“So, how are you doing after yesterday?” Jason asked his niece as Shade drove them toward the marina.
“It’s weird,” Emi said. “I kind of like having this big secret.”
“Well, it’s time to let your Mum and Dad in on the secret,” Jason said. “Do you think you can help stop your Mum from throwing me in the ocean?”
“No promises,” Emi said with a laugh.
“I need to introduce you to some of my friends,” Jason said. “They’re a bit strange, but I think you’ll get along.”
“Strange how?” Emi asked.
“Strange like magic. First is my friend Shade. He’s made of shadows.”
“Made of shadows?”
“Yes. He can also turn into a car.”
Emi started looking around the car interior.
“Yep,” Jason said. “We’re inside him right now. You can say hello, if you like.”
“You want me to talk to your car?”
“Like in that terrible TV show Pop keeps trying to make me watch?”
“It’s not terrible,” Jason said. “You know your pop had me watch it when I was a kid and I loved it.”
“It’s a DVD box set, Uncle Jason. It might as well be chiselled on stone tablets.”
“If you will be more comfortable, Miss Emi,” Shade said, “I am happy to initiate the conversation.”
The car talking caused Emi to jolt in her seat.
“You don’t need to be worried about Shade,” Jason said. “He’s very nice. He’s been a good friend, even if he does occasionally keep things from me.”
“If I told you about the World-Phoenix token,” Shade said, “You would have gone and gotten yourself killed even earlier.”
“What do you mean killed?” Emi asked.
“See?” Jason said. “Now look what you’ve done.”
“I thought the idea was to tell them everything,” Shade said.
“Yeah, but the order’s kind of important, Shade.”
“Uncle Jason, what does your car mean by getting killed?” Emi insisted. Jason could sense from her aura that the slight strain of worry in her voice was only a shadow of her true fear. After getting her Uncle Jason back, the thought of losing him again shook her to the core.
“It’s fine,” Jason said, patting his chest with both hands. “Look at me. Here I am, nice and alive.”
“That’s not an answer,” she said. “You’re trying to distract me.”
“And you’re too clever for my own good,” Jason said. “Let me tell you about my other friends. Taika is really nice; he’s fairly normal.”
“Taika like the director?”
“This one doesn’t make movies, although he is from New Zealand. Then there’s Gordon.”
“Is he from New Zealand too?” Emi asked.
“I’m not sure where Gordon’s from,” Jason said.
“The realm of the All-Devouring Eye,” Shade said. “Colin also originates from there.”
“The realm of the All-Devouring Eye?” Emi asked.
“I’m pretty sure it’s in the South Pacific,” Jason said.
“Uncle Jason, why do you tell such obvious lies?”
“So it’s harder to notice the subtle ones,” Jason said. “Tell the truth as much as you can, and if you have to lie, make it obvious. That makes it easier to slip the important lies past people.”
“Miss Emi, I’m not entirely certain that your Uncle Jason is a good role model,” Shade said.
Annabeth accepted the video call and Gladys’ face appeared on her laptop.
“Well?” Annabeth asked without preamble.
“I didn’t find him at all like you described,” Gladys said.
“You said amiable, right?”
“He was oddly charming,” Annabeth said. “Emphasis on the odd.”
“I didn’t find that at all,” Gladys said. “With a category three in front of him and his family in the next room, he was hard and sharp. It was like looking down the point of a sword. I swear he was ready to fight right there. Have you seen his aura, Anna?”
“No. He’s a category above me.”
“I’ve never felt anything like it,” Gladys said. “It feels like a weapon and I swear it was almost as strong as mine. Add in that insane control and I don’t think I’d win, aura to aura.”
“We knew he was dangerous.”
“This is more than dangerous, Anna. I don’t think he’s stable. Right now, he’s looking down the barrel of a world full of forces he doesn’t understand and he doesn’t know how to protect his family. He’s flailing in ignorance and he knows it, so he’s going overboard because it’s all he has. He’s fully aware that it’s a flimsy shield, so he’s doing everything he can to prop it up. I don’t think he’d be an entirely reliable ally.”
“You think we shouldn’t try to pull him in?”
“Oh, we definitely want him on our side,” Gladys said. “His aura control techniques alone leave us in the dust. Also, not for nothing: that is not a man I want to make an enemy of. What he needs more than anything else is someone he can trust, and if we can provide that, I think the dividends will be amazing.”
“Agreed,” Annabeth said. “That will be a big ask after what the Lyon branch did, though.”
“No kidding,” Gladys said. “Right now, he’s a gun ready to go off. It’s kind of sexy.”
