Jason heard Hiro, Ken and Farrah having a discussion as he trudged through his houseboat toward the bar lounge.
“…point of setting it up this way is so that it can be modified as magical conditions change,” Farrah was explaining.
“Do you expect magical conditions to change?” Hiro asked.
Farrah looked up at Jason as he made his way through the door.
“For now,” she said, “let’s just say that I’m confident they will.”
Jason slumped into a chair and Shade approached, placing on the table a tray bearing an immaculately-plated omelette, a large glass of juice and a neatly folded cloth napkin.
“Thanks, Shade,” Jason said with a tired smile. “You’re getting pretty good at this.”
“I have been watching the old episodes of Mrs Asano’s first cooking show on the internet,” Shade said. “It has many useful tips for people new to the methods and ingredients of this universe.”
Farrah, Hiro and Ken shared a look and got up, Hiro and Ken greeting Jason on their way out. Farrah dropped down into the seat opposite Jason.
“You look tired for a man who slept this late,” she said. He didn’t answer immediately, having a forkful of omelette in his mouth. He took his time, chewing slowly before putting down his fork and dabbing at his mouth with his napkin.
“I’ve been thinking about when you and I first met,” Jason said. “Not the very first part, with the sacrificing and the shovel.”
“I think that was mostly you.”
“I’m talking about the little village with the waterfall.”
“Didn’t I see that village getting destroyed in your recordings?”
“It was,” Jason said.
“You seem to have some fate with that village,” Farrah said. “Every time you go there, you’re protecting it from monsters.”
“Not protecting it well enough. At least the people got out, but their homes were razed to the ground. The Duke sent funds, so hopefully they’re back and resettled by now. I was thinking about before all that, when the three of us were passing through. I was so lost, still half-convinced that I’d gone mad. I knew almost nothing of where I was and what was happening and what I did know, I didn’t believe.”
“I remember,” Farrah said. “You were kind of a mess. Although, you befriended that whole town in about a day.”
“Those people were the first thing that made sense to me,” Jason said. “They reminded me of Uncle Robbo. My mum’s whole side of the family, really, except Mum herself. I used to spend a lot of time with them because it annoyed her. She didn’t like to be reminded that she came from common stock.”
“I’ve met your Uncle Robbo I think twice,” Farrah said. “I still like him more than her.”
“That’s a common reaction. So, I was in this village, with no idea of what to do and caught up with strangers that, to me, were very strange indeed.”
“I’m not strange,” Farrah said.
“That depends on context.”
“Speak for yourself,” Farrah said. “I used to think everyone from your world was strange, but it’s really just you, your sister and your sister’s kid. You’re all weird, irrespective of context.”
“Anyway,” Jason said. “The point is that I was feeling completely adrift. No direction, no purpose. That was when Rufus told me something that was really important to my time in your world. This one too, really.”
“If you say so,” Farrah said. “I mostly remember Rufus kicking Anisa off the contract.”
“He told me that your world was a chance to reinvent myself. To become the person I wanted to be, without the baggage of my old life. I didn’t always succeed, but I always tried.”
“Ah,” Farrah said. “Now, you find yourself back here and weighed-down with all that baggage you put aside.”
“Exactly. I don’t think reconnecting with who I used to be is intrinsically bad, though. Back then I was a naïve idealist who had never had his principles put to the test. It felt like every time my ideals were put under strain, they crumbled. I think it’s good for me to take another look at those principles. Yes, they were foolish and innocent, but they also represented ideals that I think are worth striving for.”
“You want to be the best of both worlds,” Farrah said.
“Yes,” Jason said. “The problem is, it feels like I’m becoming the worst of them. All the baggage from here bringing out the reactionary aggression that kept me alive over there.”
“The solution seems obvious,” Farrah said. “Ever since you returned to your world, you’ve been introducing your family to magic, dealing with a world you never realised was full of magic, working to rescue me. Usually, more than one of those at the same time.”
“You went through worse after getting here.”
“I did,” Farrah said, “but at least what I went through was simple. You’ve been fighting through a tangle and we both know you get caught up in your own head, while I can think in nice, clean lines. I see my direction and I walk it, while you can’t help diving into the weeds. You need to step away for a while and find your way back to a straight path.”
“I was thinking the same thing,” Jason said. “I’m going to start by letting Erika take over the family stuff and pulling out of Network activity while I get my aura control in order. Then I might take off for a bit.”
“Some time to clear your head would do you well. You may wish to get away from home altogether.”
“I think I will. I’ve been to another world, yet there’s so much of this one I haven’t seen. It might just be time to remedy that. I’ll need you to watch over things while I’m gone. I’ll take most of the Shades with me but I’ll leave one so you can always reach me and I can check in. One for Emi, too. If something happens, Shade can get her to you.”
