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Erika had put together a simple dinner of salad, tartiflette and buttermilk pie. Tartiflette was a potato, bacon, onion and cheese casserole that made a great winter warmer. They sat somewhat awkwardly at the table, talking around the topic of Jason’s mysterious return to life.

Jason and Erika had grown up with their mother’s strict rules about not bringing conflict to the dinner table. While Jason never saw a rule he wouldn’t obnoxiously flout just because, it helped him out in this particular instance. He was happy to ask Emi about her life, having been transplanted from Melbourne to Casselton Beach. It was the opposite of his own trajectory.

“I like the weather here,” she said. “It rains more in summer than winter, which is weird. That rain we got last week was really heavy, though.”

Jason absently wondered if his arrival had somehow impacted the weather patterns, Clive would have been able to figure it out.

“Are you alright Uncle Jason?” Emi asked, reading his expression.

“Yeah,” Jason said. “I was just thinking about a friend. I don’t know when I’ll be able to see him again?”

“Can you not call him because he’s in the place you were?”

“Exactly,” Jason said.

“So, did you do much cooking while you were away?” Ian asked Jason, diplomatically seeking common ground between the siblings after the tension between Jason and Erika.

“A bit,” Jason said. “I got to try a lot of new things, but the ingredients were largely local. That friend I mentioned grew up on an eel farm and taught me a few ways to cook them that aren’t awful. Again, the ingredients aren’t something I can get my hands on here, but I took notes with some potential substitutes and variations. I’m hoping to find the time to try some things out, now that I’m home. Do you know an eel guy, Eri?”

“I know someone who can sort you out,” Erika said. “You know who will be happy your back? Wally.”

“Wally! He moved over to the new show with you?”

“He didn’t just move to the show, but into town, too. He bought one of those fancy beach cottages.”

“He was lucky to pick one up,” Jason said. “They almost never go on the market.”

“The Green family sold up and Mum gave him an early heads-up.”

“That’s nice of her,” Jason said. “You know, I saw Lawrence Green the other day. He thought I was Kaito.”

“Wasn’t he quite slimy?” Erika asked. “I went to school with his cousin.”

“Still is,” Jason said. “If anything, he’s even more oily. You could lubricate an engine with his personality.”

“Wally’s husband bought the coffee shop off old Mrs Russel,” Ian said. “You can finally get a good cup of coffee in this town.”

“I’ll take your word for it,” Jason said. “I’m lucky I’m not a coffee drinker, since they didn’t have any where I’ve been staying.”

“Just like phones,” Erika said.

“Exactly,” Jason said. “The tea was crazy good, though. There was this river, running through a valley with all this tea growing up the slopes. I went through there once, not long after I arrived.”

“Arrived where, exactly?”

“A place called Greenstone,” Jason said. “You’ll be able to see it for yourself, soon. I kept a vlog.”

“A vlog?” Erika asked. “They don’t have radios, but they have the equipment for vlogging?”

“It’ll make sense once I explain everything. Did you figure out a day the two of you can both get free? I said you should have someone look out for Emi, but I think she should be involved from the start.”

“Tomorrow,” Erika said. “If it has to be a whole day, then we can’t do it on a weekday and I’m not waiting until next weekend.”

“Tomorrow it is,” Jason said. Erika narrowed her eyes at him, looking for evasiveness.

“So long as nothing comes up,” he added innocently.

***

The house boat produced by the cloud flask was more impressive than what it had been at iron-rank, which was already quite luxurious. It was still a far cry from the sprawling wings and towering spires of Emir’s cloud palace, but it was still a small floating island, with multiple levels of open deck and tinted wraparound glass. There was even a glass-walled room beneath the waterline.

The rooftop surfaces were covered in solar panels, which Jason could sense drawing in ambient magic like an overactive mana lamp. It left the surrounding ambient magic even more anaemic than normal as the houseboat guzzled it up.

It seemed designed to largely suck the ambient magic down vertically, drawing it down from the air in a great column. Anyone with magical senses would notice it from halfway across town. It was far more draw than the motorhome variant, presumably because it was normalising magic across the larger space of the houseboat.

The decks and interior of the houseboat was littered with lush, green, leafy plants. Jason had largely transplanted them from the jungle astral space, although he had avoided the magical ones. Emir had given Jason a notebook that detailed all his experiments into different kinds of plants with his own cloud flask. It detailed his experiments with different kinds of flora, magical and mundane. It had exhaustive lists of how different plants withstood being stored away in the cloud flask, weathered the sea air or adapted to various climates.

“If you aren’t going with magical plants,” Emir had told him when handing over the notebook, “I’d just give the section on getting the plants installed a read. You can shovel a bunch of earth, water, light and shield quintessence into the cloud flask and any non-magical plants you want will thrive. Once you start looking into magical plants, that’s the time to give it a proper read. There are a lot of quirks you need to be aware of.”

Jason arrived back at the house boat mentally weary but let out a contented sigh as he drank in the sight of it. It was big enough that Jason’s winter arrival proved to be a good thing, with the neighbouring berth available for Jason to rent when the houseboat spilled over into the neighbouring slip.

