Erika approached the houseboat flanked by her family and the towering figure of Taika, all carrying crates of alcohol. Jason and Emi came out to meet them, standing on the lower deck that was level with the jetty. Jason waved them aboard.
“Thanks for helping with the drinks,” he said. “We may as well do this whole thing in the bar lounge. We’ll probably need those drinks by the time we’re done.”
“There’s a bar lounge?” Ian asked.
“Look at this place,” Ken said. “I’m guessing they started with a bar lounge and built a houseboat around it.”
“Jason, are you finally going to stop dodging me?” Erika asked.
“Yes,” he said. They spotted immediately that he was more subdued than his usual self, gently holding his niece’s hand.
“How’s Mum?” he asked.
“Freaked out,” Erika said. “Her son just came back to life and her mother’s Alzheimer’s is miraculously cured. All she got in explanation were second-hand accounts of the vague nonsense you told us. Why did you do it like that?”
“If she doesn’t want to show up for family meetings, then that’s what she gets,” Jason said, his father nodding in approval.
“Jason,” Erika said. “This isn’t like sorting out Great Aunt Marjory subscribing us all to Christian Quarterly. You came back from the dead.”
“Yes,” Jason said. “Twice, thus far.”
“What do you mean, twice?”
“First things first,” Jason said. “Before we can start, I need to change your understanding of what is and isn’t possible.”
“Are you completely certain you didn’t join a cult?” Ian asked.
“You have to see for yourself, Dad,” Emi said, standing next to Jason.
“Come on,” Jason said. He traded Erika’s crate of alcohol for her daughter and led them across the lower deck and through the tinted glass doors that slid open at their approach. Inside was a sprawling lounge, with soft chairs of white leather and glass walls running around three sides. They put the crates down by the bar and looked around at the opulence.
“There’s a bloody mezzanine,” Ian said, causing the rest to turn their gazes to the upper level. “God damn, Jason.”
“Hiro, Taika and Emi have already seen what I’m about to show you,” Jason said. “Today we’re going further than what I’ve revealed so far. It’s going to take a while, so expect to be here for the day.”
“What about all the stuff you told us before?” Erika asked. “Being a mercenary in Africa.”
“Everything I told you is true,” Jason said, “but also incomplete. There’s something very important that I left out, and much more to tell. I’m going to begin by showing you something. Then something else and something after that. One impossible thing after another until your perspective of impossibility itself undergoes a fundamental change.”
“Bro, you sound like one of those guys with a TV show that explains magic tricks. You’re pretty big into melodrama, hey.”
“Taika, I’m trying to set a mood here,” Jason complained as his family chuckled.
“Stop dancing around it, Jason,” Erika said. “What is it you’re going to show us?”
“Alright,” Jason said. He opened up a portal arch, which rose up from the floor. The black obsidian arch, filled with darkness, was incongruous with the lavishly appointed lounge.
“I’ll be waiting on the other side,” Jason said and stepped through.
The others went through the same startled examination of the arch that Taika and Hiro did on their first exposure to it. They walked around, examining the arch Jason had vanished into from both sides, peering into the darkness. Erika checked the floor for a mechanism it had used to rise up while Ian ran his fingers over the arch.
“This is solid stone,” Ian said. “is he a magician now?”
“Not a magician, Dad,” Emi said. “A wizard.”
“A wizard,” Erika said disapprovingly. “I don’t know what your uncle has been telling you, Emi, but he is not a wizard.”
“Come find me then,” she said and dashed through the portal herself.
“Emi!” Ian called out, then immediately followed her through the arch.
“What is happening?” Ken asked as his family vanished one by one.
“It’s a lot, I know,” Hiro told his brother. “I also know from experience that once you step through that door, everything changes. I don’t think there is a way to prepare for what comes next.”
Ken nodded at his brother, squared his shoulders and marched resolutely into the portal. That left Erika with Hiro and Taika.
“Don’t look at me,” Taika said. “I’m going to get the rest of those drinks.”
Hiro gave Erika a sympathetic smile, placing a reassuring hand on her shoulder.
“You’re looking for answers in a world that’s making less sense with every passing day,” he said. “I’ve been there. Very, very recently. We both still have a lot to learn.”
He held out his hand for her to take and led her toward the arch.
The point at Castle Bluff had a paved and railed lookout area that ran along the cliff face. Further back was a park where much of Jason’s family was throwing up on the grass. The winter wind was blowing in off the ocean, making the park trees hiss like snakes as the wind savaged its way through the leaves.
