In the houseboat, Erika pulled up Jason’s number on her phone.
“I would recommend against calling Mr Asano at this moment,” Shade’s voice came from behind her, making her jump.
“Why not?” Erika asked as she turned to look at the nerve-wracking figure. Jason’s bizarre yet ever-courteous shadow monster friend was very high on the list of bizarre things she needed to adjust to.
“Mr Asano just received some important news.”
“More important than his mother, brother and sister in law trying to get their heads around magic being real?”
“Yes,” Shade said. “I have seen Mr Asano walk into battle knowing that death was more likely than not. I’ve seen him walk alone into a town that has been taken over by bandits and kill them all. I’ve seen him fight with thousands of lives on the line and watched him sacrifice his life to save them. I have never seen him as agitated as he is at this moment.”
“That’s all crazy,” Erika said. “You saw him die?”
“I see that you wish to be a good sister,” Shade said. “You see how damaged he is and you want to help but his experiences are outside of your understanding. I too, am concerned and would like to help you remedy this shortfall.”
“Mr Asano has vouchsafed certain recordings with me, that your daughter does not see them.”
“He told me. She’s already tried to convince me to let her watch them.”
“I think, perhaps, that you should be the one to watch them,” Shade said. “I hope it will build a bridge between you. Mr Asano has shown you the fantastical and wondrous, while avoiding the suffering he has experienced. I have seen that you want to be good family to him, but what he’s been holding back lays between you. I would like to help you bridge that gap, for his sake.”
Shade held out a hand made of shadow, dark as an arm-shaped void. On the palm rested a small cluster of recording crystals.
“Begin with these,” he said.
Jason was pacing back and forth in front of the bench, clenching and unclenching his fists as shame and rage warred on his face. Asya looked on in silence, picking up the dropped folder. She took a closer look at the photographs in the folder. A naked woman in a concrete room. A close up of her face, with the shaved head and the suppression collar. Clearly, Jason had not realised who she was until he saw the pictures.
“We’re doing our best to get her out,” Asya assured him, which was the truth. The international committee had been convinced by the reports of Jason’s contribution to the incursion event and were willing to make heavy concessions for his voluntary cooperation.
She strongly suspected the International Committee’s global executives had already looked the other way at the Lyon-branch’s promises of torture-extracted dividends. She believed that had changed once Jason presented both a more reliable and a more palatable option.
“You’re doing the best you’re willing to do,” Jason said, still pacing.
“Jason, we’ve essentially finalised our agreement at this point.”
Jason stopped moving as she spoke. She could feel the unsteadiness of his aura where she normally couldn’t sense it at all. It was stifling, like being in the middle seat of a car between two overweight people. He turned his gaze on her, filled with fury.
“The agreement doesn’t matter,” Jason said. “As of right now, I have one priority: protect my family, whatever that takes.”
He marched over and jabbed at the photograph in her hand.
“She is family,” said in a voice that poured ice water down her back. “If I have to burn your Network to the ground to get her back, then I will.”
He winced, then shook his head as if throwing off befuddlement. His aura settled until she could no longer feel it pushing uncomfortably against her. His eyes softened from angry to hurt and vulnerable.
“I’m sorry,” he said in a tired voice, backing off from her personal space. “My first reaction is always to fight, these days. To be willing to go further and do worse than the other guy.”
He rubbed his temples.
“I’m not the Incredible Hulk,” he said, more to himself than to her. “I know that my anger doesn’t make me stronger, as much as it feels like it should. All it does is cloud my judgement and stop me from making the considered choices that will actually get me what I want.”
“Who is she?” Asya asked.
“When I went to the other world, she was a teacher and a friend. She taught me to wield my aura but also just how to live in that world. The stronger I grow, the more I realise just how much she set me on the right path. Even after we lost her, it’s like she’s still teaching me.”
“She died,” Jason said. “Like me. And she came back to life here, also like me. Now it’s my turn to help her in a strange new world but while I’m having family barbecues and going on jet ski rides she’s being tortured in a concrete hole!”
“We’re working on it,” Asya said.
“That’s not enough, anymore,” Jason said. “I know you have no incentive to help her other than the benefits I’m offering in return, so let me be plain: There is no agreement until Farrah is safe and here. The only things I need from the Network are definitive assurances and a definitive timetable. If you can deliver that, I’ll do my best to stop her from taking revenge on you all. We have no other business until that is done, and here’s my timetable: You have until I come up with a better way to get her back myself, at which point, I will.”
Jason didn’t wait for a reply, calling up a portal and stepping though, after which it descended into the ground and vanished. Asya looked around as Yarranabbe Park had a lot of long sightlines. No one seemed to have noticed.
