“Well,” Jason said, sitting around a table with three women. “This is complicated.”
“I may be getting used to being the most ignorant person in the room,” Erika said, “but that doesn’t mean that I like it.”
“How drunk are you?” Jason asked Farrah.
“I’m fine,” Farrah said, moving her head like she was trying to balance it on her neck.
“Me too,” Jason said. “I mean, yes, I wore a suppression collar to turn off my poison resistance, but I only drank that one bottle.”
“That’s two bottles,” Farrah said.
“Really? I thought I was seeing double.”
“Are you seeing two of anything else?” Farrah asked.
“No, but I think I might be bad at counting. Do you want me to sober you up? I have magic powers, you know.”
“No! There’s hardly any bronze-rank booze left.”
“You shouldn’t pay any attention to these two,” Erika confided loudly to Dawn. “They’ve been drinking.”
“I think we should start by you telling us exactly who you are and why you’re here,” Jason said to Dawn. “Eri, we can catch you up on context later. Spoiler: she’s an alien.”
Dawn looked at Jason from under raised eyebrows.
“You’re weird,” Jason said. “Your aura is normal but there’s nothing in it. It’s like trying to eat a very realistic wax fruit, but that’s okay. I’m playing up being drunk so you underestimate me. I’m very clever.”
“You’re doing a really good job,” Farrah assured him.
“Thanks! So, who are you, lady?”
“What if I called myself a prophet?” Dawn asked.
“I could call myself Barry Van Dyke,” Jason said. “That doesn’t mean I replaced Jan Michael Vincent in the lead for the fourth series of Airwolf.”
“Really?” Erika asked. “You’re bringing up Airwolf?”
“Eri was not happy with the fourth season,” Jason confided.
“All the flight shots were reused footage,” Erika decried. “Why?”
“Eri, we’ve been over this. It was broadcast television in the eighties. They wanted enough episodes for a syndication deal on the cheap.”
“What about Caitlin, Jason? They blew up Ernest Borgnine’s body double, but what happened to Caitlin?”
“I told you: it was broadcast television in the eighties. They didn’t care about the female characters.”
“Am I meant to be following any of this?” Dawn asked.
“No, just ride it out,” Farrah advised. “Do you watch television?”
“No,” Dawn said.
“I’ve seen some Tina Turner concert recordings but otherwise I don’t see the appeal,” Farrah said. “Oh, they’ve jumped to Knight Rider; that usually means they’re winding down.”
“They brought Bonnie back,” Jason said.
“She never should have left,” Erika said.
“I’m not arguing that she should have,” Jason said. “I don’t hear you complaining about April, though.”
“April can bugger off.”
“She did,” Jason said. “You realise that she was an early female character who excelled in STEM fields,” Jason argued.
“So was Bonnie! Who they had her replace because Bonnie wasn't blonde!”
“They brought her back,” Jason said. “The Hoff and Edward Mulhare were all ‘bring back that lady,’ and they did. Eddie Mulhare was a sexy-arse ghost.”
“He was a sexy-arse ghost,” Erika agreed.
Farrah interjected to try and bring things to a close.
“Maybe we should stop talking about nonsense, and talk to the weird magic woman instead.”
“Fine,” Erika complained, turning to Dawn. “So, what’s your deal. And no mysterious prophetess nonsense.”
“Agreed,” Jason said. “If you’re here to play enigmatic guide leading us forward through vague clues, you can get on your bike and trundle off.”
Dawn was taken slightly aback by the suddenly hostile brother-sister duo.
“You’ve already surmised who sent me,” Dawn said.
“Yep,” Jason said. “I’ve also surmised that your boss wants something.”
“It wants you to save the world,” Dawn said.
“From what?” Jason asked. “If the EOA’s built a weather machine, I’m one-hundred percent in.”
“I’m afraid it’s more drastic than that,” Dawn said. “A magical link has been forged between this world and Pallimustus.”
“I’m just going to jump in real quick,” Erika said. “Who exactly is this boss and what is Pallimustus?”
“She works for the World-Phoenix, who is basically an interdimensional super god,” Jason said. “Pallimustus is the name of Farrah’s world.”
