Jason, Farrah, Emi, Ken and Hiro were standing on the thoroughfare of what Jason had started thinking of as Asano Town. He was about to open a portal to Casselton Beach when Farrah’s phone bleeped.
“Category three incursion,” she said after checking the message. “Ready to get back in the saddle?”
“Listen to you, category three,” Jason said. “You’ve gone native.”
“I’ve gone native? You were frying giant worm meat in a village stall on your second day in my world.”
“So, how do we get to Sydney?” Jason asked. “I have the range to portal straight there, now, but I can’t send a silver-ranker.”
“Don’t worry,” Farrah said. “I have a guy.”
“You can portal us, though, right?” Hiro asked. “You’re our ride.”
“Wait, this is your guy?” Jason asked as he sensed the approaching aura.
“He’s here?” Farrah asked. “See how fast the helicopter is? His partner bought out his half of their helicopter charter and he’s been working for the Network instead. They pay better.”
“He has Greg and Asya with him,” Jason said. “They’re making their way toward bronze, but I’m not sensing cores from them.”
“You can tell that from here?” Farrah asked. “I can barely hear it and I have silver rank perception. It’s quiet for a helicopter, but it’s still a helicopter.”
Jason gave her an odd look.
“What?” she asked.
“I was just thinking about our time together in your world. The fact that you now have a basis for comparison on helicopter noise blows my mind. You’re wearing jeans.”
“I like jeans. I see you finally stopped wearing the clothes you picked up on the other side.”
“I kept getting into fights. There’s only so much damage that basic self-repair can do and I only have a couple of suits left. Why are Greg and Asya not using cores? Do you have Greg fighting monsters?”
“He wanted to fight monsters.”
“Of course he wanted to fight monsters. He’s a huge nerd.”
“He’s actually pretty good. Not at, you know, stabbing, but he’s got a versatile flex-support power set. It’s more about timing and judgement.”
“I have one of those on my team,” Jason said. “I wonder how she’s doing. I’m not sure I approve of Greg going out in the field, though. What about Asya?”
“The Network has been gearing up for problems ever since the grid blackouts started. They’ve been putting anyone willing to do it up for training. We have three training streams, now. One core users looking to retrain, one for people going from scratch using our methods and one for core users focused on unconventional approaches.”
“Like your brother. We’re using cores to raise his abilities while his training is being adapted from military pilot training. He’s doing great as utility and air support.”
“He’s going into proto-spaces?”
“He has kids. Little kids. What if something happens to him?”
“What if something happens to you?” Farrah countered. “You think Emi is ready to lose Uncle Jason again? And look at everything going on here.”
She gestured around at the village that had been built in his absence.
“You are the pillar on which all this rests. With time, the Asano clan will be able to stand on their own, but they aren’t there, yet.”
“We’re not a clan.”
“Tell that to the Japanese.”
“What do the Japanese have to do with it?”
“You really need to talk to Keti.”
Kaito’s helicopter swooped over the village to settle on the helipad on the roof of the main residence.
“Should there really be just this one big residence in the middle of the village?” Jason asked. “It’s a little elitist, isn’t it?”
“We’ve been calling it the Mayor’s House,” Farrah said.
“Who’s the mayor? Please don’t say Amy.”
“No, it’s Erika. She wrapped up her TV show and she’s kind of taken over family affairs.”
“Okay, that’s good,” Jason said.
The pair leapt up the several stories to the rooftop helipad, Jason with bronze-rank strength and his cloak and Farrah with raw muscle. The side of the helicopter slid open to reveal Greg and Asya inside.
“Aren’t you worried about hitting the helicopter blades, jumping up like that?” Greg asked loudly over the spinning rotors.
“No,” Jason yelled back. “If you’re doing your mobility training properly, that should never be a danger. Farrah, have you been letting him skip out on mobility training?”
“Of course I haven’t.”
Jason and Farrah stepped into what seemed more like the passenger compartment of a private jet than a helicopter. Jason even focused his senses to check there wasn't any dimensional manipulation going on. The door slid shut behind them on its own, completely silencing the exterior noise. Greg and Asya were already seated, wearing the black fatigues standard for Network tactical response teams.
“You need to take that off,” Farrah said to Asya, who glanced awkwardly at Jason before nodding and removing a black cloth bracelet. Jason had been able to sense the basic properties of her aura but with the bracelet’s removal, Asya’s emotions became plain. It was mostly nervousness.
“G’day,” Jason greeted as he sat down opposite her. A smile played on the corners of his mouth.
“Hi,” she said.
“Sure glad this isn’t awkward,” Greg said with a grin as he shifted into the seat next to Asya.
“Go away,” she told him and he moved back out.
“I am never getting out of high school,” he grumbled.
Emerging from the aperture into the proto-space, Jason looked around. Craggy cliffs of dark grey stone rose up to his left and right, while the line of sky between them roiled with storm clouds and rumbled with thunder. He immediately moved deeper into the gorge as more people streamed from the aperture. The bottom of the gorge was a trickling stream running over loose rocks.