She let out a long sigh, setting down the folder and running her hands over her face. She took the folder and put it back in here briefcase and pulled out her phone.
Jason portalled to Hiro and Taika, and then back to the houseboat. There was a ten minute wait between portal uses and it didn’t have the range to reach Casselton Beach in one hop. This meant a ten minute layover half way. Hiro, Jason and Taika emerged amongst trees on a small hillside that led down to a sandy beach.
“I think I’m getting used to that,” Taika said as they emerged from the portal.
“At least I’ve stopped throwing up,” Hiro said, although he was leaning against a tree with a pale face.
“It’s kind of trippy,” Taika said, slightly wobbling in place. “And I think it makes me hungry.”
Jason pulled out a cardboard food carton and handed it to Taika, who opened it up to see pieces of crumbed and fried meat, still steaming hot.
“Is this chicken?” Taika asked.
“Blood-seeker pheasant,” Jason said. He had cooked it from meat he looted from the incursion space and had been happy with how it turned out.
“Never heard of it,” Taika said and took a bite. “Oh, that’s super good. Where are we?”
“Just up from Tuncurry,” Jason said.
“It’s nice. I’m going to go check out the beach.”
As Taika wandered down the slope and out of the trees, Hiro was watching Jason.
“Are you alright,” Hiro asked.
“Bollocks you are,” Hiro said.
Jason let out a groan.
“I just found out that I’ve been failing someone very important to me very, very badly.”
“What are you going to do about it?” Hiro asked.
“I don’t know. If I go off on a tear like I normally would, throwing around as much weight as I can bluff people into thinking I have, that will only make things worse. I have all this power but it’s not enough.”
“Is there ever enough power?” Hiro asked.
“I don’t know,” Jason said. “There are people who are basically demigods but I don’t know if I’ll ever be that strong. Very few ever get there, or so I’m told. For all I know, they have just as many problems, but on a scale that would crush me underfoot in an instant.”
“Perhaps you should focus on what you can do for now,” Hiro suggested, “with the power you have today.”
“I need time to stop and think,” he said. “I haven’t been doing enough of that but I can’t mess this up.”
He released his frustration by fiercely kicking a tree, sending leaves tumbling to the ground.
In his spirit vault, meditation helped Jason deal with the storm reeling through his brain. Farrah. Alive and in his world, but caught up in circumstances that filled him with white hot rage. His body was almost twitching with the need to roar off and start tearing his way through everyone who could get him closer to her. Instead, he pulled out a bronze-rank suppression collar, snapped it around his neck and went back to meditation.
In Greenstone, when Jason felt frustrated like this he would go on a monster hunt. Moving from town to village in the delta, clearing out every adventure board notice and moving on. At least there he could channel his pent-up aggression into something that helped people.
Until he had access to the proto-astral spaces, that was not an option. Opening an aperture would not be a challenge for his current understanding of astral magic, but he would need to tap into the Network’s detection grid. For the moment, seeing the Network people was not a good idea.
He’d snapped on Asya, who had done nothing more than exactly what he wanted and deserved none of his ire. She could not mask herself from his aura senses and he had felt both her sincerity and her attraction, although he only needed one of them. His life had complications enough.
Only when he thought he could see a member of the Network without dangling them from a building and demanding answers did he emerge from his spirit vault, although he did not leave his cabin on the houseboat. Shade was waiting to report.
“Your brother, your mother and your sister-in-law all wish to see you, Mr Asano. They have many questions, although your sister felt that now was not the time.”
“That doesn’t sound like her.”
“She has been watching some of the recording crystals you redacted from the main collection. I believe she has a greater appreciation of what you have been through and how you have been affected. She had the others direct their questions toward your uncle and your father, who is also aboard, as well as herself. She has now left, however, to pick up Miss Emi.”
Jason frowned and left his cabin.
“Where are they?” he asked.
“The media room.”
Jason took the elevating platform down and went into the media room, where Hiro, Cheryl, Kaito and Amy were in a heated discussion. When the mist door evaporated to admit Jason, they fell silent.
“I know you have a lot of questions,” Jason said softly. “Unfortunately, this is not the time for answers.”
“Not the time?” his mother exclaimed. “If you think…”
Cheryl was quieted by Amy putting a restraining hand on Cheryl’s arm, but Amy’s gaze was locked on Jason, searching his expression and body language.
“We’ll come back another day,” Amy said firmly.
“Amy, are you kidding?” Kaito asked.
She turned to her husband.
“I don’t know what’s going on with him, Kai,” she said, “but today is not the day to push.”
