In the office at her restaurant, Erika was talking to Jason through an incarnation of Shade. After weeks of such communication, it was starting to feel normal which, when she thought about, was rather concerning.
“I told him you had contacts,” Erika said. “What was I supposed to say? That your eyes changed when you became a gestalt entity of body and spirit? I don’t even know what that means.”
"Well," Jason said, "it basically means that… actually, I'm still kind of figuring it out."
“When will you be back?”
“Not until I pick up Emi at school. Will you be coming to the houseboat for dinner?”
“Yeah, although I’m concerned about bringing him to the houseboat. Ian hasn’t forgiven me yet for making him go home and give up the cloud bed.”
“You know that you’re welcome to keep staying here.”
"I just want to maintain some normalcy," Erika said. "Is that so bad?"
“I get it,” Jason said. “I just know from experience that when you stop obsessing over normal and give yourself over to magic, life gets amazing.”
“You realise you’re starting to sound religious when you talk like that.”
“Speaking of religious, did anyone tell Great Aunt Marjory about magic yet?”
“No, and we’re not going to,” Erika said. “If she finds out that you came back from the dead, heal the sick and can walk on water, she is not going to keep the secret. Will anyone on talkback radio believe her? Probably not, but she’s already intimated that the devil sent you back. I don’t want her roaming around town yelling ‘false prophet’ at passers-by."
“You know, Jase, what you said about giving over to magic. It’s not all good. It’s getting harder to go around living my life with everything I’ve learned. How do I treat everything as normal when I know about teleporting, secret monsters and alternate worlds. You’re a sorcerer. It suddenly hit me the other day that you can cure cancer with a literal magic spell. How am I meant to go around living an ordinary life like that?”
“You’re not. There’s a clock running on ordinary life for everyone. The difference is that you get a head start, with the time, knowledge and resources to get ready. I’ve just been waiting for you to accept that so we can move on to the next step.”
“How’s he doing?”
“He’s monstering it,” Jason said. “I don’t know who taught that guy to fight but he can fight. A lot like Farrah, actually, so she’s helping him adapt to his new strength and speed.”
When they had discussed essences with Taika, he had ended up not going for the combination Jason had picked out for him. After discussing his options, he had forgone the renewal essence and the immortal confluence it would bring. He had picked out for himself the more economical combination of might, swift and bird that produced the garuda confluence.
“Garuda is the devourer of snakes, bro. That’s hardcore.”
“I hope there’s more to your decision than that,” Farrah had told him.
“Bro, Garuda is the fastest and strongest warrior there is. Speed, strength, skill. No offence, but those powers you picked out would just make me the big, tough, slow guy. I don’t want to accuse you of looking at me and immediately thinking that but you looked at me and immediately thought that.”
“That’s the kind of reasoning we wanted to hear,” Farrah said approvingly. “Also, don’t call me bro.”
Farrah had been concerned that the bird essence might produce some abilities that were less combative and more like the power to talk to birds. That was fine when there were intelligent, magical birds flapping about, but seagulls were less likely to be a combat asset and more likely to keep asking for chips.
Jason had traded with the Network to obtain the much rarer wing essence. The resulting combination would still produce the garuda essence, with a result very much in line with Humphrey. He also had the might and wing essences leading to a supernatural creature confluence, in his case, dragon.
Jason and Farrah had anticipated a power set similar to Humphrey’s, producing a mobile, high-resilience brawler. They had only awakened around a third of Taika’s abilities, but the results, thus far, were falling completely into line. Clive had taught Jason about shaping a power set not by seeking out specific powers, but by aiming for powers within a certain scope.
This was proving out with Taika. Jason was deeply familiar with the Humphrey-style group role, while Farrah knew how to fight like Taika, adapting his approach to his new abilities. His performance had helped convince the Network to grant him a spot as an external auxiliary to their tactical teams. He lacked the independence of Jason and Farrah but had gotten to go face to face with monsters. After the usual reaction of being taken aback when faced with a living, drooling creature, he started going to town on the iron-rank monsters.
There was quite a crowd when Taika had undergone his essence rituals. Jason's family all knew that essences were coming to them and were anxious to see what it looked like. At first, they were quite enthusiastic, up until Jason was hosing the gunk off the newly iron-rank Taika on the rear deck. It was universally agreed that it was the worse thing any of them had ever smelled.
