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Annabeth Tilden and three silver-rankers were standing outside the main gate of Asano Village, facing Jason and Farrah.

“We didn’t betray you, Mr Asano,” Anna said.

“No?” Jason asked. “Then I guess the GDN spokesperson on the news stating that our association had been ended due to my increasingly dangerous and radicalised behaviour was a terrible mix up. I’m surprised Terrance made that kind of slip.”

“You set off car bombs in traffic,” Anna said.

“I’ll do worse before I’m done,” Jason said. “The thing is, Anna, I am dangerous and radicalised. I have been from the beginning. Remember when I first came back? Faith healing my way through a hospital and a rolling gunfight in the streets? Since I started working with the Network I've been holding back but now you’ve cut those fetters. You opened the floodgates, Anna. You don’t get to complain when the water comes through.”

“It doesn’t have to be like this, Asano.”

“As long as I eat the fact that you’re attacking me in the news, stay quiet and do as I’m told? Why are you here, Anna?”

"Can we talk where there aren't a bunch of hungry loons filming us on camera phones?" she asked. Just as she said, the fringe elements camping outside Asano Village had no shortage of people filming them as they spoke.

“The village is for guests, friends and allies, Anna. I’m not saying the village’s defences are impregnable, but if you want in, it’ll take more than the four of you.”

“We aren’t your enemy, Jason. I’m here to try and stop us from reaching that point. There are forces larger than either of us who see you as an antagonistic force, but if you’re willing to make some concessions, we can stop this from escalating into conflict.”

“Concessions?” he growled, taking a step forward that prompted her bodyguard, Nigel to step between them. Jason stopped, closed his eyes and after a moment, the tense rage passed out of his shoulders.

“This is you, genuinely trying to help me,” Jason said softly. “You want to mend fences; I understand that. I respect it. I’m sorry, Anna, but they haven’t told you why they turned on me in the first place, did they? It wasn’t about car bombs.”

“Then what?”

“Those greater forces you mentioned? I’m not sure how much they know, yet, but it’s only a matter of time before they realise that I have something they want. Something everyone will want. People are going to make some bad choices trying to get it and they will reap the consequences.”

“Is that a threat?” Anna asked.

Jason smiled.

“Since I came to this world,” he said, “I’ve been playing the essence user. It made sense to affiliate myself with the Network, given that their first priority was protecting the world from magic. That’s already changing. What’s coming will be a gold rush and an arms race, all in one. The old priorities will be gone.”

“So you say,” Anna said.

“Believe me or not, I don’t care,” Jason said. “I don’t need the Network or anyone but the people already standing with me. I’m done playing essence user and following the rules of this world. I’m an adventurer again.”

“What does that mean?” Anna asked.

“Adventurers get the job done,” Farrah said stepping up next to Jason. “We don’t have oversight or chains of command or public relations departments. We do what it takes, whoever or whatever gets in our way. The Adventure Society sees the job that needs doing and finds the people to do it. Right here, right now, the Adventure Society is us, and we’re the people for the job. We’re going to do what needs to be done and we’ll go through anyone or anything in our path, without hesitation, remorse or mercy. I like you, Anna, so I’m hoping that’s not you.”

“That’s what a threat sounds like, Anna,” Jason said. “This world needs saving. I don’t know if the people behind you understand the true threat or not and I don’t care anymore. Just don’t get in our way.”

“And what exactly does the world need saving from?” Anna asked.

“The dimensional incursions are getting worse,” Farrah said, “and the rate at which they’re getting worse in increasing. When we first arrived here, category three incursions were moving from the exception to the norm. Now we’re starting to see category four incursions. Do you really think they’re going to stop?”

“Are you claiming you’re going to stop the monsters from coming at all?” Anna asked.

“I don’t know,” Jason said. “It could just be that we stop them from getting worse.”

“Then why not work with us?”

“Anna, I’ve worked with a lot of good people at the Network. You’re one of them. But not a lot of the good ones end up in charge. Think about the other members on the steering committee. Do you trust them to do the right thing? Someone knows that when I do what I have to do, the power you’re about to start fighting over will no longer appear. Anna, tell me that the people in charge will choose to address a looming threat over immediate gain.”

