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Shade informed the family members who were variously preparing dinner, looking after infants or watching recordings that Jason was about to emerge and they should gather in the bar lounge. As such, they were waiting for him when he stepped out, Farrah right behind him.

“Firstly, my previous statement about asking questions before watching all the recordings stands. Second, this is Farrah. You should all recognise her by now. Let me be plain in stating that she is family. Anyone who has a problem with that can get off my boat. Third, I need most of you to sod off, so you’re getting off the boat anyway. I have important stuff to do and can’t be dealing with you every bloody hour of every bloody day.”

Most of the occupants were herded off the boat by Shade, although Jason made sure to give his dad a hug first. Erika and her family were currently living onboard, so they stayed, along with Asya. Once peace descended on the houseboat, Jason, Asya, Farrah and Erika moved to the kitchen where Jason started assisting Erika's dinner preparations. Brother and sister side by side behind the counter, finding an old, easy familiarity.

“So,” Jason said to Asya. “Did Erika shake the story of my France trip out of you?”

“I didn’t do any shaking,” Erika said, only for Jason to give her a sideways look.

“There may have been some mild jostling,” she confessed. “What she told me was insane, though. Aeroplane bombs, kidnapping, secret societies. Did you really kill that many people?”

“Yeah,” Jason said grimly.

Erika nudged him with her arm.

“Are you okay, little brother?”

“I’m heading in that direction,” he said, with a glance at Farrah.

“And you were kidnapped?” Erika asked Farrah.

“Yes,” Farrah said. “Lucky for me, they didn’t have any of the magical torture techniques from our world. An essence user can withstand mundane techniques well enough if you’ve been trained to. Especially if they’re trying to break you down mentally instead of physically.”

“You never trained me like that,” Jason said.

“You wanted us to torture you?” Farrah asked.

“No, now that you say,” Jason said. “How did they catch you in the first place? You should have been able to take those guys apart.”

“When I woke up,” Farrah said, “my brain was telling me it had only been moments but my soul had a longer story to tell. That was disorienting, to say the least, and I wasn't thinking clearly. Plus, I was in a newly-formed body and I wasn't human anymore, so it all felt very strange. My old racial gifts were gone and I felt all these blessings ready to evolve my new outworlder ones. In the state I was in, I made what turned out to be a very bad choice.”

“You accepted them all at once,” Jason surmised.

“Exactly,” Farrah said. “I wasn't exactly in a sound state in the first place and six gift evolutions at the same time were too much and I passed out. “When I woke up I was collared and in a box.”

“I’m sorry about that,” Asya said. “They were rogue elements of my organisation.”

“That’s okay,” Farrah said, to Jason’s surprise. “I’ve seen churches and Adventure Society branches go rotten from the inside. So has Jason, for that matter. The mission doesn’t stop being worth doing just because some of the people doing it go astray.”

“I appreciate that,” Asya said. “The Adventure Society are the people responsible for fighting monsters in your world?”

“That’s right. I’d appreciate learning some more about how you do things here.”

Asya explained the nature of the Network, with Jason occasionally contributing to help translate concepts for Asya or Farrah to understand better.

“Asya is here to nail down an agreement for working with them, so I can get to the monster hunting,” Jason said. “I also agreed to teach some of their people the things that you, Gary and Rufus taught me. I’m assuming you’ll want in as well.”

“Why don’t you just join their organisation?” Farrah asked.

“The Network isn’t as open to independent action as the Adventure Society,” Jason said. “They tell you what to do, how to do it and expect you to obey.”

“Why would anyone agree to that?” Farrah asked.

“Because they control essence distribution,” Jason said.

“Ah.”

“This is why I’ve been negotiating an agreement more in line with Adventure Society standards,” Jason said.

“I definitely want to be part of that, then, yes,” Farrah said. She shared a smile with Jason as they sensed the elation in Asya’s aura. After all the trouble the Lyon branch went through to forcibly extract information from the two outworlders, she was going to close the deal on voluntary cooperation. If the Lyon branch hadn’t been so paranoid about their secret astral space, things might have gone very differently.

“I was thinking that we could take a trip to Sydney tomorrow,” Jason said. “Finalise the details, take a look at who you want us to train, and where. Erika, I’d appreciate you helping Farrah to get some clothes.”

“That works for me,” Asya said. “The International and Sydney Steering Committees have essentially agreed to the current draft of the agreement and they empowered me to finalise the arrangements here unless you wanted to change things up. I daresay that the inclusion of Miss Hurin is large enough a revision to put it off, but I can’t imagine them being anything but happy.”

