Farrah felt a freakishly strong aura from above and looked up to see a sight that stirred a strong memory. A man was slowly descending through the air using a cloak made of star-filled darkness. He landed lightly on the bridge, in front of the shadow creature. Aside from the cloak, he was wearing dark combat robes and a sword at his hip that she immediately recognised. He pushed back the hood and she saw a face both familiar and alien.
The shadow man, Shade, had said the man’s name but she still had trouble believing, even as she looked right at him. The smug, perpetual half-smirk was the same, but was situated over an only slightly immodest chin. That chin had a scar, with another scar bisecting an eyebrow. The most startling physical feature was the eyes, which were silver and faintly glowing. Compared to the aura coming off the man, though, the eyes were perfectly mundane.
She had never felt a bronze-rank aura even close to that potent. It was domineering, indomitable and resolute, with an undercurrent she recognised with a shock as divine. There was the unmistakable feel of an essence user’s aura, but also distinctly something else. Like the man’s appearance, his aura was at once recognisable, yet also strange and new to her. It was solid in a way she had never felt from any other aura, as if it wasn’t a projection of a soul but the soul itself, standing right in front of her.
“What are you?” she asked.
“What?” the man said. “Not even who? Wow, that’s rough.”
“You’re not doing a great job of mimicking him,” she said. “It’s like you’re going by vague description.”
“Also harsh. You’ve missed a lot, Farrah.”
“You’re too tall,” she said. “Your complexion is too clear. I’m not sure what the scars are about, but it takes a lot to scar an essence user. Your voice is too deep, I can’t even describe how wrong the aura is and the eyes are way off. You couldn’t even get the rank right. It’s like you copied him but couldn’t help making him more impressive than he really is.”
“Well, this is just getting hurtful,” he said and turned to Shade. “What’s wrong with my eyes?”
“They changed when you took the power,” Shade said. “I didn’t mention it when it happened because there were other considerations.”
“You couldn’t have said something when you were doing my eyebrows.”
“You were quite focused at the time.”
“That’s fair. Do they look good?”
“They set off your dark hair quite nicely. You really should grow the beard back in.”
“I’ll just let it come back on its own. I only have so much of Jory’s hair cream.”
“Hello?” asked the seemingly forgotten Farrah.
“Oh, you’re the only one who gets to be rude?” he asked. “You know you died, right?”
“The memories are hazy, but yes,” she said.
“I spoke at your memorial, you know. I was kind of amazing. Rufus said it was worth you dying just to hear my beautiful words. Gary blubbed like a little boy with a skinned knee. Snot got all in his fur, it was a huge mess.”
“Is it really you?” she said.
He flashed a familiar grin.
“I knew my charisma would shine through.”
“I can’t imagine any shape-shifter with so little dignity as to talk that much crap,” she said. “What about Colin?”
As soon as Shade told him he found her, Jason had started rushing through the astral space, chaining shadow jumps to reach her as quickly as he could. He leapt off a castle rooftop, floating downwards as he saw her staring at Shade with suspicion. She sensed his aura and looked up, watching him like a stranger, even as he landed and revealed his face.
She was not looking her best, thin, dirty and hair reduced to a thin fuzz. At least they’d given her some clothes, some track pants and a t-shirt, but she was still barefoot. She looked at him with wary eyes.
“What are you?” she asked.
He realised that for all that she laid the groundwork for who he was, she had missed most of his transformative experiences. It was no surprise she looked at him like a stranger. His personal crest could not be falsified, but she had never seen it. His aura and even his rank were sun and moon to what she knew, let alone his appearance. The cloak of stars certainly helped, but if he was going to convince her he was himself, he needed to really be himself. He started talking.
He watched recognition and hope slowly dawn on her face as he bantered.
“What about Colin?” she asked.
He held up his hand, the palm growing slick with blood that coalesced into a leech with horrifying lamprey teeth.
“I don’t need to cut myself to pull him out, now,” Jason said. “The benefits of ranking up.”
She started at the leech in his hand, which rocked back and forth in a way that was somehow merry, despite coming from a tiny blood-sucking monster.
