but they’re much less protective of their individual members. They seem to like the freedom, but it makes dealing with them inconsistent, although with fewer repercussions. If you take out some Cabal or Network members, those organisations will come down on you like the fist of god.”
“To make an example,” Jason said.
“Exactly. The EOA is more likely to cut their losses, write them off as having overestimated their abilities. While they work toward broad goals, they are, by their nature, self-serving.”
“And what is that nature, exactly?”
“The Engineers of Ascension are largely made up of those who came to magic from outside the normal channels. I mentioned the smaller groups, fighting for scraps left by the old magic of the Cabal and the new magic of the Network. The EOA were formed by the strongest of those groups. Their magic is cobbled together from what they’ve managed to beg, borrow or steal. It might make them seem like poor cousins, and many from the cabal and the Network see it that way.”
“You don’t agree with your Cabal brethren?” Jason asked.
“I think that dismissing the EOA is foolish. They have been the driving force of magic innovation in modern times. New magic seems set in its forms, while the cabal is set in its ways. The EOA are pushing boundaries. Not without consequences, but also not without results.”
“The drugged-up thugs I’ve been hearing about?”
“Magical enhancement is the core of their magical research. In that case, old school alchemy combined with modern pharmaceutical approaches.”
“Magical performance enhancing drugs,” Jason said.
“Something like that,” Vermillion said. “The EOA’s desire to research blood servants has caused some conflicts with my organisation. We don’t like it when people kidnap our people to use as research materials.”
“They’re willing to take that risk?” Jason asked.
“The EOA has been behind the pack from the beginning,” Vermillion said. “A large part of their ability to keep up is a willingness to go further than the rest of us.”
“Magical body modification. Reanimating the dead. Nothing is off the table in the pursuit of transhumanism through magic.”
“Engineers of Ascension,” Jason said. “They’re trying to magically engineer themselves to a higher state.”
“Exactly,” Vermillion said. “The EOA knows they can’t compete with the history of the Cabal or the resources of the Network. They know they have to chart their own path, into areas the hegemonic powers won’t touch. There’s a price to that, but they’ve proven themselves willing to pay it.”
“They want to be the next stage of humanity,” Jason said. “What does that have to do with taking control of criminal underworlds?”
“Their driving goal is to prepare for magic being revealed to the world,” Vermillion said.
“Wouldn’t that put them in direct competition with the other organisations, who are trying to hide it?”
“It would, if the EOA ever made attempts to reveal it, but they don’t. They believe that the wider revelation about magic is inevitable, so they’re happy to play along with keeping it a secret. They’re far more loose with it than the rest of us, but they’re careful not to cross anyone’s bottom line. They’re convinced that the truth will come out, despite what anyone might do to hide it. If anything, the longer that takes, the longer they have to prepare.”
“Are they right?” Jason asked.
“Probably,” Vermillion said. “I know my people are becoming increasingly concerned, and the Network has already taken drastic steps. Once the Network started involving governments, we moved past the point where so many people know that it’s not really a secret anymore. Add in the progress of technology and its almost surprising that it hasn’t come out yet. In my opinion, these terrorist readiness exercises are the last gasp of the secret world before it comes out into the open.”
“So, what do the EOA want?” Jason asked. “How are they preparing for the truth to come out?”
“They believe that once magic is out in the open, there will be a fundamental shift in how societies function.”
“They think those with magic will be a new ruling class?”
“At the very least, magic will be on par with money and political power,” Vermillion confirmed. “The EOA are the poor third cousin in the magical community, but they’re still swimming in the big kids’ pool. They’re looking to position themselves for when the truth comes out and the Network had already insinuated themselves with political powers, so the EOA are working on private powers. Organised crime is really a second-tier priority, to which they’ve relegated their lesser members. The real game is the uber-wealthy.”
“I can see how it would be an easy pitch,” Jason said. “Offer the people who can buy anything the thing that can’t be bought.”
“Precisely,” Vermillion said. “The EOA have made some solid strides into longevity treatments with minimal side-effects, compared to their more radical developments in body modification. Once magic comes out, they’ll be able to market it openly.”
“The other organisations aren’t competing with them over influencing the wealthy?”
“The Network seems satisfied with political influence,” Vermillion said. “At least, as far as I know. They seem focused on their mission, but they may be making plans behind the scenes. As for the Cabal, we’ve had a tight grip on old money since literally the invention of money.”
“And religion, too, I’m guessing.”
“I can neither confirm, nor deny,” Vermillion said with a smile, leading Jason to chuckle.
“The pie is large enough that no one is willing to go to war over a larger slice,” Vermillion said. “So long as nothing comes along to change that balance, the revelation should be fairly smooth, for the magical community. As for the normals, that’s a whole other issue. Who knows what kinds of chaos will happen, not to mention the dangers we’ve always been wary of. Magical power and ideology have traditionally been highly reactive compounds.”
“There have been issues in the past?”
“There have. I’m not looking forward to when aggressive countries start weaponising magic. The Russians already keep invading people and I hesitate to even talk about North Korea or the Middle East. The US is bad enough with combat drones. Do you want to see magic combat drones?”
