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In a Chinese village levelled by a powerful earthquake, the villagers watched as an alien figure used a beam of energy to cut through the girder blocking the hole in which a child was trapped. It was a floating cloak, containing not a person but an energy that looked much like the Helix nebula, commonly known as the Eye of God. Floating around it were eye-like orbs, which fired the beams that were cutting away the debris.

At first, the villagers had been afraid of Jason and his terrifying companion, but as they used their powers to retrieve person after person trapped within the rubble they became optimistic, albeit warily so.

The beams of Jason familiar, Gordon, made short work of the collapsed girder, revealing the narrow hole underneath. Jason could easily see through the darkness to the top of the little boy’s head and extended his shadow arms down to pluck him out. As soon as he was free, his mother rushed forward to embrace him as the villagers looked on. They were all as dirty as Jason was under his cloak.

***

her office, back in Australia, Sydney Network branch committeewoman Annabeth Tilden was watching a video file. It was news footage, intercepted without ever going into public distribution. It had been send by the Beijing Network branch, along with an angrily-worded message.

“…took responders several hours to reach more isolated areas in the wake of the catastrophic earthquake. The collapse of the bridge you see behind me devastated this small village but the villagers themselves attribute the low number of casualties to a number of mysterious individuals, several of which they describe as appearing supernatural in nature. This is not the first…”

Anna closed the video file with a sigh and added it to a folder with the others. One of the more disturbing elements was that the news footage was not in Mandarin but in English. Not only was Jason being far too prominent in his actions but clearly someone wanted to publicise them in the west. Not all of them had been intercepted before going online.

“Jason may be playing rather loosely with the secrecy provisions of our agreement after our people attacked him in Hanoi,” Ketevan said, “but at least he hasn’t been showing off the stars in his cloak since then. No one has connected the stories to the Starlight Rider.”

“Yet,” Anna said. “And they weren’t our people in Hanoi.”

“How many times have we had to explain that the people who went after him were Network but not our Network?” Ketevan asked. “I’m not so sure he’ll still see us an ally once he’s done with his journey of self-discovery or whatever he’s doing is.”

“I swear, I want to fire a missile at the Hanoi branch.”

“The International Committee more or less did,” Ketevan reminded her.

***

A month earlier, in Hanoi, Jason had underpriced the yacht in order to sell it off quickly. He decided to start his trip by playing tourist but quickly sensed the people following him.

The capture team had two category threes and a dozen category twos. They realised that Asano had clearly sensed them and they were forced to shed slower members as they pursued the elusive target through the city.

They finally tracked him down in the Hong River Slum Town, a bizarre mix of urban, industrial and rural. Illegal dwellings were bunched in with small farm plots, stores and even factories. Dirt roads and irrigation ditches defined the thoroughfares, with everything from the buildings to the very ground marking poverty, pollution and dilapidation. It was a backwater oddly located in a city of seven and a half million.

Without street lights, it was a dark and dangerous place at night, more for the environment than the residents. For the capture team, though, darkness was not an issue. Only one of the category threes, Thanh, had managed to maintain the chase all the way, courtesy of speed powers granted by his light essence. The same light essence was able to illuminate the area with his aura.

Thanh’s aura didn’t simply radiate light. Over a wide area, all darkness was banished. It seemed to have no source and was simply everywhere, filling every nook and cranny with soft illumination.

As the space lit up, Jason was revealed to be standing right in front of the capture team. The only remaining patch of darkness was inside the hood of his cloak, in which only a pair of silver eyes could be seen.

“I’m surprised anyone was this stupid,” Jason said in Vietnamese. His skill at actively using his translation power with specific languages was improving, although he was stubbornly clinging to syntax that gave an odd mix of perfect pronunciation and deeply odd grammar. Rather than try to adapt, the way Farrah had so quickly, he had made it into a rather obnoxious signature.

“I didn’t think anyone would be stupid enough to cross the International Committee after they gutted the Lyon branch like a fish,” he continued.

“You no longer need to concern yourself with things like that,” Thanh said. “You belong to us, now, so you don’t make decisions anymore.”