“So, are you spending your day training Taika and the magic soldiers of tomorrow?” Erika asked.
“No, I’ve largely offloaded that on Farrah. She has more experience with the training methods than I do, but I translate concepts better. We’ve fallen into a rhythm where she does the initial training and I help clarify things to the recruits.”
“What are you doing with your day, then?” Erika asked. “Clinic?”
“Yep. I have to say, it feels good to be helping people without killing things. I did a lot of that in my early days over in the other world. I kind of lost track of that as life took over and it’s nice to get back to it.”
“I’m proud of you, little brother,” Erika said. “It’s the one part of all this that isn’t horrifying.”
“It can’t be the only part. I mean, look at how awesome Shade is. He’s like a phone, except snide and somehow British.”
“And flies my daughter around in a rocket suit. Which you have not done again, right?”
“Of course he hasn’t,” Jason said. “Have you, Shade?”
“I find it best not to involve myself in family disputes,” Shade said.
“See?” Jason asked.
“That was not a denial.”
“I didn’t see you complaining when he was a bunch of horses running along the beach at sunset.”
“I don’t think you’re allowed to take horses on that beach,” Erika said weakly.
“The medication will make you feel a little loopy,” the nurse said. “You might also have some mild hallucinations. Most patients report seeing a red glow, possibly some other colours.”
“Are you sure I can’t go in with her?” the girl’s mother asked.
“I’m afraid no one can be in the treatment room,” the nurse said. “That’s for legal and medical reasons. You did sign the non-disclosure, yes?”
“I did,” the mother said. “It was very strongly-worded.”
The nurse glanced over at the receptionist, who nodded.
“We’re working with experimental procedures,” the nurse said. “The company is protecting millions, sometimes billions in investment. We’re able to provide you with free care only because you’ve agreed to provide testimonials once the product rolls out. I’m sure you’ll be more than enthusiastic once you see the results for yourself.”
Several minutes later, the young girl was sitting upright on an examination chair, disoriented from a potion that would dull her senses and leave her memory hazy. Her head was held in place by a head frame, like that of an optometrist, on which she was resting her chin. She was also holding onto handles on the side of the frame, which helped her not topple over from the potion-induced dizziness.
“That’s excellent,” the nurse said. “You may hear something behind you but I need you to keep your head in the frame and not look back, alright?”
“Okay,” the girl agreed in a doped-up, sing-song voice.
Behind the exam chair, a hidden door opened in the wall and Jason stepped silently into the room, his cloak of stars already in place. That way, if he was spotted, it would fit into the hallucination story the clinic was selling. Since his display at the children’s hospital, numerous individuals had subsequently come forward, claiming to have been healed by, or even be the Starlight Angel. With the waters already muddied, a few extra stories wouldn’t blip on the radar.
Jason murmured his spell as quietly as he could get away with and still have it work.
“Feed me your sins.”
“Ooh, I see the colours,” the girl said. “I feel funny.”
“You’re doing great, sweetie,” the nurse said.
After he was done, Jason retreated through the door, which closed silently behind him. All through the clinic, other essence users were doing similar things. they had even taken to wearing dark cloaks with sequins to further the Starlight Angel narrative.
Jason was the only person at the clinic whose cleansing power actually replenished his mana rather than burning through it. This made him one of the clinic’s most valuable assets. The ability to clear out poisons and toxins was valuable, with the inability to heal injuries his only major shortfall.
Dealing with highly visible wounds was a trickier prospect for the clinic than largely invisible afflictions. They did not deal with normal injuries, as that would rapidly get them exposed, leaving such cases to ordinary hospitals. Instead, they specialised in ‘experimental procedures’ that would allow otherwise permanent injuries to recover fully over time.
The clinic did have an emergency department, where arrangements had been made to redirect the worst injuries before they reached a hospital. Those cases had a frequent occurrence of the person’s injuries turning out to be not as bad as the initial EMT assessment.
After Jason was done, the girl was given a bed in the recovery ward for observation. This allowed the staff to watch for any adverse reactions to the magic while adding enough medical rigmarole to make the results seem like less of a miracle cure.