“Super god?” Erika asked.
“Yep,” Jason said. “Regular gods are more along the lines of your Zeus, Thor, Brian Dennehy, etc.”
“I don’t think Brian Dennehy was a god,” Erika said.
“Who am I thinking of then?” Jason asked.
“Bacchus?” Erika suggested.
“He did look like a man who enjoyed the odd sandwich,” Jason said, then turned to Dawn, “Actually, since you’re here, do you know if there are any local gods?”
“There isn’t enough magic, yet,” Dawn said.
“Yet?” Farrah asked.
“The link between worlds,” Dawn said. “It’s been siphoning off magic from Pallimustus to this world for centuries. It was slow, at first, but the rate of transfer has been rapidly escalating over the last century and a half.”
“The proto-spaces,” Jason said. “That’s where they’re coming from.”
“Yes,” Dawn said. “Each proto-space that breaks down without the anchor creatures being destroyed deposits its magic into your world. Individually that has little effect, but after centuries, the magical density of your world has started to rise. This strengthens the link, which feeds the loop. More spaces appear, collapse and dump even more magic into the environment at an ever-increasing pace.”
“Someone knew this was coming,” Jason said. “There were outworlders who built the grid and established the Network in preparation to stop it.”
“That is our understanding,” Dawn said. “However, they were unable to prepare a response to proto-spaces appearing coterminous with the depths of the oceans. The proto-spaces that open there go undetected and deliver magic into your world.”
“Most of which is covered in water,” Jason said. “Meaning that the Network’s mission of containment was completely stuffed from the start.”
“Yes,” Dawn said. “What they have accomplished is to slow the rate at which your world’s magical density has risen. For now, it remains low, but is approaching a dangerous threshold.”
“The proto-spaces,” Jason said, eyes going wide. With the information Dawn had provided, his study of astral magic allowed him to connect the dots to form a terrible revelation.
“What is it?” Farrah asked him.
“I just realised what happens once the magical density crosses the minimum threshold for iron rank,” Jason said, making it Farrah's turn to be startled.
“No more proto-spaces,” she realised. “Direct magical manifestation.”
“There will most likely still be proto-spaces forming for the more powerful manifestations,” Dawn said. “Lower-rank monsters, essences and awakening stones will start manifesting directly, however. Once that begins, there will be no way to prevent the magic they bring with them from accelerating the rise in magical density even further.”
“I’m not following much of this,” Erika said. “From what I understand, though, you’re saying our world is going to be more magical? Is that bad?”
“It’s bad,” Jason said.
“Monsters randomly appearing in the streets,” Farrah said. “The societies of your world are not prepared for that.”
“That’s not even the real problem,” Jason said. “Worlds aren’t built to handle extreme changes in magical density. The dimensional membrane – that’s the inbisible… inbisivle… the thing you can’t see that keeps the magic out. If that goes sploot, the whole planet gets washed away like a sandcastle when the tide comes in.”
“Wait,” Erika said. “You’re saying the planet is going to be destroyed?”
“If we don’t find a way to stop the magic coming in,” Jason said. “If we can trust what this lady is saying. I think she might not be real.”
“How long until that happens?” Erika asked.
“It's hard to be certain,” Dawn said. “The World Phoenix reinforced the dimensional membrane of your universe billions of years ago, which is how your world has endured thus far without overt effects. So long as the Network continues to intercept what proto-spaces they can, direct manifestation will begin in roughly a decade. The breaking down of the dimensional membrane will start causing weather effects at some point after that. Minor, at first, but conditions will escalate. Half a century from now, the geological effects will begin. The dimensional membrane will lose integrity entirely at around the two-hundred and fifty-year mark, but your planet will be uninhabitable for at least a century before that.”
“So, monsters on the streets in ten years,” Jason said. “Then it ramps up into a constant sequence of disaster movies and no more people in a century and a half.”
“Assuming nothing intervenes to move the clock one way or another,” Dawn said.
“What about that power your boss gave me?” Jason asked. “That stabilised physical realities, right?”
“That might work for a proto-space, Mr Asano. It won’t work for an entire planet.”
“Is it just the planet, or a whole universe thing?”