“They bloody well should be,” Jason said. “Farrah’s probably forgotten more than I’ll ever know about magic. So, we’ll meet you in Sydney tomorrow, Asya?”

“Actually, I’d like to travel with you, if I may. I’m staying with my parents for a little while in Castle Heads. The Network wants to maintain someone locally and I was the natural pick.”

“Do your parents know about magic? Jason asked.

“No, but I’ll have a wing of the house to myself, so privacy won’t be an issue.”

“Oh, just a spare wing they happened to have hanging off the side of the house,” Jason said. “We should probably take a look at the details of the revised agreement.”

The current state of the agreement was dominated by loot distribution. Jason was allowed to keep any personally looted items and received merit points for anything looted by others using his ability. He could trade in loot for more merit points or his merit points for any materials the international committee had access to.

“I like it,” Jason said. “This way, the Network gets the bulk of the items, which is what it needs, and I get a massive pool to select the items I need from. Who determines the merit value of goods?”

“We actually have a valuation system in place, for trading between branches,” Asya said. “America exports a lot of gun essences, for example, which is why we have so many amongst our members.”

“That seems fair,” Jason said.

***

Dinner was a large affair, with Erika’s family, Farrah, Jason and Asya. Hiro and Taika came back, having been out scouting potential locations for his land investment. Hiro explained his plan of building an Asano family compound to the others over dinner.

“That’s a good idea,” Farrah said. “If you're not going to go for combat abilities, you should get Jason to give you an essence set suited for wide-area arrays.”

“I don’t know what that is,” Hiro said.

“It’s long term or permanent magical installations,” Farrah said. “That’s my magic specialty, so I can teach you all about them.”

“Essences are the magic cubes that give you powers, right?” Hiro said. “Are yours suited to that kind of magic?”

“No,” Farrah said. “I have volcano powers.”

“I was envious of her powers from the outset,” Jason said. “She is seriously terrifying. It’s awesome and I haven’t even seen her fight flat knacker yet.”

“We haven’t really seen you fight, either,” Asya said to Jason. “All we have is the footage of you fighting the category three, and the magical recording of your fight with the hydra.”

“Hydra,” Emi said. “Like what Heracles fought?”

“Yep,” Jason said, waggling his eyebrows at her. “It was a river hydra, with poison breath and regenerating heads.”

“Did you cut the heads off and burn the stumps?” Emi asked. “You know that Iolaus was the one who did that, right? He was Heracles’ nephew.”

“You can be my assistant, Emi,” Jason said.

“I bet I’m way better than stupid Iolaus,” she sulked.

“What’s a category three?” Farrah asked.

“A silver-ranker,” Jason said. “He got the jump on me, but he wanted me alive and was Greenstone tier.”

“You beat a silver-ranker solo?”

“It was more of a no-score draw,” Jason said. “He knocked me out and left me with his lackeys while he went off to get healing.”

“What kind of idiot tries to take an affliction specialist alive?” Farrah asked. “You got kidnapped? Didn’t they collar you?”

Jason’s eyes moved in Asya’s direction.

“I’ll give you the details later,” he told Farrah.

“You live a crazy life, Jason,” Ian said. “Planes exploding, kidnapping, rolling gunfights with bikies. I don’t want my daughter put in that kind of danger.”

“I’m afraid the world will be facing that kind of danger, sooner or later,” Asya said. “My organisation is doing their best to hold back the tide, but magic is rising in our world. It's reaching the point where we predict that containing all the monsters will become impossible sometime in the next decade. The truth is, we don't contain most of them now.”

“You don’t?” Jason asked.

“The grid only extends over the landmasses,” Asya explained, “and the surface of the Earth is seventy percent water. Sea monsters are real and we’ve been covering them up for centuries. Also, every year we’re covering up more and more sightings of monsters that have spawned on the moon. The people who think the moon landing was faked aren’t even close to the real conspiracy.”

“Moon monsters?” Jason said. “That’s awesome. Is there a secret Network base on the dark side of the moon?”

“No,” Asya said. “Not that they’ve told me, anyway.”

“That’s disappointing.”

“And now we’re having a serious conversation about moon monsters,” Erika said. “Jason, you were always a source of weirdness but this is getting out of hand.”

“Can I be your assistant when I get magic powers?” Emi asked.

“How old are you?” Farrah asked her.

“I’m twelve.”

“You still have a few years until you’ll get essences. Have you started her training yet, Jason?”

Emi’s eyes went wide as saucers as her head swivelled to look at Jason.

“Absolutely not,” Erika said.

“It wouldn’t be anything strenuous,” Jason said. “A little martial arts and some free running. Really, it would just be some good exercise.”

