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“That’s a neat bit of work,” Farrah said, taking in the Network’s Sydney branch with her magical senses. Standing outside the building, she observed the magical array shielding the upper levels. “Whoever put this in place did a great job of working with the low magic area and interweaving low-level magical formations. You’d still need spirit coins to maintain it with the magical density this low, but it must be very efficient.”

“By necessity,” Asya said. “The Sydney branch doesn't have its own source of spirit coins and is reliant on the International Committee. The astral space that the Lyon branch was hiding will be used to set up spirit coin farms, using records left behind centuries ago.”

“I can help you set those up,” Farrah said. “Not for free, mind you.”

“We were rather hoping that one of you would have some insight,” Asya said happily.

For the first time, Jason let himself be taken into the Network’s local headquarters, with himself, his sister, Asya and Farrah going through a conventional security sweep and being given visitor lanyards.

“This is an uncanny feeling,” Erika said. “The months I spent trying to find out what happened to you. The truth was more absurd than I could have imagined, and now I’m going into the belly of the beast.”

Jason grabbed her hand, giving it a reassuring squeeze. The elevator rapidly rose up through the building, Jason feeling it as they entered the area of the security arrays. Without Farrah's expertise, he would still be hesitant about entering. Annabeth Tilden and Ketevan Arziani met them at the elevator as they reached the upper floors.

“Congratulations on the promotion, Anna,” Jason said after introductions were made.

Jason has already learned of the shifting circumstances in the Network’s Sydney branch. With the death of Keith and the disappearance of Miranda, two slots had opened on the eight-person Steering Committee. Anna, already in line for the promotion, was immediately stepped up. Her deputy, Ketevan, now occupied Annabeth’s former position as Director of Operations.

The second committee seat had been filled by someone transferred from the International Committee as an unofficial liaison. The Sydney branch’s access to the two outworlders was of eminent importance and granting the International Committee some access and influence opened up better access to resources.

“I just wanted to thank you again for saving my life,” Ketevan said to Jason. “If there’s ever anything I can do for you, please let me know.”

“Well,” Jason said, “I think my friend here would love a look at that grid of yours.”

“I wouldn’t mind meeting whoever set up the arrays here, too,” Farrah added.

“Easily done,” Ketevan said. “Our magical emplacements team normally don’t like to hear from the operations side but I’m certain they’ll be eager to pick your brain for otherworldly knowledge.”

“The intention was to finalise the agreement today,” Annabeth said, “but there’s been something of an issue.”

“Is this to do with me?” Farrah asked.

“Actually, no,” Annabeth said. “The IC and the Steering Committee had approved the final terms you worked out with Asya. The issue is that the Americans and the Chinese won’t let the agreement go through until they’ve had a chance to send representatives to meet with you both. They both have teams on route to Australia as we speak.”

“They want a chance to poach us for themselves before we make a deal with the International Committee?” Jason asked.

“That’s exactly the case,” Annabeth said unhappily.

“They have the pull to shut down the agreement until then?”

“Not in terms of codified authority,” Ketevan said. “The United States and Chinese branches are both more unified on a national level than most other regions of the world and they've used collective resources to incentivise high-value members into joining their branches. Add in that they've been doing it for a century and those two countries represent a massively disproportionate section of the magical materials supply. This is especially true of spirit coins since they spare no expense to recruit anyone with a looting power.”

“Those abilities are inevitably worth whatever it takes to recruit the people that have them,” Annabeth said. “You will be even more valuable, so you can anticipate a generous offer.”

“The International Committee would appreciate the chance to counter thereafter,” Asya said.

“That’s annoying,” Jason said. “I want to get this settled so we can get down to the business of training people up and taking monsters down.”

“What we can do today is get some of the legal issues out of the way,” Ketevan said. “Firstly, we’ve established a legal identity for you, Miss Hurin. We can take you through the details and give you the appropriate documentation today.”

“I need your help to exist?” Farrah asked, then looked to Jason. He nodded and they both leaned against the wall, to the confusion of the others. Farrah initiated her ability, gaining an understand of identity documentation from Jason.

“Okay, I understand,” she said.

“I don’t,” Erika said.

“Farrah has a power that lets her learn things that I already know.”

“Is that a special thing that the two of you have?” Asya asked.

“It requires a certain level of trust to work,” Farrah said. “Similar to entering Jason’s magical space. Since he’s the only person in this world that completely trusts me, he’s the only one it will work with here.”

“We’ll also have you sign secrecy agreements,” Ketevan said. “All of this will involve government officials. Miss Hurin’s documentation involves government bureaucracy, obviously, and the secrecy agreements are made in accordance with the Official Secrets and Unlawful Soundings section of the Crimes Act. Once that's done, we'll be free to tell you everything about magic without restriction since you will then be legally liable if you do the same.”

“This is the template we intend to use for your entire family,” Annabeth explained. “We suggest that once they’ve signed the agreement, we run them through the same structured information seminar we place new inductees to the Network through. It's basically an eight-hour introduction to the magical world, and we have one tailored for the families of Network members. Once everyone has signed, we can set up a session.”