“Fortunately, the effects are localised,” Dawn said. “The likelihood of a chain reaction affecting the universe at large is very small.”
“Very small isn’t nothing,” Jason said. “We’re totally going to save the universe, which will totally get me some action. I’ll be all ‘hey, ladies, I’m the guy who saved the universe,’ and they’ll be all ‘that sounds like hot nonsense, but you’re way better looking than Kaito, so let’s make out.’ Then I’ll be all ‘I can’t do that; I respect women,’ and they’ll be all ‘it’s totally our choice.’ Since I’m all about female agency, I have to go along with it at that point because it’s the feminist thing to do, so we’ll go the supermarket and buy all the whipped cream…”
“Moving on from that grotesquery,” Farrah said, “you mentioned a link between worlds. Are we to assume that the link is both the cause and solution to the problem?”
“Yes,” Dawn said. “The link is predicated on the history of your two universes and the connection they have always shared. Allow me to explain. Your two universes, like all universes, were created from a seed, what you might know as a singularity. These seeds are created by the Builder.”
“Hold on,” Jason said. “I had a fistfight with the guy who created the universe?”
“What?” Erika asked.
“The Builder you know is not the Builder who created your universe. That Builder was sanctioned by the other great astral beings for treating your two universes as an experiment.”
“There’s a lot to unpack there,” Jason said. “Let’s start with what sanctioned means.”
“I don’t know,” Dawn said. “All I know is that for all intents and purposes, the old Builder is gone. A new one was then chosen from amongst the half-transcendents.”
“What’s a half-transcendent?” Jason asked. “Do you know what that is, Farrah?”
“A half-transcendent is someone who has surpassed diamond-rank,” Dawn said. “They have moved beyond the structures of power that you know of but they have yet to transcend physical being. That requires more than simply a growth in power. This is what the great astral beings provided, in return for the new Builder taking up the role of his predecessor.”
“What was that about treating our world as an experiment?” Erika asked. “I’m not sure I can express the degree to which I don’t like the sound of that.”
“The Builder’s role is to create universe seeds,” Dawn said. “Each one new and unique, which had been the case until your two universes. What he did was to not just create identical seeds, but to create them by reproducing elements of existing worlds. This does not literally translate to specific elements of those other worlds appearing in yours, but the potential is there. Think of it as having those elements built into the DNA of the universe. They may express themselves or they may not. If and when they do, it may be in very disparate ways. This is especially true given that one of the worlds was given a more rigid dimensional membrane, which is why your world has less magic than Pallimustus.”
“Are you saying we weren’t even the proper experiment?” Jason asked. “We were the control?
“What’s DNA?” Farrah asked.
“It’s kind of like the magic matrix in your body,” Jason said. “Except instead of magic, it’s goop that gives you eyebeams when you fall in a vat of toxic waste.”
“I have no idea what that means,” Farrah said.
“People always say to that to me. And they keep telling me my name. I meet someone and they’re all ‘you’re Jason Asano.’ It’s like I’m a soap opera character that was presumed dead and then came back with amnesia and was played by a different actor.”
“It’s totally like that,” Erika said, laughing. “That makes a super amount of sense.”
Dawn ran a hand over her face.
“What it means,” she said, “is that the intrinsic elements that make up your world share certain traits inherited from other worlds. Take elves, for example. They have existed longer than either of your worlds, yet they appeared natively in both. In Pallimustus they evolved into one of the worlds natural, intelligent species, while on Earth they appeared in the form of myth and legend. This is true for many things.”
“I noticed that,” Jason said. “When I was in the other world, I was constantly surprised when things matched up to my old world. Elves are kind of like the way we count time of people.”
“I don’t know any elves,” Erika said, “but that sounded kind of racist.”
“Hey, I have lots of elf friends. Hold on, if the world just makes things happen, is that some kind of pre-destiny?”
“No,” Dawn said. “Think of it as a voice in the back of reality's head, pushing it in certain directions. This largely affects things without agency, such as geological forces, which is why the two worlds have similar size and geography. It will affect people as well, but this is extremely rare and always those who are susceptible, for whatever reason, to outside influence. Those who believe they see visions of the future or receive messages from a higher power. They are not, strictly speaking, incorrect. In a broad sense, at least. They have a habit of becoming invested in details largely conjured in their own minds.”