“You know I can’t.”

"Then you need to look at your own loyalties and priorities. When you go home to Susan and look her in the eye, I bet you feel proud at the work you've done each day. You should. If you want to keep feeling that way, maybe start thinking about how much you let the International Committee dictate your choices.”

“You’re not my conscience, Jason. I make my own choices.”

“Yet you came here to convince me to let you make mine?”

“There are people following you who will be caught up in your mess. Asya Karadeniz is throwing away her future by quitting the Network. Don’t take her down with you.”

"I actually hope you're right, Anna. I hope the Network doesn't lose its way. But the fact is, the Network and the monsters they fight were both incepted by the same person. Your house was always built on sand."

“What are you talking about?”

“The Network was never intended to protect the world from monsters. It was a regulatory measure so the dimensional incursions didn’t destroy the world too quickly. A stop-gap until either someone like me came along to turn things back or the world was destroyed. Either result gets what the founder wanted, which is to open the gates of an entirely different world to invasion.”

“Even if all that were true, and I’m not acknowledging that it is, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter what someone centuries ago intended when it’s the people of today that control the Network’s destiny.”

Jason smiled.

"I like that," he said. "I hope you have ambition, Anna. With people like you at the helm, the Network really could be what I think we both want it to be."

“Then instead of moving away from it, move closer. With what you have to offer, you could be a positive influence. Help me to make the Network everything it should be.”

“That’s not going to work, Anna. We both know that I chafe under restriction. I’m self-aware enough to know that I’m more trouble than I’m worth in an organisation. As soon as the group’s ideals and mine come into conflict, we both know what I’ll do. Call it independence or arrogance, but I work better from the outside.”

“It’s arrogance,” Farrah said.

“Whose side are you on?” Jason asked her.

“Justice.”

Jason chuckled and stepped towards Anna, only for her silver-rank bodyguard, Nigel, to move into his way.

“If I wanted her dead, Nigel,” Jason said, “You wouldn’t see it coming, let alone have a chance to stop me.”

“It’s fine, Nigel,” Anna said and he begrudgingly let Jason past. Jason held out his hand and Anna shook it.

“I hope that we can work together again, someday, Anna. You’ll soon be learning why it can’t be today, though.”

“If you really do need to save the world, you can’t do it alone.”

“He’s not alone,” Farrah said.

“I suppose not,” Anna said. “But I know you feel isolated right now, Asano, and perhaps inclined to lash out. Just give your actions some consideration before you do anything drastic…”

She looked around at the people filming them with their phones.

"…like having a conversation like this in front of people who are probably live-streaming it. But I guess that was the point of having it here, wasn't it?"

“If you play by your opponent’s rules, Anna, they get to decide who wins.”

“The idea is for all of us to win, Jason. There doesn’t have to be sides. I know you like playing chaos bringer but that will lash back on you to. And the people around you.”

Jason nodded.

“A lesson I never seem to learn properly,” he acknowledged. “I’m not your enemy, Anna. But if your organisation comes for me, it will be, and this is not the time for half-measures.”

Anna frowned.

“I hope things go well for both of us,” she said.

“So do I.”

“Why are you so certain the network will be at odds with you?”

“Dawn briefed you on the events about to take place. There’s no preventing them, only managing them, at least until I put a stop to them for good. What she didn’t tell you is that each event will contain a treasure that offers a path forward to those bottlenecked at the upper reaches of power. We’ve started calling them reality cores.”

“You’re saying that there’s a way beyond category three?”

“I’m sure you understand the ramifications,” Jason said. “The Network will be fighting the Cabal, the EOA and each other over the reality cores but they also won’t want me to turn off the spigot. Saving the world will stop it from getting fresh wounds for them to dig through for power.”

Anna looked around at the people filming them again.

“Jason, do you have any idea what you’ve done by releasing this information? Even if you’re lying, you’ve done incredible damage.”

“The Network, the Cabal and the EOA are about to start strip mining this planet for the things holding it together, even as forces threaten to tear it apart. I intend to do damage.”