“Does it make me a bad person if I say yes?” Jason asked. “I mean, magic, flying death robots? You have to admit, that’s pretty awesome.”
“Not if you’re some kid in Yemen who’s learned to fear the sky,” Vermillion said.
“That’s disappointingly fair,” Jason conceded.
“Those are the basics you need to know about the secret world of magic. I still have no idea how you could possibly have reached your level of strength without knowing any of this. The Network has a tight grip on new magic, although you are different than they are, for the most part.”
“How so?” Jason asked.
“There’s something in their auras that isn’t in yours. I’ve only seen one of their members of any real power that didn’t have it. He’s not the strongest, being a low end category two, but he also seems more capable than the others.”
“Interesting,” Jason mused, absently tapping a finger to his lips. His guess was that the local essence users used monster cores heavily, while one of them was advancing himself without.
“I think my people know more about where you’ve been than they’re telling me,” Vermillion confessed.
“What did your people tell you?” Jason asked.
“Not much,” Vermillion admitted. “That’s par for the course, with the Cabal, but I like knowing that they’ll protect my secrets as fastidiously as the organisation’s. I’m pretty sure they have some idea of where you’ve been. They told me to do my best to maintain a friendly channel of communication.”
“I think you’ve done a bang-up job,” Jason said with a friendly smile. “I am going to be checking up on local vampire dining habits, though. Thank you for all this information.”
“I haven’t revealed anything that you couldn’t easily learn elsewhere,” Vermillion said. “One piece of advice: If you’re going to affiliate yourself with one of the organisations, it has to be the Network. The reasons should be obvious.”
“I’m an essence user,” Jason said. “They’re the group with the means to make me stronger.”
“Exactly,” Vermillion said. “Even after learning that essences were behind new magic, we never bothered to acquire that power for ourselves. We just don’t have the means to develop it. The EOA has a small handful of essence users, but they aren’t strong. My people are definitely interested in you, but they wanted me to point you in the Network’s direction. A show of good faith.”
“I’ll take it,” Jason said, reaching across the table to shake Vermillion’s hand.
He stood up, then paused, his face taking on a fierce expression.
“Have you set up an ambush?”
Vermillion was unsure what to make of Jason Asano, who was a nest of strange dichotomies. At a glance, Asano was open and friendly, even a little hapless. This was belied by the intelligent eyes, whether they were taking everything in or focused in an incisive gaze. Although his body language was casual, Vermillion had no doubt that Asano was listening intently. He could almost see the cogs turning behind his eyes, giving him the impression that for every one thing he said, Asano took away three.
That fortress wall of an aura was nowhere on display, completely undetectable to Vermillion’s senses. He was beginning to understand what normals felt like under his own aura manipulation. Asano had the feeling of a knife in its sheath, which Vermillion was not unfamiliar with. He had met many dangerous people in his long life. It made little sense, then, that Asano could be so unversed in the wider magical world.
Vermillion’s initial thought was that Asano was feigning an implausible level of ignorance. As he continued to talk and Asano continued to listen, he eventually concluded that Asano genuinely didn’t know even the most basic aspects of what he was being told. He was clearly no stranger to magic, however.
Asano’s history gave away little. Until a year and a half ago, he had been, to any and all investigation, an ordinary man. He grew up in a small town, attended a private school for the kids of wealthy seachangers. Went to the University of Melbourne, dropped out after one semester and got a menial job in retail.
Then his apartment was mysteriously destroyed during one the Network’s sham terrorist exercises, in which he apparently died by magical mishap. He mysteriously returned a year and a half later, with no more explanation than his departure, but a lot more power.
The persona Asano generally affected was in line with his history, prior to his disappearance. Was it always something he put on, having held this power before he went away? Vermillion guessed not, given what seemed like an authentic lack of knowledge. Asano had gone somewhere and been profoundly changed, but where?
Vermillion suspected the Cabal knew, but kept it from him. It was more likely out of habit than maliciousness, but still rankled. Most likely, it was related to whatever threat the network was facing off, given that it seemed to be the source of their power. Given that Asano’s power was the same, that made sense.
Asano was unlike any member of the Network Vermillion had met, however, and he had met his share. Even compared to the tier three essence magician stationed in Sydney, Asano was a different breed. His aura was clearly discernible as tier two, but far too powerful for that. It was closer to the strength of a tier three, but with more control than he had seen from any tier. The control of other essence magicians he’d seen were lumps of iron ore next to Asano’s expertly forged sword.
Over the course of their conversation, Vermilion came to believe that despite the danger behind his eyes, Asano might actually be as friendly as what he initially assumed to be his artificial persona. He was certainly easy to get along with. Then, as they were about to part, Asano’s gaze turned as sharp as a knife.
“Have you set up an ambush?” Asano asked.
“No,” Vermillion said. “If I was going to set up an ambush, I wouldn’t do it in my own place. I’d also bring a lot more people, if I was ambushing you.”
“There are a lot more people.”
“What are you talking abou…”
Vermillion trailed off as a number of magical auras came into range of his senses. They were converging on the café from the outside, as well as the alley running behind. He recognised the auras, the blank power of the EOA’s alchemically juiced-up thugs.
“I think things are about to go very poorly,” he said.