“Like how God hates gay people and poly-cotton blends,” Erika said.
“Something like that,” Dawn said.
“Are you following this okay?” Jason asked Erika.
“I think so,” Erika said. “It might go better if I hadn’t had so many cocktails.”
“Oh, hold on,” Jason said, then chanted a spell.
“Feed me your sins.”
Erika blinked as if she’d just stumbled into the light, shaking her head as the haziness of alcohol was drained away. Then she gave Jason a flat look.
“Feed me your sins?” she asked.
“So overdramatic,” Farrah said.
“It’s the chant for my spell,” Jason said. “I didn’t get to pick it.”
“They have a habit of becoming invested in details largely conjured in their own minds,” Dawn said pointedly.
“Bloody women,” Jason said. “I need to start hanging out with some dude-bros. I bet Kaito knows some.”
“You would hate hanging out with dude-bros,” Erika said. She got up and went behind the bar to mix herself another cocktail, now that she’d sobered up.
“No, it’ll be great,” Jason insisted. “I’m turning over a new leaf. I’m going to start talking about my man-cave and asking people how much they lift. It’ll be less than me because I’m super strong. Women are objects!”
“Might I remind you two that we’re talking about the end of the world?” Farrah said pompously.
“And banter is how we save it,” Jason said. “Have you not seen a superhero movie? There's a big sky-beam or a magic rock and we win through the power of quips.”
“I saw one,” Farrah said. “It seemed to hinge on people’s mothers having the same name. It may be because I’m from another universe, but it seemed like several hours of nonsensical rubbish.”
“Wait, that’s the superhero movie Taika showed you?” Jason asked. “I’m going to have a serious talk with that man.”
“You leave Taika alone,” Erika said. “He’s lovely.”
“He thinks Team Knight Rider is the best one,” Jason said.
“Okay, we need to stage an intervention,” Erika said as she finished making her cocktail, immediately drained half of it and started making another one. “Anyone else want one?”
Dawn looked at them like they were monkeys throwing their own poop.
“This is who the World-Phoenix is relying on to save the world,” she muttered.
“It’s fine,” Farrah assured her. “The day I met Jason, he saved my whole team pretty much by acting like this. So, how are we meant to save the world, exactly?”
“That’s a good point,” Jason said. “Emi thinks I’m a superhero, which is super adorable. I pretty much have to save the world now.”
“Around half a millennia ago,” Dawn said, “an outworlder came from this world to Pallimustus and fell into the service of a Pallimustus deity. When he acquired the means to return to his own world, he came back with tools and a mission from that deity. He set up a global magical infrastructure that would strengthen the bond between the two worlds. Over the centuries, more and more of the magic building up on Pallimustus was siphoned into this world.”
“The monster surges,” Farrah said. “That’s why they’ve been taking longer and longer. The magic that fuels them has been siphoned off to here, which siphons more and more as the dimensional membrane weakens.”
“What does that accomplish?” Jason asked.
“The current Builder is the original source of the magic techniques through which the link was strengthened,” Dawn said. “He passed that knowledge along to the deity behind all this. Much of which is now in your hands, Mr Asano.”
“I get it,” Jason said. “As soon as that knowledge entered Pallimustus, the goddess of knowledge had access to it. She found a reason to pass it to me, knowing that I would inevitably get home where I could do something about it.”
“The link is a threat to Pallimustus as well,” Dawn said, “but of a different nature. The delay in the monster surges also destabilises that world’s dimensional membrane. The longer the delay, the more dangerous the things that can finally make it through.”
“You’re talking about an increase in diamond-rank manifestations during the monster surge,” Farrah said.
“That is only a by-product,” Dawn said. “The goal is…”
“The invasion of Pallimustus,” Jason said. “Like your painting.”
“Yes. The god Purity has struck a bargain with the Builder. Purity lays the groundwork for the Builder and the Builder helps Purity cleanse the world of what Purity has come to see as the unclean elements. The Builder takes the world’s abundant astral spaces and leaves Purity to rebuild civilisation in his own image.”