“Thank you,” Jason said as Kaito gave his wife an unhappy look. “Shade, please show our guests out.”
Ken had been elsewhere, playing with his granddaughters. The children were delighted by the spongy cloud house, which was also pleasantly child safe. As they left, Jason returned to the elevating platform and back into his cabin. A cloud chair rose from the floor and he fell into it.
“Alright, Shade. What have you managed to turn up?”
“Still very little, I’m sorry.”
“Should I have had you send more bodies?”
“I would need to send most of them to have a significant impact,” Shade said. “Sending them all to France would hamper my ability to react to events locally. In any case, the problems I’ve encountered over the last several days are not ones that numbers could solve. I need to be wary of the magical protections around Network facilities, as well as being careful of their silver-rankers. It means I have to primarily seek information from the lower-rank members, largely outside of their work hours.”
“Which has limited value,” Jason said.
“Indeed,” Shade agreed. “The Lyon branch practices excellent operational security. While I have heard mention of the site in which I believe your friend is being held, the location seems to be closely guarded, even amongst branch personnel. I believe that with persistence, I will catch them moving staff to the site. It is likely to take more time than you are willing to accept, however.”
“I figured as much,” Jason said. “I need to get stronger, Shade. Strong enough that no one would even think of acting against me.”
“There is no strong enough that no one will defy you, Mr Asano. The Builder possesses power beyond your ability to conceptualise, yet you defied him and you won, because he confronted you in a world of limits.”
“Speaking of great astral beings,” Jason said, “why would the Reaper let Farrah go? Doesn’t that directly contravene his agenda?”
“All the great astral beings are allowed to make exceptions with their power,” Shade said. “It is the only currency they can trade with one another, for what else is denied them? It may seem, from a limited perspective, that this world and the events you are caught up in are important, but there are more universes than you have names for numbers. There are countless strange events and exceptional circumstances. At every moment, each of the great astral beings is taking countless actions. The Reaper making an exception like this has never happened in all the time humans have existed on your planet. If you looked across the cosmos in its entirety, however, you would find The Reaper is releasing souls at every single moment of every single day.”
“For his greater purpose. Individuals do not matter other than as representatives of larger trends. I believe that your friend was returned as part of a bargain with the World-Phoenix. She makes sure that you don’t become a revolving door of resurrection and he provides you with someone to aid you in whatever agenda she has in mind.”
“I don’t think I’m that important,” Jason said. “And coming back from the dead isn’t a dance craze. People can’t just start doing it because they saw me.”
“You are a small piece in a machine so large that you will never see its mechanisms in action,” Shade said. “A brick cannot hold back a flood, but a wall can. But I would advise against trying to see through the actions of beings whose scope and age may not even have limits, be that into the future or into the past. Except for the Builder.”
“What’s different about the Builder?”
“He is an ascended mortal,” Shade explained. “For reasons unknown to me, the original Builder was sanctioned. I do not know what that means, other than that the old Builder is gone and the great astral beings raised a mortal to take the vacated position.”
“Wow,” Jason said. “That might explain some of the behaviour. Still, he was awfully Thadwicky for an immortal being, raised up or not. Did the vessel impact his decision making?”
“It’s possible,” Shade said. “While I cannot speak with knowledge as to the Builder’s own circumstances, I am, myself, multifarious in nature. I occupy multiple bodies, which perhaps allows me some insight. On rare occasions, one of my bodies has become partially isolated and subject to conditions that have altered its behaviour. Each time I have reincorporated such bodies, I endured a period in which I would consider my judgement compromised. I cannot speak to a great astral being experiencing the same as a regular astral being like myself, however.”
“So, the Reaper just taped Farrah to my soul on the way through the astral?”
“Yes,” Shade said.
“And that’s a normal thing?”
“On a cosmic scale,” Shade said. “On the scale of even the two worlds you have inhabited, it is exceedingly rare.”
“But it’s happened before.”
Jason was about to ask another question when his phone rang. It was Annabeth.
“I hope you’re contacting me with good news, Mrs Tilden,” Jason said.
“We haven’t got her out yet, Mr Asano, but the International Committee has agreed to form a contingent to press the Lyon branch in person, after their encroachment into our territory. That means some of our people, plus some IC heavy hitters. And you, if you want in.”
“How quickly can you get to Bankstown Airport?”
“Then I’d say pack a bag, but I understand that bags aren’t really your thing. Once you reach the airport, call me and I’ll give you more specific directions.”
“I’ll be there.”
“Oh and Mr Asano?”
“Miss Karadeniz went to bat for you in a very big way, today. I just thought you should know that.”