“It’s time for me to leave,” Anna said. “After this conversation, I have to go get demoted.”

“I hope that isn’t true,” Jason said. “We need people like you.”

***

Jason had called a family meeting in the sitting room of the main residence, with Erika, her husband, Ian, Emi, Jason and Erika’s father, Ken, their uncle, Hiro and grandmother, Yumi. They were all sat in armchairs and on couches while Jason and Farrah stood before them.

“I have something to tell you about how you’re going to spend the next few months,” Jason said, “and I don’t think you’re going to like it.”

“You’re going to stash us away somewhere,” Yumi said.

“Yes,” Jason said.

“What if we say no?” Erika asked.

“Then things will be awkward when I do it anyway.”

“Why?” Ken asked.

“Because I have something that people will want me to give them. Once they realise I can’t, they’ll want me to use it for them. If they take hostages to try and make me, I have to be able to say no. If you all are the hostages, I don’t trust that I can.”

“We built Asano Village to keep us safe,” Hiro said.

“And when the Network was at our backs, that was enough,” Farrah said. “Now that they’re at our gates, it isn’t.”

“Where is this deep, dark hole you want to throw us in?” Erika asked.

“The safest place I have access to. You can spend the time preparing for what comes after, if you still intend to travel with us to the other world. Emi can prepare for her chosen essences, since the ones I picked out were apparently not good enough.”

“Uncle Jason, you only picked those out to keep me safe,” Emi said.

“Good,” Erika said. “Emi, you’re taking those.”

Ian placed a hand on his wife’s shoulder.

“Eri, we need to let her be what she wants to be, not what we want her to be.”

“You’ll have plenty of time for discussion on that topic,” Jason said. “Emi won’t be ready for essences for about another year. As for you, Ian, I suggest you get ready to introduce some medical knowledge to a population that relies largely on magic and faith.”

“I don’t think that matters,” Ian said. “Working with essence users, I’ve learned that their bodies defy my medical understanding.”

“Do you remember my friend Jory, from my recordings of the other world?” Jason asked. “He is all about helping regular people, who do fall under your expertise. I think you’ll be the most exciting person he’s ever met in his life.”

“Really?”

“Oh, yes. Just before I last saw him, the church of the Healer gave him a mandate and funding to spread his methods around the world. You’re going to be a busy man. What all of you need to do is start learning some languages. Fortunately, you’re all essence users, except for Emi, who’s already been learning for months. I’m not sure I ever explained what a spirit attribute is, but you have one and it will positively affect your memory. You’ve probably already noticed.”

“So that’s it?” Erika asked. “You’re locking us away and we don’t get a say in it?”

“Yep.”

“And what if something happens to you?” she asked.

“Actually I’m pretty safe,” Jason said. “Word will soon be getting around about the magic door I have inside me. Not only will people want me alive to use it, but they will, eventually, want me to save the world with it. They’ll just want me to hold off until they’ve harvested as many reality cores as they can.”

“So, they’ll lock you up in a deep, dark hole, too,” Erika said.

“Probably, yeah. That’s why I need you safe.”

“What about Mum? Kaito?”

“They’ll be safe here,” Jason said. “It won’t be long before anyone who would go after my family realises that the people I would potentially compromise myself over aren’t here anymore.”

“And until they figure that out?”

“We’ll be operating a team out of the village in the short term,” Farrah said. “By the time we move on, anyone who would try will have investigated enough to know.”

“And what if they decide to try anyway?”

“Then things will get ugly,” Jason said.

“Why can’t you take everyone?” Emi asked. “You’re putting us in the cloud palace, right? Won’t there be room?”

“I’m not putting you in the cloud palace,” Jason said. “I considered it. Taking the whole family and stashing you at the bottom of the sea. But if the whole family vanishes, people are going to wonder why and go looking. If they find you while I’m on the other side of the planet, I can’t protect you.”

“Where do you want to put us, then?” Erika asked.

“There’s another reason I chose all of you and not any of the others,” Jason said. “All of you have been able to enter my spirit vault.”

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Shirtaloon (Travis Deverell)

  • Australia

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