“That’s insane,” Farrah said. “The other gods won’t stand for it.”
“There was already some kind of religious council formed to deal with the church of Purity when I left,” Jason said.
“Purity has long made preparations in secret,” Dawn said. “The church is more prepared than anyone realises, except for Knowledge. That goddess has likewise been making secret preparations to combat Purity.”
“Why not just warn everyone?” Farrah asked.
“She has rules,” Jason said. “I’m pretty sure telling everyone would be such a huge deal that it violates her central tenets. She’s big on people learning things for themselves”
“Exactly right,” Dawn said. “Transcendent beings are power incarnate but they have limitations that do not bind we physical beings. The most she can do is prepare to act once the knowledge is widespread. When the invasion begins and Purity reveals his hand in full, so shall she.”
“So, our part is to find this link enhancer and shut it down,” Farrah said.
“Yes,” Dawn said. “You have the tools.”
“I can learn the astral magic, given enough time,” Jason said. “How are we meant to find this link biggerer?”
“She said a global magic infrastructure,” Farrah said to Jason. “Sound familiar?”
“The Network’s grid,” Jason said.
“Even if the two aren’t connected,” Farrah said, “I’ll bet we can use one to find the other. Once you figure out what it is we’re looking for.”
“I was already hitting the books,” Jason said. “I don’t have to change anything there. I definitely haven’t been slacking off to read Farrah’s sex magic book, especially not the thing on page 41 with the chilled fruit.”
“This world is doomed,” Dawn muttered.
“It'll be fine,” Jason said. “I'm great at fighting evil. I mean, did I hurt the bad guy? No. Did he kill me? Yes, he did. But we won! Will I get credit? Probably not. All the women will be like 'hey, Humphrey, your shoulders are obviously so large because of a glandular condition, but we’re totally into that.’ Then Humphrey will be all ‘sorry, gaggle of women, but I have to mourn my even more handsome friend,’ and they’ll be all ‘hey, we’re super ready to comfort you,’ and he’ll be all ‘well, I suppose my handsome friend did show me how to whip cream.’ Then they’ll go off to a local purveyor of dairy goods and…”
“I think I can feel myself becoming lactose intolerant,” Erika said.
“I think it may be time to go,” Dawn said. You now know the task ahead of you and the agenda of the World-Phoenix that has been concerning you. All she wants is to protect your world, and for you to be her instrument.”
“Was that a knob joke?” Jason asked.
“No,” Dawn said. “Now that events surrounding your return have largely settled, it was time to show you the path forward. It’s possible my timing was not ideal.”
“It’s fine,” Jason said. “To be honest, I’d be way more suspicious sober.”
“When we’re done, can the World-Phoenix send us home?” Farrah asked.
“The objective is also the reward,” Dawn said. “You will return home before your task is done.”
“Well, this is a sobering conversation,” Jason said. “Literally; I think I do need another drink. Dawn, you don't know anywhere I can stock up on bronze-rank booze, do you? I'm running low. Actually, at this point, I need to start in on the silver-rank stuff. I don't want to go collaring myself every time I drink. I lost the key for a while. It was in the component bowl with the sheep tokens, which is why it took me so long to find. Nobody wants sheep.”
Dawn shook her head.
“There’s an alchemist in the Network’s Stuttgart branch,” she said. “I’m sure your Network allies can make a connection.”
“Oh, nice,” Jason said. “Thanks, dimensional space lady.”
“You know what you have to do, now,” Dawn said.
“Sure,” Jason said. “I would like to know why you don’t do it yourself, though.”
“Several reasons,” Dawn said. “For one thing, there are rules about how much the great astral beings and their higher agents can intervene in physical realities. If the World-Phoenix had servants native to this world it would be possible, but this world does not produce high-rankers. Also, you see how little power I have.”
“I thought you were just hiding it,” Farrah said.
“If I were here in person, the disparity between my power and the lack of magic in this world would be crippling, spirit coins or not. This is only an avatar I am projecting from outside your reality. You lack the knowledge to understand how impressive that is, so let me assure you that the answer is very. Even if either I or my dimensional vessel breached the dimensional membrane of your world, in its delicate state, the raw power would be like dropping a stone on a pane of glass. The best I can do is share knowledge.”