He stepped onto the lower deck and then made his way inside. was all light woods and white leather, plus tasteful teal embellishments. The cloud constructs could have their interiors and exteriors set to adaptive or grandiose independently and he had the house boat set to full adaptive.

The various surfaces were indistinguishable from actual woods and leathers, courtesy of the materials he had shovelled into it as reference. Along with quintessence, different kinds of magical and mundane woods, stone, metal and fabric had been consumed by the cloud flask. It could dissolve and consume whole blocks of stone, sucking it into the flask.

More than once, Jason had used the flask to remove obstructions as his team explored the astral space. It was a win-win, since generally the obstacle was something sturdy enough that other methodologies would be slower or ineffective. Clive had posited that Emir’s cloud flask had consumed ludicrous quantities of materials and was always encouraging Jason to throw things in.

While he missed the plush comfort of cloud furniture, Jason maintained the houseboat internals in a camouflaged state, with the exception of his own bed. He would continue that at least until his family were up to speed on magic. While his sister might feel like he was stonewalling, he was even more anxious than her to get everything into the open.

The goal was to resolve everything, if not neatly, then with as little mess as he could manage. Throwing explanations in between meetings with vampires and crime bosses the way he had with Hiro, or getting bystanders caught up like with Taika was precisely what he sought to avoid.

Ideally, that issue would be settled by the time the weekend was over. He was unsure how much his powerful but inexpert healing would help his Nanna, but it had the potential to cause, as Nanna herself would say, a kerfuffle.

Jason could sense Hiro and Taika watching more of his recording crystals in the media room. Leaving them be, he made his way to the upper deck where he opened a portal arch and entered his spirit vault, the enhanced version of his old inventory ability.

The personal space was apparently different from an ordinary dimensional boundary, like that sealing off an astral space. Unlike that sort of boundary, Jason could maintain his familiars on one side, while he was on the other. This allowed Shade to keep watching his family and the house boat while Jason was safe inside the vault. His familiars were an assuring presence each time he retreated into the spirit vault for meditation.

Since his soul underwent changes after overcoming the star seed, Jason’s meditation had taken him to an internal world; a garden of the soul where his abilities were represented by beds of flowers. At bronze rank, that garden had expanded, given them room to grow. Trellises created tunnels of flowers in bold colours of red, white and black, allowing him to walk through the living pathways of his own power.

The boundary of the garden was still the wall surrounding it, a stone facade covering a darker and stranger substance underneath. The facade was increasingly crumbling away, exposing more of the eerie material beneath. It was like darkness itself made substantive. A black hole, frozen and harnessed to build an unassailable boundary, then hidden behind an acceptable face. Compared to the cracked and battered stone, the dark walls beneath promised invulnerability to those within and annihilation to those who attempted to breach it.

In the time since he acquired the spirit vault, he found that it went through a change. The vault took the form of a gazebo of marbled black and white obsidian. It floated in the sky, which was a reflection of the world outside. The first time he had used when it had been dark and raining. During the day the sky was bright with sunlight, but Jason’s favourite times were clear sky nights. With no town to cause light pollution, the sky was a sea of stars. There might be a wisp of cloud, lit up by the light of the moon and he would sit beneath it, meditating in absolute, uninterruptible peace.

Over several meditation sessions, the gazebo had started descending. At first there seemed to be nothing but endless sky below, but slowly the garden appeared. He sensed it before he saw it, after which he then went out to look over the edge and down.

The garden itself was different to his experiences in the past. Instead of dark earth, it rested on dark clouds, heavy with the promise of storms. Slowly the gazebo had descended until it settled in the middle of the garden, in a space that fit it perfectly. Henceforth, every time Jason stepped into the spirit vault, it was already in what was now a sky garden. The line between his internal and external worlds was becoming hard to tell apart.

It was a scary yet exhilarating feeling, like falling, but there was still a sense of disconnect. It made him think of the power the World-Phoenix had offered, uniting body and soul into a merged gestalt. The connection between that feeling and the offered power made him wonder if the World Phoenix had a hand in evolving his inventory power into the spirit vault. Clive had told him that a great astral being shouldn’t be able to impact his gift evolutions without his knowledge, but even Clive couldn’t be right all the time.

Jason arrived through one of the four arches holding up the gazebo roof. There was an arch for each of his familiars and one for Jason himself. The contents of his inventory still floated in the air, orbiting the space just above the gazebo. He could see them clearly as he left the gazebo to walk around the garden.

Just strolling through the garden was a meditative experience, now. He could even direct the power he was consolidating in specific directions by where he chose to go in the garden, although powers he had been using were easier to promote. He had consolidated the gains of his recent challenges and now all his abilities were at least passed the third of what Clive called the minor thresholds. His most-used abilities, his vision and cloak, had passed the halfway mark of the fifth threshold.

Until he found a new challenge, his abilities would not advance further. He hoped to find that challenge working with the Network, but if the Network decided to become that challenge instead, then so be it.

***

Jason spent the night in meditation rather than sleep. The more powerful he became, the less he needed to rely on sleep, although it was never wholly inescapable. Slumber was an intrinsic part of the mortal existence, even for those imbued with mystical power.