“It could be the Chinese,” Jason mused, ignoring the man. “They might be using you as a cat’s paw to test my capabilities without it blowing back on them. Maybe the EOA, looking to take me off the board before I start looking for them over their part in holding my friend prisoner. It could be that there’s no one and you’re really this dumb. I mean, you let me lead you by the nose until half of your team was left behind. Your trackers kind of suck, by the way. I had to aura project like a lighthouse for them to keep up and it was still hard to avoid escaping by accident.”

“You are arrogant,” Thanh said. “That is your Japanese blood speaking.”

“Strewth, racist enough for you, mate?”

“We have studied your methods, Asano. You are a creature of the shadows. Without them, you are vulnerable and exposed.”

“You’ve got me there,” Jason said. “I definitely didn’t train with someone from a family of essence-user instructors the equal of anyone on two worlds who laboriously drilled me on how to fight when I was caught out of my element.”

“You like to jabber and distract,” Thanh said. “We know this about you. Quick words cannot change that we hold the advantage in numbers, in power and in the environment. There are no shadows for you to cower in.”

They were on a dirt road, with a heavily polluted irrigation ditch running along one side and a ramshackle slum house on the other. The six category twos were arrayed in front of Thanh, with Jason standing before them in his combat robes and cloak. With the appearance of the light, the attention of the locals had been grabbed and they were variously hiding, fleeing or even recording the proceedings.

“Can you blur me in those videos?” Jason asked Shade, under his breath.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Asano. This silver-rank light is having an extremely deleterious effect on my capabilities. I will be unable to manifest any of my bodies or run interference on detection abilities. I can only remain is the hood of your cloak, which remains impervious to the shadow deletion. Otherwise I would not even be able to speak with you.”

“No worries,” Jason said. “Part of why we left was to throw ourselves into training, right? This should push our limits nicely.”

“This may be throwing ourselves a tad hard, Mr Asano.”

“Maybe, but that guy Lyon sent left a lingering unpleasantness. I’d like to–”

“You have the nerve to stand in front of me and talk to yourself?” Thanh yelled, anger scoring his face. His aura blasted out, only to stop dead against Jason’s like it was a brick wall. Jason’s aura wasn’t strong enough to suppress the silver-ranker’s and eliminate the light, but it was definitely stronger, leaving Thanh visibly unnerved.

“KILL HIM!” Thanh screamed, forgetting that their purpose was to take him alive.

A grab-bag of powers came Jason’s way. One of the bronze-rankers underwent a bizarre transformation, his arms turning into snakes and his legs into those of a grasshopper. He pounced at Jason, who intercepted the snake fangs with his cloak as the man landed in front of him. He then pushed into the man and rammed a conjured dagger up under the man’s jaw to pierce his brain.

Bronze-rankers couldn’t fight through what should have been lethal blows the way a silver-ranker could. The man with a dagger piercing his brain was tough enough to cling to life but fell limp. Jason grabbed his collapsing body and used him as a shield to soak up the other attacks coming his way. A fire bolt spell, a spiked ball on a chain and a laser beam of light from the silver-rank Thanh all impacted against the body.

The bronze-ranker in Jason’s arms did not survive the attacks and Jason rushed forward, still using him as a shield. He rammed the corpse into one of the other bronze-rankers, leaving them both to topple over as Jason spun away, positioning himself so the group was obstructing one another’s sightlines as much as possible. His dagger, in a backhand grip, ran across the next victim’s throat before jabbing back into the side of the neck. Jason let him go as the man stumbled backward, clutching desperately at his throat with one hand as the other scrambled for a healing potion.

The shock of Jason’s counter-blitz only lasted moments and a fresh wave of attacks was already on its way. To an observer, it might seem that Jason was dangerously outmatched. From Jason’s perspective, the attacks were the wild, inexpert flailing of amateurs. That was not to say they were without strategy. The elimination of the shadows had a large impact and it wasn’t the only trick that seemed tailor-made for him.

Clearly, the enemy had learned of his fight against the last silver-ranker and the tether power that had pinned him down. One of the bronze-rankers had a similar ability and Jason had neither shadow nor cover to avoid it. Jason tossed his dagger into the air and a shadow hand emerged from his cloak to snatch it. His normal hands each pulled a throwing dart from the sheaths on his chest and flung them out.