“I’d like that,” Erika said. “Jason has told us a lot but he’s been all over the shop with his explanations. Some structure would be appreciated.”

“It would be best if everyone else could sign up together,” Ketevan said. “Mr Asano did contact us to ask for a preliminary briefing just for you Mrs Asano.”

“You did?” Erika asked Jason.

“You’re going to be in charge of family wrangling,” Jason told her. “That works best if you’re ahead of the curve.”

“If you’re going to do a full seminar,” Asya said, “I might have my parents inducted as well. Since I’ll be staying with them for a while, it would be better to avoid any unfortunate surprises.”

“We’d also like to brief you, Mr Asano, on the fallout from events surrounding the France excursion,” Annabeth said.

“Well, how about we get the paperwork out of the way first,” Jason said. “Then Erika can take Farrah clothes shopping while you get me up to speed on the rest.”

“Oh, so you’re just going to send the women off clothes shopping while the important man does the important work?” Erika asked.

“Yep. Begone, woman.”

“You know sexism humour is tired and lazy, right?” Erika asked.

“Sorry,” Jason said. “I can take Farrah shopping; just give me back the money I budgeted.”

“Oh, you meant ‘begone woman’ ironically,” Erika said. “I just didn’t get it. That’s funny stuff.”

***

The detainment suite in which Kylie Chen had been placed was more like a motel room than a prison cell. Aside from the lack of a window, it had a bed, fridge and bathroom. A chair to sit in and watch the decently sized television or play the attached game console. The television had access to various streaming services, but otherwise, there was no internet connection.

Kylie was far from in any mood to binge-watch a TV series. After discovering that she'd been used as part of a plan that killed several Network personnel – people she knew – she had been trapped in a prison of self-recrimination. She went through the events that brought her to this point over and over in her mind.

The Frenchman’s cell had been far less nice than hers, much closer to the prison model. It also had more secure magical protections, which she had unsealed using the instructions provided by the committeewoman.

Despite Miranda Ellis’ assurances, Kylie had been wary of the French prisoner. In most cases she withheld her prodigious senses, refraining from spying on people’s emotions. More than concerns about privacy, knowing the true emotions of the people around her had always been a disheartening experience. She did not hold back against the Frenchman, however.

Examining him as she read the packet Miranda had given her to pass along, she sensed the exact moment he resolved to kill her, escaping before he had the chance. Being category three, he had not anticipated her having the perceptual strength to read his emotions.

She had raised the alarm herself, knowing that she would be punished for her terrible mistake, but Miranda’s preparations had been thorough. The Frenchman was gone by the time security dealt with the impediments Miranda had put in place, although not without killing a few of them on his way out.

Since then, Kylie had been dwelling on the fact that if she’d read Miranda’s emotions, she might not have been taken in so easily. Miranda had apparently known of her aversion, as well as the fear of Asano that had driven her to accept Miranda’s plan so readily.

The door opened and she looked at it curiously, as it was off-schedule for her meals. When she saw the man that stepped through, her blood ran cold. Asano didn't move further into the room, standing just inside the door. Kylie jumped out of her seat, retreating to the opposite side of the room from Asano.

“Can I sit?” he asked with an awkward smile.

“If I say no, will you leave?” she asked.

“If that’s what you want,” he said. “I asked to see you after I was briefed on the recent excitement. My sister and my friend are out shopping and I had a little time, but if you don’t want to speak to me, I’ll go.”

He waited, and when she didn’t respond for a long time, he opened the door to leave.

“Wait,” she said hesitantly and he turned his head back to look at her.

“You’re sure?” he asked. She nodded and he closed the door again before moving into the room. He turned the seat around so that he could face her if she sat on the bed, moving it away a little to giver her space. She didn’t sit on the bed, instead retreating into the corner like a scared animal.

“Have they told you what happened since you turned yourself in?” he asked.

After her experiences with Miranda and the Frenchman, she did not hesitate to explore him with her senses and was startled by what she found. He felt profoundly different from the last time she had seen him. More than just a different person, he felt like a different kind of entity altogether. It was to the point that she suspected him of being an impostor, some kind of bizarre interrogation tactic. It didn’t matter since she had already told them everything, whether they believed it or not.

Looking closer she felt something in his aura. It was an aspect of his aura she had noticed before that her instincts told her would be difficult, if not impossible to replicate. It was like an authentication mark on his soul, unchanging even when his soul underwent a grand transfiguration. The man sitting in front of her was Jason Asano, but transformed from the man she met less than a week earlier.

Once she believed it was him, she started realising the similarities, alongside the differences. His aura was still domineering and resolute, with dangerous and powerful undercurrents. More powerful than ever, it felt like a solid wall in front of her. Even her powerful senses were unable to penetrate it and grasp his emotional state.

“What happened to you?” she asked.

“People had my friend and I had to become something new to get her back.”

She didn't ask if he succeeded. She would never put herself in between that man and whatever it was he wanted and would pity anyone that did.

“Did the Frenchman come after you?” she asked. She still had some desperate hope that Miranda’s plan and her part of it was at least partially authentic and that she wasn’t just a fool and a traitor.