As Jason and Farrah were showing Dawn off the houseboat, Dawn paused on the lower deck before stepping onto the dock.
“May I ask a question for my own edification, Mr Asano?”
“Go for it,” Jason said.
“You knew the vessel that the Builder took in Pallimustus, yes?”
“Actually, there were two and I knew them both,” Jason said. “The first I didn’t know well, although he did knock me unconscious with a shovel several times.”
“That guy?” Farrah asked.
“Yep,” Jason said. “The second was Thadwick, who I knew a bit better. Dated his sister for a while. I did, I mean, not him. That would be weird. Why do you ask?”
“When great astral beings interact with physical beings, or even each other, they use living vessels,” Dawn explained. “Unlike temporary, lower-rank vessels, long-term vessels such as myself do not burn out. The astral being can possess and release us harmlessly many times, over many years. It takes decades, often centuries before the strain threatens permanent damage and a new vessel must be arranged.”
“Sure,” Jason said.
“One of the side effects of inhabiting physical bodies is that the astral beings have to operate by the same means the bodies do,” Dawn said. “The result is that we vessels shape the behaviour of the great astral beings while they inhabit us. Permanent vessels are carefully chosen, while temporary vessels pose a choice. Either sacrifice a follower who thinks exactly the way they want their followers to think, or use an expendable vessel.”
“Ooh,” Jason said. “That explains why the Builder was such a tool bag.”
“In the case of very strong personalities,” Dawn said, “rapidly switching from one vessel to the next can create a lingering effect, where the first vessel’s personality affects the second one.”
“I think I see where this is going,” Jason said with a chortle.
“Those of us who serve as vessels like to stay in touch because there are few who truly understand our experiences,” Dawn said. “My friend Shako is the primary vessel of the Builder in this region of the cosmos, as I am for the World-Phoenix. He described his last experience of being the Builder’s vessel like having a toddler running around in his head making all the decisions. I was curious as to what manner of man was the vessel that prompted such a reaction.”
“He was the worst,” Jason said. “Literally the worst. There's a guy punching a baby who's all 'take that, baby,' yet can still console himself with not being Thadwick. Thadwick sold out his friends, his family and his entire world. That guy sucked. His whole family did, to be honest, except for his mum and his sister, but a bloke doesn't kiss and tell. His sister, I mean. I didn't sleep with his mum, although she's very attractive. Like, very, but she does have the silver-rank thing going on.”
“That’s quite enough information, thank you,” Dawn said. “The issue of the vessel was a matter of some curiosity in our little circle.”
“Can I ask you a question?” Jason said.
“Certainly,” Dawn said.
“You seem to know a lot,” Jason said. “Did you know that Farrah was in this world and where to find her?”
“Ah,” Dawn said, letting out a wincing sigh. “Yes, but…”
Jason’s fist crashed into her nose, sending her crashing over the rail and into the water.
“Yeah, she’s definitely dead,” Jason said. Using his cloak’s weight-lowering power he was standing on the water over her corpse.
“You killed her?” Erika asked in horror.
“This was just an avatar projection,” Jason said. “I doubt I could hurt her actual self with a magic rocket launcher.”
“What are you going to do?”
“I’m going to loot her,” Jason said. “She should have told me about you.”
“I don't know if that's such a good idea,” Farrah said.
Jason reached down and touched the floating body. He then walked back to the houseboat as the corpse dissolved into rainbow smoke behind him. Erika, never having seen it other than in projections, watched with a mix of fascination and horror.
- 10 [Diamond Spirit Coins] have been added to your inventory.
- 100 [Gold Spirit Coins] have been added to your inventory.
- 1,000 [Silver Spirit Coins] have been added to your inventory.
- 10,000 [Bronze Spirit Coins] have been added to your inventory.
- 100,000 [Iron Spirit Coins] have been added to your inventory.
On a dimensional ship within the astral void, a ruby-haired woman shook her head in disbelief.
“That little fuc…”