The first was an explosive dart, thrown directly at the tether rod. The blast from a tether rod being destroyed had caused him to lose against his last fight against a silver-ranker, but this time he was triggering it himself. The second dart was thrown at the ground, right in front of the rod. This was the dart Jason had developed after that same fight, using the artifice knowledge he gained from a skill book. It hit the ground and a door-sized wall of magically reinforced ballistics gel sprang into being, right as the tether rod exploded.

The force from the blast sent the person who used the ability flying, along with another of the bronze-rankers. It didn’t kill them but Jason knew for himself how disorienting that blast could be. It would give him some breathing room with the other three who, like Jason, were protected as the blast hit the gelatin wall. Gobbets of the ballistics gel rained thickly but harmlessly over them.

As the fight resumed in the wake of the blast, Jason’s cloak protected him from some attacks, although its shadowy substance was also negatively impacted by the light. Its true value was to obscure his true body position, causing others to simply miss. He had long incorporated unexpected movements into his technique, with hours upon hours of flexibility and balance training. Between that and his cloak’s ability to spread out and dance to Jason’s whims, it was tricky to pinpoint his body’s exact location at any given moment.

Jason’s magical senses tracked incoming magical attacks before they were made. This included conjured and magical weapons, while mundane weapons would be useless. Knowing where the attacks would be, he was in a constant state of moving to where they wouldn’t, never stopping still.

The result was that he seemed impervious to attack, moving like a ghost through projectiles and weapon swings. Part of it was that he truly did avoid many blows. Another part was that his cloak masked the blows that did land, while he gave no indication of being harmed.

For his part, his dagger flashed out to land again and again. His shadow arm extended at need, giving his dagger no less reach than the guy with the spiked ball and chain. It flailed like an unattended hose with the water turned to full, yet in the seeming randomness, his dagger bit flesh time after time, riddling the enemy with afflictions.

Jason also pulled out the hydra whip he looted from his very first bronze-rank monster, wielding it with a second shadow arm. The semi-autonomous heads thrashing wildly as they lashed out with savage teeth. The whip couldn’t pile on bonus afflictions like the dagger but a single special attack could be delivered once for each of the five heads. The targets were somewhat random amongst whichever enemies were in range but that was only a minor disadvantage.

The whip could also be used to intercept attacks. Having the hydra’s property of regeneration, it quickly recovered from most damage. Only the fire attacks of one of the bronze-rankers and the searing light from the silver-ranker’s attacks left lingering damage.

Jason largely left the silver-ranker alone. Thanh was hanging behind the others making ranged attacks instead of diving in, which was exactly what Jason wanted. He only made occasional feints in Thanh’s direction so that he stayed on the move. So long as the silver-ranker didn’t plant his feet to play as a rapid-fire turret, Jason could handle it. So long as he was careful, the bronze-rankers were a useful tool for interrupting the silver-ranker’s sightlines.

Jason had seized the momentum of the combat and was not letting go. The problem for his enemies was not that they didn’t know how to fight, as they had clearly received meticulous combat training. The problem was that combat training was derived from Earth methodologies. The way they moved, the way they fought, even the way they thought was based around a paradigm on a baseline human, with the powers incorporated as an addendum.

At iron-rank, that wasn’t too much of a liability, but bronze was the point where an essence user truly became more than human. If they continued to think and fight like a human, they were wasting huge portions of their potential.

Jason had been trained as an essence user from the ground up. The confluence of attributes, perception and powers worked together to comprise a series of force multipliers, the results of which demonstrated exactly what made Farrah and himself so valuable to the Network. It wasn’t just improved meditation techniques to get people off cores but a holistic method of going from ordinary warrior to magical weapon.

Jason’s enemies suffered a disconnect between their powers, their physical abilities and the way they sought to use them. They looked buffoonish next to Jason, who was combining and interweaving powers. He relied on his enhanced perception over his ordinary senses. His every motion made use of his superhuman agility and flexibility. Each physical attack was delivered with an appreciation of the power he could put behind it and the strain his body could take in landing it.

His enemies had the potential but they squandered it. They were humans with abilities while Jason was a superhuman, through and through. The results were stark, as even without shadows or pulling out his familiars, he gave the bronze-rankers a brutal education on the differences in approach.

Even so, a less-than-stellar silver-ranker was still a silver-ranker. The ability to banish shadows truly was an impediment to Jason, even if it wasn’t the defining factor his opponent had anticipated. Like his subordinates, Thanh squandered much of his potential, but a silver-ranker had far more potential to squander.