Jason stood at the railing looking out. Emi was beside him, holding his hand as the wind whipped her hair around her head. There was no one else out on the bluff on the blustery day.
Despite being the last of the family to arrive, Erika recovered the quickest, looking around disbelievingly at their surroundings. The portal was still there, taunting her with its impossibility. As she stared at it, Taika emerged, putting a hand to his stomach until it settled. He glanced around, nodding with approval, then made his way toward Jason.
“Did you want me to go get the mixers and stuff, bro?” Taika half-yelled over the wind.
“Leave it for now,” Jason said. Despite not speaking loudly, his voice oddly cut right through the wind.
“When we get back, stick around, yeah?” Jason said to Taika.
“I thought maybe it was a family thing?” Taika said.
“I got you caught up in all this,” Jason said. “I’ll see you through all the way, brother.”
“Thanks, bro. Alright, I’m going to go do a mixer run while you’re showing them stuff here, yeah?”
“You’ll have time,” Jason said. “They’re a stubborn bunch. I mean, look at them. They just got teleported and they’re staring at the sky like it owes them money.”
Taika glanced over at Jason’s family, who were starting to recover and, as he said, looking at their surroundings in suspicious disbelief.
Erika, having recovered, also made her way to Jason, held out a hand towards her daughter. Emi ignored the hand, moving past it to embrace her mother in a huge hug.
“Emi,” Erika said, staring at Jason over her daughter’s head. He had turned from the railing and leaned back against it, watching her with sparkling eyes. There was an ease to the way he leaned against the rail, a confidence like nothing she’d seen from him before.
Confidence wasn’t an area in which Jason had ever been lacking, but this man before her was different from the cocky boy who thought he was smarter than everyone. This was deeper, less forced and more assured, as if he feared nothing the world could throw at him. She felt it strange that she suddenly had that certainty about him, to the degree of it being suspicious.
“What you’re feeling is my aura,” Jason said. “Not that nonsense they take photos of in new age shops, but the real thing.”
“Jason, that’s ridiculous.”
“I won’t deny it, but look at where we are Eri. How did we get here?”
“I can’t explain that,” she said, “but it definitely wasn’t through the power of reflexology and crystal healing.”
“Try the archway again,” Jason said. “You’ll get used to the queasiness and disorientation, I’m told. Not entirely, but it gets easier.”
“You’re told?” Erika asked.
“I don’t suffer from it,” Jason said. “A quirk of constitution. Seriously, give it another few goes.”
“I will!” Emi said rushing off to the portal. She started dashing rapidly in and out until she staggered away with a goofy grin, dizzy from the disorientation. Jason and Erika looked on, standing side by side.
“You know I’m the coolest uncle ever, right?” Jason asked Erika as he slipped an arm around his sister’s shoulders. “Eri, magic is real. I know that’s crazy but crazy is where I’ve been living for a while, now.”
“It’s beyond crazy,” she said.
“Oh, this is only the beginning,” he said.
Emi fell over in the grass, dizzy, while her father went to make sure she didn’t roll over into someone’s vomit. The rest of the family had recovered and were approaching Jason, still looking around in disbelief.
“Vermillion,” Annabeth greeted over the phone. “I was sorry to hear you were demoted.”
“It’s not without its benefits,” Vermillion said. “You should see the house they’ve put me up in.”
“I’d like that,” Annabeth said. “Would you be willing to play host for when we talk with him?”
“He insists on hosting you himself, on his houseboat,” Vermillion said.
“He’s not willing to accept neutral ground? That doesn’t speak well to his willingness to come to an accommodation.”
“His position,” Vermillion said, “is that he has one houseboat and you have the rest of the planet, being an international network of secret magicians. Who have already tried to kidnap him once, you might recall. I think you should just concede the point, Anna.”
“I’ll talk to my boss and get back to you. Did he agree to a day?”
“Tuesday,” Vermillion said. “From what I can see, he’s eager to get this done.”
“The day after tomorrow,” Annabeth said. “We can work with that.”
Jason needed the family to get it in their heads that magic was genuinely a thing. They were a sceptical bunch, with Erika especially reaching for mundane explanations much as her daughter had. Back at the marina, in preparation for some dramatic show and tell, he had Shade scout the area around the houseboat for potential eavesdroppers. Even on a late Sunday morning, the marina was winter quiet.
In the parking lot, Jason began by demonstrating his inventory. He took things in and out, including Hiro’s car. He showed them Shade turning into a car and returned the houseboat to the cloud flask and bringing it out again, now with magical cloud interior.