“I know, I know. I’m not a cradle robber, Anna. Give it a decade, though, and that boy might be in some trouble. Have you considered trying to honey trap him? I bet you won’t have trouble finding people willing to throw themselves in front of that bus.”
“I’ve had people running background,” Anna said. “It seems that he had a family rift stemming from his long-term girlfriend, who is now his sister-in-law.”
“Yes,” Annabeth agreed. “Our analysts suggest that he likely has a deep sensitivity to betrayal in general and romantic betrayal especially. Even if we play it fairly straight and just make sure an agent is available and open to forming a relationship, he’s likely to be sensitive to that kind of manipulation. If something went wrong, that could be very bad.”
“Marching through our headquarters with a chainsaw bad,” Annabeth said
“Probably best be careful, then,” Gladys acceded. “Especially while he’s on a hair trigger.”
“Our analysts think that an open alliance with well-defined terms is what he’ll respond best to.”
“Well, he has a lot to bring to the table,” Gladys said. “I was able to probe his magical knowledge a little.”
“He was only gone a year and a half,” Annabeth said. “How much can he have picked up?”
“You’d be surprised,” Gladys said. “I was. He claims to only have a basic grounding in different kinds of magic, but I think that’s more than enticing enough.”
“That makes sense,” Anna mused. “Our definition of the basics is different to someone from a magical alternate reality.”
“Fortunately, we bring things to the table as well,” Gladys said. “He seems to genuinely appreciate our treatment of his grandmother. Fortunately, he was smart enough to feed her a healing potion as soon as he removed the disease. Getting that healing in immediately gave us a good head start on the treatment. Now she just needs some regular, specialised therapy.”
“I suggest you start charging him for it, preferably in magic materials,” Annabeth said.
“That won’t alienate him?” Gladys asked.
“It keeps the arrangement honest and keeps it out in the open,” Annabeth said. “That’s exactly what we want.”
They arrived at the marina and Emi goggled at Jason’s opulent boathouse.
“How much money do you have?” she asked.
“I’ve got a huge pile of gold, so a lot.”
“You have a huge pile of gold?”
“Yeah. Actually, let me show you a trick.”
He took a bar of gold out of his inventory. To Emi, it looked like he plucked it out of thin air.
“I know that could be just slight of hand,” he said.
“That’s too light,” Emi said.
“The gold bar?” Jason said.
“Yeah. It should be heavy.”
“Jason held out the ten kilogram metal bar. Emi took it in her hands, but it immediately slipped through. Jason reached out with a shadow arm and caught it, then put it back into his inventory.
“See?” he said.
“Your arm got longer,” Emi said. “And it tuned black.”
“Yep,” Jason said. “Magic powers, remember.”
“How did you get them?”
“I’ll explain all that when your parents get here.”
“Can I get them?”
“Not until you’re older,” Jason said. “At least a few years.”
“Really? How many years?”
“It depends on when your body is able to accept them. For most people that’s around sixteen or seventeen, but that’s just the centre of the curve. My friend Rufus had to wait until he was nineteen.”
“Do lots of people have them in Africa?”
“Lots of people have them in the place I’ve been all this time,” Jason said.
“That’s not the same thing as saying yes,” Emi said, causing Jason to chuckle.
“You’re trouble, you know that?” he asked.
“Is trouble good?” he asked.
“Trouble is very good,” he said, ruffling her hair. “You’ll understand everything soon. As to whether you believe it, that’s another thing. For now, let’s go take a tour of the houseboat, yeah?”
“Is it a magic houseboat?”
“Can you keep a secret?” Jason asked. “Look who I’m talking to; of course you can. Don’t tell anyone, but this houseboat may be the single most magical item on Earth.”
“Are there a lot of magical items on Earth?”
“A lot more than I thought, as it turns out” Jason said.
“You realise that if magic exists,” she said, “it changes everything we know about the universe.”
“It doesn’t so much change it as expand it,” Jason said. “It’s just that the things we don’t understand turns out to be a larger pool than we realised. There are ways to explore beyond the boundaries of our universe. And it’s not like the scientific method is invalidated all of a sudden. In fact, I have a friend who is basically a research scientist, but his area is magic. Well, aspects of magic. As with science, there are many fields of study.”
Jason took her around the houseboat, which Emi found suitably impressive. One of Shade’s bodies accompanied them, giving Emi a look at his normal figure. In the kitchen they met Taika, who they caught raiding the houseboat’s supply of coconut rum balls.
“There are a weird number of homemade snacks on this houseboat,” Taika said.
“You should see our house,” Emi told him. “Those snacks tend to be healthier than what I’m seeing here, though.”
“I need extra carbs and protein,” Jason said defensively. “I have a condition.”
“What condition?” Emi asked.