“How long will this sojourn of yours be?” Farrah asked.
“I don’t know,” Jason said. “As long as it takes that I can come back without losing myself.”
“Really?” Erika said. “Everything that’s going on and you want to take a gap year to bum around backpacking?”
“Something like that,” Jason said. “Not for a few weeks, but yes.”
They were on the roof deck of the houseboat as Jason explained his intentions.
“Do you really think that now is the best time to be traipsing off?” Erika asked.
“Yes,” Jason said. “I have responsibilities that I’m not ready to meet. I need time, Eri. Time away from monster armies and interdimensional invasions. From secret societies and from family so caught up in their own revelations that they don’t stop to think about what I’ve been through even when I recorded THE ENTIRE BLOODY THING!”
He got out of his chair and paced to the edge of the deck, drawing a sharp breath he didn’t need and slowly letting it out. He leaned on the railing, looking out over the water. The day was overcast, painting the sea grey.
“I’m sorry,” he said, any emotion washed out of his voice. “That wasn’t for you.”
“Yes it was,” she chuckled. “I want you to yell at me. You always box everything away and hide it behind a clown mask. I’m glad that you trust me enough to open up.”
“I need time, Eri,” he said again, still staring out at the ocean. “I’m dangerously off balance and I can’t afford to be. My mistakes can really hurt people and my failures…”
He hung his head.
“How am I meant to save the world?” he asked, his voice cracking. “How can that be on me? Two years ago I was selling staples and rubber bands. You know what a mess I was. How can anyone expect me to not bugger this up?”
Erika moved up to Jason and put an arm around his shoulder.
“I always knew you could do great things, Jason. I was more thinking state parliament than fighting evil, but still.”
He snorted a laugh, in spite of himself.
“This whole thing is absurd,” he said. “It has been from the beginning. I took a lot of stupid risks because in my head, it never felt quite real. Then Farrah died and all of a sudden it was, but I just kept taking risks because I felt invincible. Then I was grabbed and someone tried to feed me to the Builder. That hit me for six, but eventually I was back to risk-taking because that’s what had to be done. And we did get it done.”
“We’ve been so caught up in all the strangeness you brought home that we never thought about the fact that you went through all of that and more. And you had to do it when you were lost, alone and in danger. We see the way you are, now, and don’t think about how you must have been then. You didn’t start your recordings until you’d moved past the worst of it. Now I can’t help thinking about how much you didn’t put in them.”
“There was some crazy stuff,” Jason said. “Me and this guy, Hiram, got shot off the side of a mountain by a magic waterfall. It stopped all of a sudden and we were trying to figure out why when it started up again. We were fine, because magic powers. That was my third day.”
“I can’t imagine.”
“”That’s nothing,” he said. “I met gods, Eri. Actual, honest-to-goodness gods. Standing in their presence, you can feel the divine power blasting over you. It’s like a tsunami with a superiority complex. If they want it to be, anyway. They can tone it down, but they generally don’t. Reap the wonder of the masses and whatnot.”
“I’m not sure how to respond to that,” Erika said.
“You said you want to come with,” Jason said. “If you do, you’ll see them for yourself. Gods aren’t shy.”
She sighed again.
“I want to be here for you, little brother. But you talk about these things and I don’t know how to empathise, as much as I want to. You’re describing things so far removed from anything I know. I guess that’s the problem, isn’t it? Farrah is the only one who really understands what you’ve been through.”
“In so many ways,” Jason said. “We both know what it is to wake up in a strange world. What it is to die. I died, Eri. I know you’ve all been ignoring it because here I am alive and I’ve been known to say some outlandish things, but it happened. I died. It was violent and painful and I never expected to come back from it. I felt that certainty that my life was over.”
“I can’t imagine.”
“It’s not just the things that were done to me, either. It was the things I did. I killed people. I saved people. I’ve been a hero saving lives and a monster reaping them from the dark. I found companions who mean everything to me; only you and Emi mean as much.”
“I want to see that world,” Erika said. “I want to share your experiences. See those wonders and understand those horrors.”
“If that’s still what you want when the time to go back comes,” he said, “then I’ll take you. There’s still plenty of time to decide, one way or the other. I can’t make promises about the other side, though. It’s a world where my power is insignificant.”
“I can’t not go,” Erika said. “Not now that I know what’s out there. Ian’s the same. I know he plays the straight man to his wife and daughter but he has a beautiful passion in his soul. I married him for a reason. And as for our daughter, well. At this stage, if we tried to keep her from the other world, she’d never forgive us.”