“I think he missed…”
She rocketed forward with peak bronze-rank speed, almost bowling him over as she threw her arms around him, gripping him like he was a security blanket. Colin was knocked away, deftly caught by Shade. Jason felt her whole body tremble as she sobbed into his shoulder.
“Oh, hey,” he said softly, gently placing his arms around her.
After a bronze-rank spirit coin, a recovery potion, Jason’s third-last vial of crystal wash, most of his remaining hair ointment and a surprisingly proficient hair cut from Shade, Farrah was looking more like herself. Not exactly what he remembered, with the jeans, blouse and jacket, but a lot closer than her recollection of him.
Her own clothes were long gone. Her stone chest dimensional space was her human racial gift tied to her earth essence, which would have been empty anyway. Jason had removed its contents a year earlier.
Jason hadn’t had the presence of mind to prepare clothes for her. Shade had taken the initiative to procure the ensemble, leaving the appropriate cash in the till of the shop he took them from.
They sat on the edge of a brick rooftop, legs dangling off the side. She leaned against his arm, reassured by the physical contact.
“How long?” she asked.
“A year,” he said.
“It must have been quite the year,” she said.
“You have no idea. Luckily, we’ll have plenty of time for me to explain it all. Also, quite a lot of recordings.”
“You kept making those recordings for your family?”
“Oh, yeah. They’ve even started watching them.”
“Oh, crap,” Jason said, realisation dawning. “Farrah, this astral space isn’t attached to your world. It’s attached to mine.”
“That was your world?”
“Yeah. You didn’t realise it was a different reality?”
“I was collared and spent almost every moment either unconscious or thrown in a hole,” she said. “So, you got home.”
“Yeah. Look, we should really get moving. There’ll be more time for explanations on the way home. We’re on the wrong side of the planet right now.”
Jason had experienced an oddly emotionless clarity in the moments after his own captivity, but when the emotions finally came, they crashed down like a tsunami. He wanted to get Farrah out of the astral space and past the inevitable Network attention before it all caught up to her. He suspected that Farrah was mentally stronger than him, but there was no avoiding the aftermath of the trauma she had suffered. In his case, it had been months before he came up for air.
He got to his feet and helped her to hers. They had only just set off when he sensed a large number of auras spreading out through the astral space, some of which he recognised.
“Looks like the bad guys unsealed the aperture that was securing this astral space,” he said. “We’re about to run into some people but they’re allies. I’ll get us past them as quick as I can.”
The Network platoon’s tactical leader, Karen Espinoza, was leading the team through the astral space after the inhabitants unsealed it and rushed out. She paused at another cluster of corpses, these ones both desiccated and blackened with rot.
“What the hell kind of powers does this guy have?” her second asked. “Did he seriously do all this alone?”
“This environment is probably as good for him as it is bad for us,” Espinoza said. “The more extreme the location, the less effective orthodox tactics are. I’ve been advising massive expansions to our tactical doctrine for years, and I’m far from alone. We’re far too reliant on conventional, military-derived tactics. Hopefully Asano turning up will actually be a spur for change.”
“He’s only category two.”
“Yes. Imagine if we could all fight like him. Category three monsters can soak a lot of damage, even from category three bullets. He’s clearly more reliant on powers than weapons, which is what we need at the high end. Thus far we’ve basically been throwing money at the problem. We may as well be using gold bullets.”
They continued to clear the space around the aperture to secure their beachhead, as exploring the kilometres of space within would take considerable time. They encountered Asano as he was on his way back to the aperture, calling out ahead so as to avoid friendly fire.
“You found her,” Espinoza said. “That’s mission accomplished for you. Thanks for doing most of ours along the way.”
“I was in the neighbourhood,” Jason said.
“De Lange will want to debrief her,” Espinoza said.
“I don’t much care, to be honest,” Jason said. “She’s done being beholden to Network personnel.”
Farrah’s eyes took in everything as Shade drove them through Lyon.
“The magical carriages here are better than the ones back home,” she said. “And they don’t use magic. You know, we all thought you were talking nonsense about your world and what could be done without magic.”
“Wait until you see the plane,” Jason said.
She turned to look at him.
“Can I use a power on you?” she asked.
“Sure,” he said.
“Don’t you want to know what it is before accepting?” she asked.
“It’s you,” Jason said. “I don’t need to.”