The private clinic was almost the size of a full hospital, but operating without fanfare or even signage. Network-affiliated personnel in hospitals around the country made quiet referrals and transfers to clinics all around the country, making sure any inconvenient medical records discreetly disappeared.
Jason increasingly spent his mornings and early afternoons at the Sydney clinic while Farrah settled in at the Network’s training facility outside the city. In the afternoon they would portal back, pick up Emi from school and do their own daily training routine, much of which had to be hidden from prying eyes.
They would start with Emi in Castle Bluff Park for physical training, followed by meditation. They would then return her to the houseboat, her home or her mother’s restaurant before engaging in heavier training. Weights could be done on the houseboat, while the more extreme mobility training required portalling to a remote location.
Farrah had claimed a section of ground on Ken’s property and used her Earth-shaping power to create an outlandish obstacle course that looked more like an art installation than anything navigable by people. Ken would often watch, astounded by the acrobatic prowess of the two bronze-rankers.
Any of these processes could be and were interrupted by dimensional incursions which, given the scope of the whole country, were taking place every day. The most common were category one incursions, which Jason didn’t participate in. Farrah did in the course of training up recruits, who were exposed to carefully curated iron-rank monsters.
Most days had a category two somewhere in the country, with Jason participating in almost all of them so that the Network could make use of his communication and looting services. It didn’t take long before he had participated in incursions across each of the eight states and territories, showering riches down on the country’s various branches.
Jason and Farrah both took the lead in category three incursions. Rather than take on the silver-rank monsters they were best suited for, they started going for less ideal matches to push themselves. Jason only did this to a limited degree, as many silvers still provided him with plenty of challenge.
Farrah would go further, taking on creatures like yowies where it was not her skill but her resource management that was pushed to the limit. Her power set gave her the strength to overpower even the stronger silver-rank monsters in short order, but doing so exhausted her reserves. The challenges that would help her cross the line into silver were not ones of power but of endurance.
Weeks became months as winter moved into spring. Jason and Farrah settled into life on Earth, with Farrah’s façade of being alright following her ordeal slowly becoming reality. They did not lose track of the idea of finding a way back to the other world, however, as they went over the large collection of astral magic books they had every night.
Spending the increasingly pleasant evenings on the open top deck of the houseboat, they studied the books together. Farrah had the superior grasp of theory but Jason was the astral magic specialist. He also had the advantage of much of his learning coming through the same books they were studying. Clive had seen little point in educating Jason in astral magic that would soon be obsolete when Knowledge had provided such an unparalleled asset.
Jason had the original books on astral magic given to him by Knowledge, which were riddled with notes made by Clive both before and during their time in the astral space.
"Astral magic isn't my area," Farrah said, "but even I can tell this is far more advanced than what we had in the past."
“That’s what Clive said,” Jason told her.
“How smart is that guy?” she asked, shaking her head in disbelief as she read through his notes. “This is beyond advanced and he deciphered it like it’s nothing. Every book I pick up is full of brilliant insights. The guy’s a monster.”
“Good thing, too,” Jason said. “He’s the reason that Greenstone wasn’t wiped out and a bunch of diamond-rank super golems aren’t rampaging across your world. I just wish I knew if they made it out alive.”
“They did,” a voice drifted up to the top deck. Jason and Farrah had both sensed a person on the marina, but the unfamiliar, normal-rank aura had caused them to dismiss it. They went to the edge of the deck to look at the person standing on the dock in front of the houseboat.
It was a woman who looked around thirty, with alabaster skin and long, ruby hair. She was wearing a white summer dress with orange and yellow accents.
“Permission to come aboard?” she asked.
“Who are you?” Jason asked.
“Sorry,” she said. “We’ll have to do this later.”
“Do what?” Jason asked, then his and Farrah’s phones started beeping, the message that meant there had been a dimensional incursion.
“Another day, Mr Asano,” the woman said as she walked away. “It was nice to finally meet you, though.”
“But not me, apparently,” Farrah muttered.
“Who are you?” Jason called out.
“Your favourite painter,” she called back, without stopping or turning.
“You’re Peter Paul Rubens?” Jason asked in a confused voice.
The woman stopped and turned around to give him an incredulous look.
“What?” Jason asked. “You claim to be a man who died in 1640 and you’re the one who looks surprised?”