“No,” Jason said. “As best they’ve been able to figure, the person who convinced you to release him never intended to send him after me. That’s what you said the idea was, right?”

She nodded.

“Miranda Ellis and the man she released haven’t been heard from since,” Jason said. “Rather than send the man for a second round with me, she had a bomb placed on the Network plane carrying me to France. I lived, obviously, but eight Network personnel did not. The entire flight crew, most of the security team and one Steering Committee member.”

She flinched.

“I didn’t know,” she said. “They don’t tell me anything, in here.”

“Did you know that the Frenchman killed more Network personnel as he escaped?”

“They told me,” she said. “Is that why you’re here? To get revenge by telling me about all the people my mistake got killed.”

“You feel responsible for the people on the plane?”

“If I’d read her aura, I might have known that she was deceiving me.”

“Why didn’t you?”

“Because people can be vile inside their own heads.”

“Ah,” Jason said. “Your sensitivity must almost be akin to mind-reading, except you feel people's baser instincts instead of their loftier thoughts. You get all our ugly urges without the higher ideals that keep us from savaging each other like animals. Or capitalists.”

“Not yours,” she said. “Your aura was already too strong, too controlled. All I caught was glimpses of your emotions. Now I get nothing but what you let people see. Your aura is unlike anything I’ve even seen.”

“That makes you all the more scared,” Jason realised. They both knew that her emotions were an open book to him.

“Why are you here?” she asked again.

“I’m not sure myself, to be honest. They told me about you and I felt compelled to see you. Realising how scared you were of me in that dimensional space shook me a little. Not as much as you, obviously. I’m not responsible for your decisions. I am, at least partially, though, the impetus that led you to where you are now.”

He rubbed his chin thoughtfully.

“We’re all responsible for our own choices,” he said. “Inevitably we make bad ones. Sometimes we pay for that and sometimes others pay for us. I’ve been thinking a lot about my own choices, lately. The people I’ve killed and the smaller number I’ve let live. Once you’ve done it enough, killing becomes easy, in the moment. Satisfying, even. Vanquishing your enemies can be intoxicating.”

He paused in recollection, Kylie only watching him and not speaking.

“I was on a job, early in my career,” he said. “It wasn’t much more than a year ago, although it feels like forever. There was a man that tried to kill me and I let him live. I was still doing that, then. This man went on to be a henchman for a local crime lord and rose up the ranks rather quickly, being an essence user. When the crime lord had me kidnapped, later, I don’t know if the he was aware of my connection to the man.”

Jason got up and went to the fridge, opening it up and taking a bottle of water.

“Do you mind?” he asked. She shook her head.

“Thanks,” he said, returning to his seat.

“The Frenchman wasn’t the first silver-ranker to kidnap me,” Jason said. “Sorry, that’s a category three. I was category one back then, so I didn’t resist as well as I did the Frenchman. Of course, that time I was still kidnapped but I got my arse kicked first, so maybe there’s something to be said for going quietly.”

Jason shook his head.

“Anyway,” he continued, “I was quite thoroughly at the mercy of this crime lord, and he was not a man of mercy. In fact, he had a rather unpleasant device designed to not just torment my body but also my soul. Their plan was to hand both over to a… well, that doesn’t matter. Suffice to say, I was in a bad situation.”

He opened the bottle of water and took a sip.

“One of the people guarding the location I was held turned out to be the man whose life I’d once spared. He chose to run off and tell my friends where I was, in return for not executing him when I had every chance and right to do so. His sneaking off panicked the people holding me and they had a falling out, giving me the opportunity to escape. Otherwise, I never would have been able to endure what they put me through.”

“Why are you telling me this?” she asked.

“You got the Network’s people killed, so your fate is theirs to decide. I’ve asked Annabeth Tilden to be lenient with you, for what it’s worth. The choice to be merciful saved my life once and that’s a path I’d like to find my way back to. Maybe one day you’ll have the chance to make a better choice and help others, instead of hurt them.”

“That doesn’t help me,” she said.

“I didn’t come here to help you,” he said. “I had a sense that speaking to you might assist me in coalescing some thoughts that have been floating around in my head for a while.”

“Did it?”

“Does it matter?” Jason asked, getting up out of the seat. “As you said, it doesn’t help you.”

He returned the chair to the position he found it. Kylie had not moved from her place in the corner. He knocked on the door and it was opened from the outside. He paused as he was about to leave, turning his head back towards her, still in the corner.

“I’m sorry I derailed you quite so badly, Miss Chen,” he told her. “We can never see all the consequences of our actions. Something we’ve both learned the hard way, I suppose.”

In the corridor, Michael Aram was hurrying towards him as the security guard closed the door behind him.

“Mr Aram,” Jason said with a smile. “Good to see you well.”

“Anyone who saves my life can call me Mike,” Aram said. “We’ve just got a category three hit on the grid. Kete… Ms Arziani was wondering if you and your friend were interested in jumping in.”

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Shirtaloon (Travis Deverell)

  • Australia

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