“Farrah and I have been talking,” Jason said. “If you’re really serious about coming with us, you need to start making some big choices now.”
“Taking Emi out of school. She already knows more than most kids do by the time they leave high school and what they have left to teach her won’t matter in the other world. She needs proper, intensive training.”
“Only if she’s going to fight monsters,” Erika said. “I don’t want that for her.”
“Mum had specific ideas about what she did and didn’t want for me,” Jason pointed out. “It didn’t work out so well for her, but I suppose it won’t be like that for you and Emi. She’s nothing like me.”
“Point taken,” Erika said. “I just want her to be safe. I know you said that safe may not be an option, though, even if we stay here.”
“Just start giving the idea of home schooling some thought,” Jason said. “I know how big a move it is. It’s deciding the future of your family in a single moment.”
“Home schooling,” Erika said. “You can’t train her if you’re off who knows where.”
“Farrah can train her better than I can. And I won’t be gone forever. While I am, I’ll need you to step up and take the family in hand. Did Ketevan call you, yet?”
“Yesterday afternoon. I had to dampen her enthusiasm. She would have had us all in a room at 6am, given her way.”
“I think she wants to steer you away from my influence,” Jason said.
“That’s a sound approach to most things,” Erika said, squeezing her brother’s shoulder warmly. “I really am glad you’re opening up, Jase. I want to be there for you; you just have to let me. Tell me that you aren’t leaving just to run away.”
“I’m not running,” he said. “I know who I was here and who I was there. I need the time and the space to figure out who I am in both. Who I want to be, and how to be that person.”
“Alright,” Erika said. “You’ll have to take a lot of Uncle Jason time before you go, you realise.”
“There are worse burdens,” he said.
Sitting in a meditative pose, Jason opened one eye to watch Farrah floating in the air.
“You’re not concentrating,” she scolded, her eyes remaining closed.
Levitation, Jason had discovered, was a perk of reaching silver-rank. It was an intrinsic property of a silver-rank soul, allowing the aura it projected to physically affect the environment. Jason’s aura, despite being stronger than Farrah’s, could not equal the feat. It was a quality versus quantity issue, where Jason lacked not the aura power but the inherent properties of a silver-rank soul. Which hadn’t stopped him from wasting a good amount of time trying to replicate it anyway.
“You need to get back to aura training,” Farrah admonished. “This levitation isn’t even a practical ability. It requires intense concentration, has minimal effect and is easy to disrupt with just some basic aura suppression.”
“Yeah, but floating as you meditate looks super cool.”
When rebuilding his suite of aura control techniques from scratch, Jason drew on various sources of knowledge, experience and inspiration. Farrah’s instruction was the bedrock, as her mastery of orthodox aura control technique made for a grand foundation onto which he could build more exotic approaches.
That began with his own experiences. He had seen a lot and frequently used his aura in combat. His soul had been savaged to the limit of tolerance and, with help, come back stronger than ever. All of that gave him a wealth of personal experience to incorporate into his new aura control praxis.
Vermillion also had contributions to make. While the vampire’s aura operated somewhat dissimilarly to an essence user’s, he had numerous insights into fine aura control, have spent decades using it on normals without them ever being the wiser.
A source of inspiration was the sole diamond-ranker Jason had met, the Mirror King. His aura had felt like a part of the world around it, as if his very nature was in perfect symbiosis with the world. Jason had only been an iron-ranker at the time, with only the beginnings of the aura strength he now possessed. He didn’t know if the Mirror King’s aura truly did merge into the world around it or if it was some manner of exquisite technique. Either way, he kept the Mirror King in mind as he established not only a new baseline for his aura techniques but set a path for further growth.
The final pillar on which Jason supported his new techniques was Shade. The elusive shadow entity had a natural proclivity for stealth and years of practise that put the Mirror King to shame. He had an extensive knowledge of Order of the Reaper stealth techniques and the accumulated knowledge of previous essence users he had also served as a familiar.
Shade’s own aura-masking prowess was something Jason had never been able to emulate as Shade method of producing an aura was more alien than Vermillion’s, or at least, it had been. With the World-Phoenix’s blessing, Jason’s spiritual nature had grown much closer to that of an astral being. The methodologies didn’t directly translate, but Jason was able to glean at least some insights from Shade’s bounty of knowledge and experience.
Over the course of a month, Jason spent almost every moment either in seclusion on the houseboat or discussing aura techniques with Farrah, Shade or Vermillion. Whenever he took a break, he sought out his niece, not for training but simply for family time. He had already passed Emi’s nascent training program fully into Farrah’s hands. The only other exception to his dedicated training was a weekly gathering of friends and his closest family.