- You have entered an unstable physical reality. Your presence will decrease the rate at which it will destabilise.
"Not a great spot for base camp," Jason observed. His cloak appeared around him and he jumped straight up. Shadow arms extended from his cloak to either side and he used them to grab the rock walls to fling himself higher. In the last six months, he had used them more and more independently of his real arms.
During his time away, Jason had done more than simply advance his abilities. Just as he had worked on his aura control, his proficiency with his other powers had improved. This wasn’t just advancing his essence abilities but enhancing his skill in wielding them.
Shooting over the top of the gorge, he looked out over the landscape as he slowly drifted down to one side. It was a blasted land of dark soil and bare stone, with only a few blackened trees dotting the landscape. From what he could see, the gorge he was standing atop was part of a greater spiderweb of crevasses and gullies.
Farrah flew out of the gorge on fiery wings, flanked by a handful of Network scouts who shot away immediately. Farrah’s flame wings were not great for flying, lacking strength, control and speed. She generally avoided flying with them once she armoured up, as they were barely able to lift her. The wings had other virtues, however, and Jason’s power had given them a solid indication of who was responsible.
Ability: [Wings of the World-Phoenix]
- Transfigured from [Outworlder] ability [Wings of Fire].
- Conjure fiery wings that allow flight. While wings are active, add disruptive-force damage to all fire and heat damage inflicted. This effect consumes mana.
- The wings can be detonated to inflict fire and disruptive force damage on nearby enemies while subjecting self and allies to a powerful healing effect and a cleanse that affects magic and poison. The strength of the healing effect on yourself is significantly higher than on allies and highly effective on catastrophic damage and wounding effects.
- Subsequent conjurations of the wings will have diminished bonus, slowly recovering strength over 24 hours. Wings cannot be detonated again until ability strength is fully recovered.
The wings made Farrah’s flames much more effective against incorporeal creatures and magical defences, although it further added to her mana-consumption issues.
“There’s a lot of silver-rank monsters in this space,” Jason said. “Are we sure this is a silver-rank space?”
“It is,” a silver-ranker said, rising out of the gorge on a gust of wind. It was Koen Waters, the Sydney branch’s Director of Tactical Operations. “Non ADE cat-threes started appearing in category three incursion spaces before you two came along. It’s been escalating over the last year, though, especially while you were off playing David Carradine.”
“Who?” Farrah asked. “I’ve been here a year and I still have no idea who you people are talking about.”
“You haven’t seen Kung Fu?” Koen asked.
“Is that another old TV show?” Farrah asked. “What is wrong with you people? Jason’s sister made me watch some Airwolf and it was terrible.”
“What makes you think there are a lot of cat-threes?” Koen asked Jason.
“I can sense them. And your people down in the gorge. You’re earth-shaping space for a base camp?”
“We’ll set up on top as well,” Koen said. “It’ll be a little bit before we secure the space and get to sweeping, but you being here means we don’t have to rush. The extra time you extend incursion space stability, plus the looting, makes it worth having you here even if you spend the whole time in a lounge chair.”
“I think I’ll skip the chair and go clean up some of those silvers,” Jason said and dashed away.
Koen sighed as he watched Jason zip over the ground at a fleeting pace.
“I see he didn’t work on his collaborative skills while he was away. Can he really sense monsters from here?”
“Did you just sigh?” Farrah asked.
“Are you still breathing?” Farrah asked. “You shouldn’t still need to breathe at silver rank. Have you not been doing those exercises I taught you?”
“I’m going to check on how the camp setup is going,” Koen said, gesturing with his thumb and then jumping back into the gorge.
Jason could have used Shade for transport but decided to set out on foot. During his time away he had worked on his ability use, but not everything was new. Back in the Mistrun Delta, Jason had developed a running technique that used his cloak to increase speed, conserve energy and navigate terrain. With his speed attribute at the top end of bronze, he revisited that technique with the enhanced agility, reflexes and straight-line speed that entailed.
The result was that he moved across the rough ground of the proto-space like a ghost, all but skimming through the air. The hopping, slightly uneven gait of the past was now smooth like a hovercraft on a cushion of air.
Approaching the first silver-rank monster, he sensed a gaggle of smaller, weaker iron-rank monsters around it, along with a few bronzes. The main monster turned out to be a giant black lizard with silver-white glowing eyes, while the supplemental creatures were elementals. Wind and lightning elementals danced on the air like dandelion petals, while earth elementals swarmed around the creature's feet.
“Gordon,” Jason said, not slowing down and the familiar appeared next to him. Gordon’s ordinary floating speed could not match Jason’s so he kept pace by chaining his dash ability.
The monsters sensed their approach as soon as Gordon appeared, the elementals stirring into a frenzy. They rushed forward and Gordon gave up dashing as they entered his considerable range. Four bright beams of energy, two orange and two blue, swept through the iron-rank monsters with annihilative force.
