“This is different,” Gerling said. “I can feel it.”
Gerling and his team were in a city of graceful, narrow spires and islands floating in the air on beds of cloud. Bridges connected the floating islands to each other, while columns of light connected them to the ground, with elevating platforms that rose up and disappeared into the clouds.
The streets where bright and clean, with white marble buildings and roads of dark crystal flagstones. Trees lined the streets, their branches almost sagging with the weight of peaches and plums.
“It’s like heaven,” said Bennett, Gerling’s chief offsider.
“Right down to the absence of anomalies,” Barbou said. “Gerling, can you sense any?”
“This isn’t my domain, so my senses don’t blanket the place,” Gerling said. “This belongs to someone else, until we find them and take it from them. I truly hope it’s Asano.”
They started searching the city but found it to be empty, with no anomalies or domain holder to confront.
“He has to be here somewhere,” Gerling said. “If he doesn’t contest this territory, it’ll become mine by default.”
“Oh, I’ve made worse mistakes than defaulting on real estate,” Jason said, his voice coming around a corner. They hurried around to find Jason sitting at what looked to be an outdoor café with a large tree in the middle of the dining area. Its high branches and lush foliage offered shady refuge from the bright, clear sky. Jason was wearing a casual suit, as if enjoying a pleasant day on the Riviera.
Gerling and his subordinates gathered up in front of the café, looking at Jason.
“It’s not open,” Jason said regretfully. “I’d love an iced tea.”
“It’s time for you to surrender, Asano.” Gerling said. “Give up your domain and I’ll let you live. You can’t fight me, let alone the rest of us.”
“You Americans have the best training of essence users in the world,” Jason said. “The Chinese are about on par with you, but you leave everyone else in the dust, even with the new training programs Farrah organised. It’s been a few years and they’re catching up, but they’re not there yet.”
“Don’t bother stalling, Asano. Now that I can invade your domain, there’s nowhere to run. Nowhere to hide.”
“Would you mind not interrupting? I’m trying to monologue here. At least wait until I’ve explained my evil plan, strewth. Did you not get the white American protagonist handbook?”
Gerling chose not to put up with any more of Jason’s rambling and took a step towards him. Immediately, Jason’s aura washed over Gerling and his team in a wave. Gerling fended it off with his own aura but the others looked like they were having seizures standing up.
Gerling pushed out with his aura, extending it to the limit. Preventing his aura from being suppressed by Jason was not difficult due to the rank disparity, even with Jason’s potency. His men couldn’t use their auras at all, however, and shielding them with his own was much harder.
“As I was saying,” Jason said, as if their auras weren’t locking horns like raging bulls. “You Americans are trained quite well. The one area you fall short is aura control. You’re not terrible, certainly, and in most cases you’re at a sufficient competence level. But then someone like me comes along and suddenly all your little friends become liabilities. Unless you’re willing to give them up to my soul attacks, which you really shouldn’t. You can trust me on that.”
“Shut up,” Gerling snarled. With a grimace he managed to surge his aura and free his people from Jason’s aura suppression, cutting off the soul attacks. They all collapsed to the ground except for Adrien Barbou, who had not been attacked. He was standing over to the side, trying to look insignificant.
“G’day, Adrien,” Jason said, unperturbed by his attack being arrested. “Can I call you Adrien? We’ve only spoken over the phone before, so this is our first time meeting in person. A bloke might think you were dodging him.”
Gerling rushed at Jason, plunging into a spider web that he hadn’t realised was there and getting stuck in it. He pulled himself free in a series of jerking movements, his gold-rank strength easily up to the task.
“We really are just here to talk,” Mr North said, emerging from the café behind Jason. Barbou’s faced showed a mix of relief, confusion and fear.
“Hello Adrien,” Mr North said.
“You,” Gerling said.
“You know who I am,” Mr North said, sitting at the table with Jason. “That saves an introduction.”
“Why are you with him?” Gerling asked, jerking his head at Jason.
“I’m saving the world,” Mr North said. “I’ve been at it far longer than Mr Asano has. He’s something of a Johnny-come-lately.”
“Some of us aren’t centuries old,” Jason said.