“Farrah,” Erika said, “didn’t you say that your training involved torture resistance?”

“We wouldn’t do that,” Farrah said. “We didn’t do it for Jason. We could tell that he was soft.”

“Hey…”

“Although he did turn out to be startlingly diligent for someone who seems like he’d give up almost immediately,” Farrah continued.

“Oh, come on.”

“Frivolous,” she carried on. “Flighty. The constant barrage of inane chatter.”

“This is just getting hurtful.”

“You meet him and think he’d fold like a camp chair,” Farrah said. “We have this friend, Rufus, though. He knew from the beginning that Jason had what it took.”

“Finally,” Jason said.

“Rufus is the sexy one, right?” Ian said, having seen Rufus in the recordings.

“Really Ian?” Jason asked.

“What?” Ian said. “I’m secure enough in my sexuality to acknowledge a beautiful man.”

“Every damn universe,” Jason muttered.

***

Sunday morning still found the Evans-Asano family lodging in the houseboat. Erika had talked about going back to their home after Jason’s return but her husband, daughter and the idea of giving up cloud beds brought her around.

When Asya arrived for their day trip to Sydney, Jason, Ian and Emi were nowhere to be found. They managed to find Farrah, watching Jason’s recordings in the media room, but she didn’t know where they went.

“Shade,” Erika said. “Where are my brother and my suspiciously absent husband and daughter?”

“They’ve gone out.” Shade said.

“Out?”

“Yes, Mrs Asano.”

“I don’t suppose that you’d like to elaborate?”

“Correct,” Shade said. “I would not like to elaborate.”

“Meaning Jason is dong something dodgy and asked you to cover.”

“I prefer to think of it as maintaining security without compromising privacy.”

“Shade, if you don’t tell me where my daughter is right now, I’m going to have Asya and Farrah here teach me how to use magic and then shake the shadow out of you until you’re a pale, skinny white guy who I will then proceed to beat with a cricket bat.”

“That isn’t a plausible scenario, Mrs Asano.”

“You want to test me, shadow man? I don’t care who your dad is or what you’re made of because I will find something to shove my boot right up into.”

“Mrs Asano, you’re wearing deck sandals. Also, if you go to the rear deck, you will find your errant family members returning.”

The three women made the way to the rear of the houseboat and immediately spotted a trio of figures flying several metres above the water. The water below was being disturbed by the air apparently pushed out by heavy devices on their arms and backs. The three figures dropped down onto the deck, where the jet suits dissolved into darkness that disappeared into Emi, Ian and Jason’s shadows.

“What the actual hell is going on?” Erika asked.

“I don’t think there’s an actual…”

Jason was silenced by the death glare that came from his sister, grateful when it was turned on her husband.

“Emi found this video on the internet,” Ian said. “It was these mountain rescue guys in England using jets suits and we wondered if Shade could turn into something like that. It turns out he could.”

“You let our daughter go flying off in one of those things?”

“It was perfectly safe,” Ian said. “Shade took over when we were going to crash into the water or a tree or whatever. If we were going to. That totally didn’t happen.”

“You’re meant to be the responsible adult,” she told him, waving her arm at Jason and Emi. “It’s clearly never going to be these two.”

“Hey,” Jason said, then held up his hands in surrender as Erika turned her gaze back to him. She returned her glare to her husband.

“What were you thinking?” she asked.

“That jet suits are super sweet,” he whimpered honestly.

“And that justifies the danger you put our daughter in?”

“She wasn’t in any danger, Eri,” Jason said.

“You keep out of this,” Eri told him.

“No, Eri, I won’t,” Jason said. She open her mouth to bite back but something in his eyes stopped her cold. It wasn’t hostile but it was unflinching.

“In the care of me and Shade,” Jason continued, “Emi is safer in the middle of a gunfight than alone in the playground of her school. I'm done playing by Earth rules, Erika. Magic is real, magic is awesome and it's the new reality you live in, like it or not. I know it seems strange and alien and dangerous but it's the thing that will keep our family safe. You will never catch a disease that can't be cured. You’ll never be permanently disabled in an accident. A hundred years from now, your family, your daughter, will be alive and well. When you’re sixty, you’ll look better than you did at thirty. If you want to give Emi a sibling at that point, you still can.”

He glanced at Farrah, who gave him an encouraging nod.

“It’s a time of miracles, big sister. I’ve been focused on the dangers but I came back to show you wonders. I got distracted and lost track of that somewhere along the way. I want you to trust me, Erika. Life is about to get amazing.”

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Shirtaloon (Travis Deverell)

  • Australia

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