The blue beams of disruptive-force were doom for the amorphous wind and lightning elementals, disposing of them with a crackle like insects hit with a bug zapper. The orange resonating-force beams dug into the earth elementals like they were drilling for oil. The few bronze-rank elementals lasted a little longer, but Gordon was at the high-end of bronze and the perfect weapon against such creatures.
Jason ignored the elementals, moving directly on the lizard that was the size of a school bus. Jason sensed the magic precursor of an attack and juked sideways, not slowing as lightning erupted from the lizard’s eyes and flashed past him. He arrived in front of the lizard as he conjured a dagger into his hand.
Several of Shade’s bodies surrounded the creature. In the past, Jason would have used them to stage hit-and-run strikes, landing a couple of special attacks and then backing off to cast spells before moving on and letting his affliction suite do its work.
This was not what Jason did to the lizard. His dagger flashed out to make sewing-machine strikes; quick, shallow, in an unceasing staccato. Hit after hit, each one delivering the afflictions of a special attack plus the afflictions of the dagger. Instead of pre-emptively dodging with shadow jumps, he relied on his skill to avoid the lizard as he kept making attacks.
The oversized lizard thrashed with limbs and tried to bite at him but Jason used its size against it, staying tucked in close, his dagger never stopping. It repositioned to get a better angle on Jason and only then did he shadow jump to one of Shade’s bodies, the needlework of his dagger barely pausing.
Although Jason had seized the initiative, the lizard still posed a threat to Jason. It did not have the reflexes of a silver-rank essence user but was still devilishly quick for its size and its strength would have given even Farrah pause. When it caught Jason with a tail lash, it shattered the accumulated shields from his amulet and hammered his torso like a speeding car.
He was sent careening through the air before the lightness of his cloak let him drift to a floating stop. The healing from Colin and the converted amulet shields went to work as Jason floated in the air where he’d been slapped. He extended his hand toward the monster.
“Your blood is not yours to keep but mine on which to feast.”
Life force drained out of the lizard and into Jason. The lizard retaliated by opening its mouth and spitting out ball lighting that floated toward Jason, who was exposed as he drifted in the air. Jason used his cloak as a shadow to jump through, right before the ball lightning exploded in the space he had just occupied. He emerging from one of Shade’s bodies as a new cloak manifested around him, immediately resuming his attacks.
The rapid-fire strikes from his dagger represented a fundamental change in Jason's approach to combat. He had long ago given up on rapid kills as impossible due to his lack of immediate damage attacks, consigning himself to the slow and steady path to victory. As he took the time to reassess his abilities, had reassessed that presumption as well and developed a new combat dynamic.
From the very beginning, Inexorable Doom had been Jason’s signature ability, with only his familiars being more iconic. It had been critical to his combat style, allowing him to back off as it piled on more of every affliction he levied. He used it on the lizard, along with other affliction spells, chanting the incantations even as he dodged limbs and the lizard’s bite while dishing out more attacks. This time, however, it was merely an addendum.
Jason didn’t care if his sewing machine attacks were weak, so long as they riddled the lizard with afflictions. Faster than Inexorable Doom could match, the monster was staggering already as a tide of necrosis washed over it. Jason leapt lightly up and then kicked off the lizard with both feet, sailing back thanks to the lightness from his cloak and cast another spell.
“Suffer the cost of your transgressions.”
Punition dealt damage based on afflictions in place, which devastated the lizard, leaving it a stumbling wreck. Even so, silver-rank fortitude persisted. Sensing its demise, the lizard made a final play. Around a third of the elementals were yet to be swatted by Gordon and they suddenly drew closer to the lizard, like dinghies caught in a whirlpool. They struggled to escape but the force pulling them in didn’t allow it and they were absorbed into the lizard’s body.
Jason sensed the power building inside the monster and returned to his normal weight, dropping agilely to the ground and opening the portal arch to his spirit vault. He ducked inside, Gordon and Shade’s bodies following quick behind. From inside his spirit vault, Jason sensed the destruction of the archway. The darkness inside the matching arch inside the vault vanished, leaving the archway empty.
- You have defeated [Lesser Stormchar Lizard].
Jason used his portal ability, Path of Shadows on the empty arch. On the battlefield Jason had just left, an archway rose up from the floor of a newly-formed crater. Jason stepped out and looked around. Extending his senses he found a scrap of blackened flesh and brushed his fingers over it.
- Would you like to loot [Lesser Stormchar Lizard]?
Striding out of the crater, Jason turned his eyes to the sky, looking at the distant drone Koen had sent to follow him. Behind him, rainbow smoke rose up from points around the crater like streamers, from every place an exploded piece of monster had scattered. Then he skimmed off over the ground in the direction of the next silver-rank monster.
At the base camp. Koen was rewinding the footage from the drone.
“What are you looking for?” Nigel asked him.
“The timestamp,” Koen said, pausing the footage. “We just watched a solo category two wipe out a swarm of elementals and a cat-three the size of a train car in forty three-seconds.”