Back on the houseboat he moved around the interior, transforming rooms as they watched. He ran a power drill through his hand, which had trouble fighting through his damage reduction, then chugged a bottle of household bleach, which his powers turned into healing that restored the injury on his hand.
They returned to the bar lounge, now made up of cloud stuff in gorgeous sunset colours. After everything they had seen, Jason gave them time to let it all sink in.
Taika was freshly back from his second run of mixers and was putting away all the fruit, sugar syrup, soda water and other drink ingredients. Ken was looking shell-shocked, Hiro sitting with him and talking quietly. Ian was sitting with his daughter while Erika and Jason made cocktails at the bar, side by side as she continued to grill him.
“I swear, Jason,” Erika told him. “You better not have met some ridiculous illusionist and conceived all this as a mad, elaborate prank. I will go to the hardware store and buy one of those big PVC barrels, knock you out, throw you into the barrel, fill it with concrete, borrow Wally’s boat, take the barrel out into the ocean and drop you to the bottom of the Pacific. You’ve disappeared once; it won’t seem that strange.”
“That’s suspiciously well thought-through,” Jason said. “Ian, has your wife been killing people and dumping them in the ocean?”
“Absolutely not,” Ian said. “They changed all the judges on Kitchen Conquest because the network refused to bump their pay and definitely not for any other reason. I didn’t tell him anything, honey.”
“Is this really the time for jokes, husband? Jason, pass the sliced limes.”
“Sweetie,” Ian said, “Jason came back from the dead and is apparently an indestructible wizard now. Once your brother turns into Gandalf the White, I think we’re in uncharted territory, decorum-wise.”
“It wouldn’t kill me anyway,” Jason said. “Hand me the rum. No the white rum. Never mind.”
His arm extended to grab the bottle from the end of the bar.
“Apparently he’s also Mr Fantastic,” Ian said.
“How could being dropped into the ocean inside a solid block of concrete not kill you?” Erika asked.
“Well, the pressure might get me, if you dumped me in the Marianas Trench. Is Wally’s boat big enough to get out there? Anyway, my mate Gordon would get me out before I got too deep. He’d make pretty short work of concrete. And I don’t breathe anymore, so that’s not an issue.”
“You don’t breathe?” Erika asked.
“Who’s Gordon?” Ian asked at the same time.
“Okay,” Jason said. “I think we’ve reached the portion of the proceedings where we need to sit down and have it explained from the start, if only to organise what is a lot of crazy. Let’s all go to the media room, since I’m going to start things off with a video presentation.”
“Seriously?” Erika asked. “Like one of those employee induction videos, but for magic?”
“It’s more of a magical hologram than an actual video,” Jason said.
The group settled into the couches and recliners of the media room and Jason took out a carousel of recording crystals, plucking a crystal from the very first row. A projector emerged from the floor and he slotted it in before taking a seat between his sister and niece on one of the couches.
An image appeared in front of them, an opulent living space in cool ocean greens and blues. Jason was in front of it, but Jason as they remembered: clean-shaven, prominent chin.
“Hello,” image Jason said, waving out from the image. “I’m not sure if, or when you’ll be seeing this, but I didn’t die, or whatever you think happened to me. You probably know that, since the only way you’re likely to see this is if I give it to you.”
He let out a dissatisfied groan. His voice was also the way they remembered, less deep and resonant. The group all looked at Jason’s current self for comparison.
“Maybe I should have scripted this,” image Jason continued. “Oh, well. Where should I start? It’s been about two months since I arrived here. Where is here? That’s complicated. I’ve made some friends. I just got a new job, although I haven’t started yet. They’re meant to be sending my ID over today. The application process involved sort of a week-long retreat, which I got back from a couple of days ago.”
Image Jason took a deep, centring breath.
“I still needed to breathe, at that stage,” real Jason pointed out.
“I suppose I should start with that complicated question of where I am,” image Jason said. “Right now, as you can see, I’m in an expensive hotel suite. It isn’t actually mine; that’s across the hall. This one belongs to some of those friends I mentioned. They went three-bedroom, which came with this nice, open living area.”
The image panned off Jason, turning toward a pair of open French doors leading onto a balcony. The recording moved forward, giving them a view of a cerulean sea.
“Nice, right?” Jason’s voice came from the recording. “One of my new friends is kind of a big deal, so he got the best room in the house. We’re on an artificial island, which is pretty crazy, given the size. At some point I’ll do a tour video. The subways here are amazing.”
“Jason,” a woman’s melodic voice came from the recording. “Who are you talking to?”
Erika and Emi both felt Jason flinch when they heard her speak.