Thanh was clearly a ranged attacker, staying back and flinging beams of light and crystal shards in Jason’s direction. He clearly wasn’t as secure as he should be in his silver-rank resilience, wasting his silver rank strength. If he had moved in hard on Jason with his superior strength, toughness and reflexes, he would have prevented Jason from going wild on the bronze-rankers at least. Instead, Jason used the bronze-rankers as cover and shields to intercept Thanh’s ranged attacks.

The ability to use the bronze-rankers as human shields was just the beginning. Jason loaded them up with afflictions, hitting them with spells even as he danced amongst them. They were incubators for the afflictions building up, each one charging the protective power of Jason’s amulet.

Despite his superiority, Jason went far from unscathed. As many hits as he avoided, there were just too many enemies and much of his fight was about minimising hits that couldn’t be dodged. The relatively weak-but-rapid attacks from the silver-ranker alone packed a dangerous punch against Jason, even in his magic armour.

If Thanh had challenged Jason alone, he would have had a very good chance of winning. With silver-rank powers, silver-rank attributes and the power to deny any shadows, he held no shortage of advantages. The bronze-rankers seemed like another advantage, but they were, in fact, the equalisers.

 

The crucial thing that made the bronze-rankers liabilities to their leader was that they were the means by which Jason could endure hit after hit. Each affliction Jason incubated on the bronze-rankers added a shield to Jason’s amulet. As Thanh punched through the shields, they transformed into healing. Jason’s Leech Bite attack drained health to further top him off. When that wasn’t enough, his Feast of Blood gave a burst of drain-healing. If it still wasn’t enough, he drained the afflictions from a bronze-ranker. His Sin Eater power turned every affliction he drained into ongoing recovery of health, stamina and mana.

With each bronze-ranker that he drained, Jason’s regeneration grew stronger. The downside was that as each enemy succumbed to the holy afflictions left in place of the original ones, it became easier for Thanh to land hits.

Once the bronze-rankers were all dead, there were no more obstacles to Thanh’s attacks. In spite of this, the precision of his attacks dropped as his frustration rose. It had reached the point where Jason’s armour was ragged and he should have died a dozen times over. Jason had fed on the life force of the bronze-rankers and used them to build up an absurd level of regeneration. If Jason didn’t have them to use, Thanh’s chances would have been far better.

Despite all of that, defeating a silver-ranker was no mean feat. Even if Thanh was getting sloppy, Jason was out of human shields and Thanh’s attacks were outpacing his healing. Jason focused on trying to take down Thanh but the man had a number of slippery movement powers. It slowed down his attacks to use them, but it didn’t stop them altogether.

If not for extensive training with Sophie, Jason would have been at a loss to counter the man’s speed. As it was, he wasn’t landing hits, only applying as much pressure as he could, employing every trick he knew to fight a faster opponent. The key was forcing them into rapid direction changes, which exhausted them much faster.

Energy attrition was not wildly effective against Sophie, whose endurance almost matched Jason’s. While a silver-ranker’s endurance was formidable, Jason could sense it slowly but surely diminishing. For his part, the same effects that restored Jason’s health were keeping his mana and stamina topped off.

The goal was to tire the silver-ranker out, getting him to pause long enough to spray him down with Colin and move the fight into the end game. The man clearly knew Jason’s tactics and would be aware of his most dangerous familiar, thus would not let himself be blindsided. Only by forcing the situation would Jason use Colin effectively, and missing would mean the silver-ranker could easily avoid him.

Things were not going Jason’s way, as Thanh had his own plan. While Jason was trying to run out the clock of Thanh’s mana, Thanh wanted to overwhelm Jason’s health regeneration before that happened. The silver-ranker had the attribute advantage and things were going his way.

Amongst Thanh’s suite of powers was a burst of ultra speed, such as Sophie, Rufus and Danielle Geller all shared. Thanh appeared to lack any big-hit powers but it allowed him to cue up an array of projectiles to fire the moment the power ended. From training with Rufus and Sophie, Jason recognised the telltale blur and threw himself out of the way, but there was no truly dodging that level of speed. Each time it happened, Jason was ravaged with attacks. The only blessing was that each use was a devastating drain on Thanh’s mana.