“Super powers,” Jason said.
“He does,” Taika said. “A bunch of bikers attacked our car and he went all magic and stuff. I didn’t get to see much at the time because I was concentrating on driving but it was all over the news.”
“That really was you on the news?” Emi said.
“Oh, yeah,” Taika said. “He got shot a whole bunch of times.”
Jason felt a streak of panic shoot through Emi’s aura and gave Taika a withering glare.
“Taika,” he said through gritted teeth. “Maybe we don’t tell my twelve year old niece about the horrifying situation we were in?”
“You’re impervious to bullets, bro. That was a horrible situation for me, but you seemed to be having fun.”
“Taika, maybe it’s time for that errand?”
“Oh, yeah. No worries, bro. You got the cash?”
Jason took an envelope stuffed with hundreds from his inventory and handed it over.
“Damn, bro. How much to you want me to get?”
“There’s a list in the envelope,” Jason said.
“Mr Asano,” Shade said. “Your family members have left the hospital and will be here in around twenty minutes.”
“Thank you, Shade.”
“How do you know that?” Emi asked.
“I have multiple bodies,” Shade said. “Your Uncle has had me watching out for your mother, your grandfather and yourself since his arrival in this township.”
“You’ve been watching me?” Emi asked.
“Yes,” Shade said. “I have been hidden in the shadows around you, even your own.”
“Have you been watching me pee?”
“Mr Asano asked me to remain at a remove during your more delicate moments,” Shade said. “I feel that this compromises my ability to secure your person to the fullest extent of my capacity, but I have complied.”
“Shade,” Jason said. “I’m not going to let you watch her pee.”
“Miss Asano, I’m older than your species. I can assure you that I take no interest in your biological necessities. If you could convince your Uncle…”
“No,” Jason said definitively.
“Wait, if you’re with me all the time,” Emi asked, “Can you turn into a car and drive me places?” Emi asked.
“A car takes multiple bodies, while only one stays with you,” Shade said. “I could turn into a motorcycle.”
Emi’s head turned to Jason on a swivel, adorable eyes glistening with hope.
“Absolutely not,” he said.
Ian was driving back to Casselton Beach from the hospital on the outskirts of Castle Heads. Hiro was in the passenger seat while Erika and her father were in the back.
“I’m not sure we should have rushed off like this, Erika,” Ken said.
“Dad,” Erika said. “I want answers. Uncle Robbo is taking Nanna back to his place, so there’s no point hanging around the hospital. Ian, you’re driving too slow.”
“I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed those signs with the numbers on them next to the road, dear,” Ian said, “but they have to do with how fast cars are allowed to go.”
Erika groaned her complaint while Ken and Hiro chuckled.
“You’re a braver man than most, Ian,” Ken said.
“This family needs more women,” Erika muttered.
“If you’re looking to have another kid,” Ian said, “I still have my sexy pirate outfit. It kind of went to waste the other night.”
“Quite enough of that kind of talk, thank you,” Ken said. “Her father is right here, Ian.”
“Of course, if you are looking at giving me another grandchild, I could be convinced to cover my ears.”
“I’m not saying right here in the car, Sweetie,” Ken told Erika. “Although, you could drop Hiro and myself off while you two go…”
“You know, you were conceived in a ’76 HJ Holden…”
Ian and Hiro were laughing in the front, as Erika glared at her father.
They arrived at the Casselton Beach marina, Hiro directing Ian where to park.
“Should I just look for that crazy car of Jason’s?” Ian asked.
“It might not be here,” Hiro said. “You’ll be able to see it easily.”
“Holy crap,” Ken said as the houseboat came into view. “Is that it?
“That’s the one,” Hiro said, pointing. “The jetty access is just there.”
“That’s Jason’s houseboat?” Ken asked.
“How is that anyone’s houseboat?” Ian said. “That’s bigger than our actual house. By a lot. Should we buy a bigger house?”
They piled out of the car as another car arrived and parked just one spot along. It was Taika, driving Hiro’s new car.
“Oh, hey boss,” Taika greeted and Hiro made introductions.
“What are you up to?” Hiro asked.
“Jason asked me to stock up the bar. He said he didn’t have any regular booze, just the magic stuff.”
“Magic stuff?” Ian asked.
“Right, you’re here to learn about all that,” Taika said. “I think alcohol was a good idea.”
The others offered to help Taika, each taking a crate of drinks from the car while Taika carried one under each arm.
“How much did you actually buy?” Hiro asked, seeing that they were leaving at least as many behind. As well as filling the boot, the crates were loaded up in the back and passenger seats.
“This is just the plonk,” Taika said. “It’ll probably be two runs for mixers and stuff.”