Sleep was part of the magical cycles of an essence user, even when their superhuman recovery attribute kept them awake and alert. Going too long without it would increasingly impair their ability to control even the passive magic their body. With a cloud bed to come home to, though, Jason did not begrudge the need for sleep.

Emerging through the archway from his spirit vault the next morning, his phone immediately started beeping. He went through the voice messages; an audio mosaic of his sister narrating events surrounding their Nanna through a series of increasingly angry and erratic messages.

Nanna had somehow switched doctors, without her family – who held her power of attorney – being notified. Her new doctors had whisked her away to the Casselton Regional Hospital, where they were being decidedly less than forthcoming.

In spite of this, and to Jason’s surprise, Erika had apparently managed to extract Nanna’s medical state from the people he strongly suspected to be the Network’s people. Jason’s takeaway was that Nanna was lucid, lacking in almost any memory of the last few years and very spotty about the few before that.

Between Jason and Emi’s visit to Nanna, Jason’s mention of the Starlight Angel that cured people and his ongoing mysteriousness, Erika was putting together things that added up to impossible answers. Her inability to subsequently reach Jason had led to each message exuding more frustration and rage than the last.

He sighed. He knew that curing his Nanna would cause trouble. All he could do was step in and sort it out as best he could. His immediate thought was that Erika would push Emi for information but he immediately dismissed the notion. Putting too much pressure on her daughter was something Erika would never do. Even so, he did want to intervene before she started asking her daughter about their visit with Grand Nanna, though. His intention had never to cause friction between mother and daughter.

“Shade,” he said. “Remind me to give you my phone when I go into the spirit vault. You can tell me if I get any important messages.”

He made his way into the bar lounge, where Hiro was working on a laptop with headphones on while Taika was on another laptop, talking with his Mum over a video chat. Like her son, she was basically a chocolate wall with a friendly expression. Jason walked up behind Taika and gave his Mum a wave.

“Hello, Mrs Davison.”

“Oh, hello, Jason. When are you going to bring my boy back to Sydney so I can meet you in person?”

“Oh, I’m sure we’ll have business there soon enough. Hiro needs to go back into Sydney soon and I’ll probably go along.”

“He’s been showing me around your houseboat, if you can even call it that. It’s more like a palace.”

“Oh, the palace comes in a few years. If I can get the parts. You know, you could come to us. The weather’s very nice here, even in winter.”

“Bro,” Taika complained and Jason chuckled.

“I have to go see my Nanna, Mrs Davison,” Jason said. “You have yourself a lovely day.”

“I will, sweetie.”

Jason tapped Hiro on the shoulder, gesturing for him to follow. Hiro took off his headphones and they went out on the deck.

“You heard about your grandmother?” Hiro asked.

“Yeah.”

“You know, trying to explain to your sister that you’re unavailable because you’re meditating inside a magic archway is not easy.”

“Sorry about that,” Jason said. “I need to bring her in sooner, rather than later. I’d like to do it today, after things are sorted out at the hospital.”

“I would have gone to the hospital, but I figured I’d wait for you. Are you responsible for what happened?”

“You make it sound like a bad thing,” Jason said. “I’m going now, if you want to join me.”

“I will, yeah,” Hiro said.

Jason opened up a portal arch.

“Not by car then?” Hiro asked, looking at the portal warily.

“This is quicker,” Jason said.

“Not that much quicker,” Hiro said.

“Come on, Uncle Hiro.”

Moments later, Jason was looking at a wide-eyed man in one of the men’s toilets at the Greater Casselton Regional Hospital in Castle Heads.

“What?” Jason asked him as the portal sank into the floor and Hiro rushed into one of the stalls. “You’ve never seen two grown men emerge from a magic portal before?”

The man scrambled to escape the bathroom as Hiro emerged, taking some paper hand towel to wet and wipe his face over the sink.

“I hope he washed his hands,” Jason said. “It’s a hospital.”

Hiro gave him a sideways look. “That’s what you’re worried about?”

“You’re right,” Jason said. “They have those disinfectant dispensers all over the place. I’m sure it’s fine.”

“Aren’t you worried about that guy telling people?”

“About the two men who appeared in a men’s room through a magic portal? Not especially. Would you believe it?”

“What if those men in black guys hear about it? You said they’re here, right?”

“The Network? Well, my portal is one of my trump cards, but Craig knows, which means his group knows, which means it isn’t really a secret anymore. Plus, I’m pretty sure that’s a very valuable ability. It’ll show what I have to offer when I sit down to negotiate with the Network. What they’ll bring to the table are things like health care for Nanna that’s better than money can buy.”

“Still,” Hiro said. “I have to imagine that discretion is a good idea.”

“I can assure you, Mr Asano,” Shade said from Jason’s shadow, “it is an idea that has been put to him on several occasions. He seems to hold little affection for it.”

“Says the guy who turns into a giant, black mid-life crisis,” Jason said.

“Through your ability,” Shade pointed out.

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Shirtaloon (Travis Deverell)

  • Australia

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