“Really, Mr Asano? Age discrimination?”
“SHUT UP!” Gerling roared.
“Alright,” Jason said, dropping his half-smirk and smug body language. “Gerling, it’s time for you and I to come to terms.”
“Do please sit,” Mr North added. “We can talk now and you’ll still have the option to punch us later.”
At his side, Gerling’s hand squeezed into a fist as Jason and Mr North waited for his response, appearing completely unperturbed. Gerling loosened his fist with an unhappy grimace and took a seat.
“Cards on the table time,” Jason said. “Gerling, you’ve been expanding a domain, yes? You can feel the power growing inside you. That once it’s complete, you’ll truly be able to imprint yourself on this place.”
Gerling nodded but said nothing, letting Jason continue.
“I’ve been where you are, but there’s a problem, in that I have something you don’t. You know that I’ve been telling people that I’m saving the world, while being rather vague as to how.”
“There was an artefact. A powerful tool created by the being who… well, ‘who’ isn’t relevant right now. Suffice to say, this being is powerful beyond imagining.”
“You’re talking about a god.”
“Close enough, for purposes of this conversation,” Jason said.
“I brought this artefact to this world when I arrived in it,” Mr North said. “This was before the Network ever existed. It’s founding was part of a larger plan; a regulatory measure as the world’s magic increased. The purpose was to stabilise this world if it gained too much magic and started to unravel. As it quite demonstrably has.”
“I’ve heard about the thing you’re talking about,” Gerling said, looking at Jason. “You absorbed it.”
“Adrien,” Mr North said with disappointed admonishment, before turning back to Gerling.
“The point,” North continued, “ is that the artefact in question allows Jason to edit reality, within very specific and limited parameters. He’s been using it to undo certain changes made to this world long ago. Changes that have caused the rise in magic that, if not stopped, will destroy the world.”
“You’re trying to take magic away?” Gerling asked.
“No,” Jason said. “That toothpaste is already out of the tube. But the Earth is at its limit, now and can’t take any more increases in magic. Think of it like filling a water balloon at a tap. I’m trying to turn the tap off before the balloon bursts.”
“And an event like this,” Gerling said, gesturing around them, “is a sharp pencil, poking at the balloon.”
“The last abnormal transformation space did damage,” Jason said. “I didn’t do a perfect job of stopping it. This time, I have to, or the balloon pops. That means completely absorbing all of it into a single domain. That’s the only way to make it stable enough when we merge this space back into the world.”
“Then surrender your domain to me,” Gerling said. “I’ll unify it.”
“It’s not that simple,” Mr North said. “There’s a reason we brought up the artefact. Jason’s unique abilities give him a measure of control over this space. His domain was baked into the origins of this one, which we believe to be the reason that others can make more of them.”
“So?” Gerling asked. “It’s already in place, now. Ceding it to me shouldn’t matter.”
“It isn’t just about forming a domain,” Jason said. “It’s about reintegrating that domain. The power the door grants me is critical to making that process go smoothly. It’s probably required to initiate the process at all.”
“Probably?” Gerling asked. “How many of your confident assertions are guesswork?”
“More than we’d like,” Jason admitted. “That’s not a reason to take risks we don’t have to.”
“The risk is putting you in charge of everything,” Gerling said. “Power is what matters in expanding a domain and you don’t have the strength to make this work. I do.”
“Do you?” Jason asked. “How many powers have you unlocked? Five? Six?”
“Three,” Adrien chimed in, earning him a glare from Gerling.
“Mine were unsealed from the beginning,” Jason said. “All of them.”
“That’s crap. The last time, your powers were sealed as well.”
“This is not the same as the last time, Gerling,” Jason said. “If you choose to fight, you’ll find out for yourself. Mr North here will tie you up in webs while I kill and feed on your little minions, taking from their dead bodies the strength I need to kill you too. Which I will.”
“Then why aren’t we fighting already? You gave up the element of surprise.”
“You said it yourself: power is what matters in expanding a domain. We have Mr North, three ancient vampires, the necromancer of Makassar and an army of ghouls. We could use your strength.”