As Thanh landed hit after hit, Jason felt the jaws of death growing ever closer. Rather than let them feast, Jason chose to turn the tables and feast on death instead. He paused, startling Thanh enough that a light beam missed wildly as Jason chanted out a spell.

“As your lives were mine to reap, so your deaths are mine to harvest.”


Ability: [Blood Harvest] (Blood)

  • Spell (drain).
  • Cost: Low mana.
  • Cooldown: None.
  • Current rank: Bronze 6 (09%).
  • Effect (iron): Drain the remnant life force of a recently deceased body, replenishing health, stamina and mana. Only affects targets with blood.
  • Effect (bronze): Affects all enemy corpses in a wide area.

The bronze-rankers were half-rotted away, half dissolved into nothingness as Jason had not used his finisher on any of them. Thanh watched in horror as the blood-red glow of their remnant life rose up from their bodies and was drained into Jason, a series of bloody trails moving through the air and seeping into Jason’s body.

Thanh’s senses told him that under the ragged armour and bloodied skin, Jason was more than just physically recovered. Jason’s mana and stamina had already been diminishing far slower than Thanh’s own and now both pools were completely replenished.

Thanh was not yet fully exhausted but had thrown no shortage of mana at Jason in the form of magical attacks. All his hyper-speed burst attacks had been undone, leaving only their mana deficit behind. As he watched Jason fully restore himself using the ruined carcasses that had only minutes ago been his team, Thanh’s will broke.

Jason felt the moment his opponent’s morale crumpled as the man’s aura turned to glass. Jason slammed his own aura down like a hammer, shattering that glass to pieces as Thanh had been activating a movement power, trying to flee. His aura, now a paper tiger, collapsed under Jason’s assault.

Thanh felt a sensation unlike any he had experienced, like a knife pressed against the throat of his soul. He could sense that it would dig in if he moved even the tiniest bit in the wrong direction, flooding him with fear.

Thanh froze on the spot, hearing footsteps slowly approach from behind on the gravel road. The light from his aura was gone but motes of light flew out from Jason’s cloak to bathe the road in starlight.

“I think we need to return to our previous conversation,” Jason said, his voice a glacial inexorability. “You need to tell me why you violated the International Committee’s edict.”

“I don’t know,” Thanh said. “They just told me to capture you.”

Jason only scraped a pinprick against Thanh’s soul but it was the most violating thing the man had ever experienced. He shrieked in fear and pain, even though the sensation lasted but a fraction of a second.

“I really don’t know!” Thanh begged. “They tracked your boat, that’s how they knew you were coming. That’s all I know, I swear!”

Thanh still couldn’t see Jason standing behind him and his aura senses were clamped down by Jason’s aura suppression. As for his magic senses, with the absence of the light, Shade was once again masking Jason’s presence. This left Thanh’s nerves rising toward panic, as all he could sense was the razor claw gripping his soul.

“I’m not going to kill you,” Jason said finally. “You should be doing your real job, which is not trying to hunt me down. It’s protecting people from the dangers they don’t even know are there and your power is too valuable to lose from that fight. I suggest you go back to your job and be very, very diligent about carrying it out.”

The pressure suddenly vanished from Thanh, who immediately shot off like a rocket. A path of light spread out under his feet as he fled with all the speed he could muster.

“Shade,” Jason said. “Have Farrah tell the Network what happened. Make sure they buy up the recordings of all these people. Tell them to be generous about it, too. They could use the money.”

“I imagine the Network will want to speak to you.”

“I don’t want to speak to them. Remind them that part of the agreement was that the Network would stop coming after me and let them know that if they are going to be sloppy about the terms, then so will I.”

“I don’t think they’ll like that,” Shade said.

“I’m done caring about what people like,” Jason said. “If they want something from me, they can pay for it.”

The stars from Jason’s cloak that were floating around him returned to the cloak, then dimmed down to nothing. The street was once again plunged into darkness.

***

“…should be doing your real job, which is not trying to hunt me down. It’s protecting people from the dangers they don’t even know are there…”

Adrien Barbou closed the video file with a sigh, created a folder and moved the file into it. He pressed a button on his desk.

“Fiona, please arrange a meeting with Mrs. West at her earliest convenience.”

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Shirtaloon (Travis Deverell)

  • Australia

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