She looked at him in silence for a long time.
“You’ve changed,” she said. “You were so skittish back then. You hid it well but scratch the surface and there was the fear.”
“We have a mythic warrior here who uses his fear as a weapon, turning it on his enemies.”
“What kind of warrior?” Farrah asked.
“He’s this super-rich guy that dresses up like a bat and goes around punching the poor.”
“That sounds like a terrible myth.”
“He has special boomerangs.”
“I don’t see how that matters.”
“Well if you take this stance with Batman, I am not going to try explaining Zatanna’s pants situation.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Farrah said. “What a tragically familiar feeling.”
Jason grinned, inwardly crowing as he kept her from dwelling on her ordeal. He’d essentially blasted through the Network, demanding a plane from Hector before dramatically driving away in Shade. His goal was to lean into the strangeness of a world that was new to her to distract her at least until they were on the plane and she had time to sit with what she’d been through, and hopefully get some sleep.
“So, about that power,” she said.
“Go for it. Shade’s the one driving.”
“I’ve never used this before,” she said.
- [Farrah Hurin] is attempting to use ability [Power Bond] on you.
- [Power Bond] will enhance some of your abilities for the duration of the bond and give [Farrah Hurin] access to your knowledge. This is restricted to your knowledge of concepts external to yourself. This ability cannot read your thoughts or access your knowledge of yourself.
- [Power Bond] can be rejected or ended at any time by you.
- If you do not implicitly trust [Farrah Hurin], this ability will fail. Subconscious distrust will prevent this power from working.
Jason was extremely curious about the new outworlder powers replacing Farrah’s human abilities but was wary of conversation drifting in a traumatic direction. He had his own strange new power to worry about, as well.
- You have been affected by [Power Bond], connecting you to [Farrah Hurin]. You may end this connection at any time.
“So, that power lets you gain knowledge?”
“Yes,” she said. “It should glean certain amounts of knowledge from someone, based on what they are thinking about, but not their actual thoughts.”
“How does it work?” Jason asked.
“I’m just going by instinct, here,” Farrah said. “I’m thinking back to when we met you and learned you were an outworlder. Rufus said that every outworlder gets a power that acts as a guide to their new world. I think this is mine, tapping into the knowledge of someone I trust and turning them into my guide. Try focusing your thoughts on a topic. Any topic, it doesn’t matter what.”
“I can do that,” Jason said. He considered for a moment, thinking of common aspects of his world. Looked around, he picked cars. He started concentrating on the idea of cars and Farrah’s eyes immediately went wide and she started jolting in her seat for a few seconds.
“Are you alright?” Jason asked as the fit passed.
“I am,” she said although she looked exhausted.
“So, do you know about cars now?” he asked.
“I do,” she said.
“Think you could drive one?”
“No,” she said. “I think the ability operates similarly to a skill book, although I can’t be sure, having never used one. The difference seems to be that a skill book gives specific and specialised knowledge, even skills, while this ability gives more of an overview. I understand what cars are and how they operate, more or less. There’s a lot of peripheral information that didn’t make sense to me, and won’t until I get a lot more knowledge.”
“There is a lot to learn,” Jason said, concentrating again. Once more Farrah was jolted in her seat.
“That’s exhausting,” she said unsteadily. “I should be judicious in what I want to learn, because I can only do that so often.”
“Agreed,” Jason said. “Essentials first.”
“Do you really consider Magnum P.I. to be essential?” Farrah asked. “I’m not even clear on what television is, exactly.”
“Oh, it’s essential,” Jason said. “It’s going to come up a lot.”
Farrah was astounded at the plane, promptly learning about them from Jason. It left him worried about his own rather sketchy understanding of aerodynamics. If she was going to be learning about his world from him, she might end up with some strange ideas.
Following her initial outburst of emotion when they first met, Farrah had shown almost no signs of distress over what she went though. This started to worry Jason as they boarded the private plane and took to the skies. It was just the two of them, plus the pilot, co-pilot and one attendant who had apparently been instructed to be as non-intrusive as possible. After the plane settled into its flight, Farrah took Jason’s advice and went into the sleeping cabin.
Unguarded in her slumber, Jason felt the brutal nightmares through her aura.