“That’s a real team of heroes you’ve got there. Why should I be part of it? Your vampires aren’t going to come out in the sun, and if I take you down, I’m the only hope that’s left. They’ll fall in line behind me.”
Jason closed his eyes and bowed his head, forcing down the first response that came to mind. Then he forced down the second and third.
“I told you once before, Gerling, that I was asked to put aside thoughts of revenge by someone whose wishes I am compelled to give weight. Let’s end thing here, you and I. We do this, together, and then we each go our own way. You fight the vampire war and save the world from the bloodsucker apocalypse. I leave the Earth to finish what I started here and save it from crumbling from under you. We bury our past and go our separate ways, as soon as we’re out of here.”
“And this little friendship circle starts with my handing over everything that me and my guys have fought for in this place? Everything we’ve earned.”
“No, Gerling. Starting with me putting aside for good the fact that you killed my brother, my lover and my friend.”
“I don’t want your forgiveness.”
Jason ran a frustrated hand over his face.
“Are you that obsessed with power?” he asked.
“Are you that insistent on being the only one that’s special?” Gerling shot back.
Jason stood up and started pacing, scratching absently at his head. Gerling stood up as well.
“Then I guess it’s winner takes all,” Gerling said. “We could have settled this without you two jabbering on.”
Something appeared in front of Gerling’s face.
“What the hell?”
“Just accept it, Gerling,” Jason said. “Let me show you something.”
- [Jason Asano] has invited you to form a party. Accept Y/N?
“What is this?” Gerling asked.
“It’s how I see the world,” Jason said. “I can’t hurt you with it. I know you feel that.”
Gerling frowned, conflicted. He didn’t trust Jason but his instincts really did tell him it was safe. What decided it, though, was the chance to pry open some of Asano’s secrets.
Jason set out several items on the table. A spirit coin, a healing potion and a pair of minor magical gloves he had looted from an anomaly. He talked Gerling through looking at his own character screen and ability descriptions.
“This is how I know the things I know, Gerling. It’s not just instinct.”
Jason held out his hand for Gerling to shake.
- Jason Asano.
- Essence user (outworlder, silver rank).
- ??? (spirit domain hegemon).
“This is my fight, Gerling. You have no concept of the enemies I’ve made along the way.”
“You’ve survived so far,” Gerling said.
“No,” Jason said. “I haven’t.”
Still holding Gerling’s hand, Jason concentrated.
- Jason Asano.
- Essence user (outworlder, silver rank).
- ??? (spirit domain hegemon).
- Number of deaths: 4.
Jason let go.
- [Jason Asano] has disbanded the party.
- You no longer have access to [Party Interface].
Gerling felt an odd sense of loss as the power to see his abilities laid out in front of him was taken away.
“You have your own fight, Gerling. By the time the vampire war is over, you’re going to be a hero to the world. Frankly, I’m glad I won’t be here to see it.”
“Yet, you’re working with vampires now.”
“There has to be a world to fight over,” Jason said. “Even they understand that.”
“And what happens to our little club once we’re done and you have control?” Gerling asked.
“I’ve already made deals,” Jason said. “I’m not happy about them, but I can live with them.”
“You expect us to believe you’ll just let us walk away?”
“It varies,” Jason said. “The necromancer is getting thrown in a hole where he’ll be stuck doing closely monitored medical research for the Network. The closest thing the vampires have to a leader will be switching sides.”
“You’re sure about that?”
“After the loss of the astral space facilities, she’s a lot less confident in the her side’s chances in the war. She won’t be the first to defect. The smart ones know that the faster they come across, the better they’ll be once everything is said and done.”
Gerling took his own turn to pace as he mulled things over. His people were still lying around, feeling like they’d been through a wringer.
“If I throw in,” Gerling said. “If I give up my domain, I want something in return.”
“What?” Jason asked.
“Teach me how to use my aura like you. Negate suppression collars. Attack people. How is your aura so strong?”
“Ah,” Mr North said. “I don’t think that’s a path you want to go down, Mr Gerling. Mr Asano’s power in that regard is a result of trauma the likes of which I cannot explain. Literally, I cannot. I don’t understand what a person would have to go through to reach that point and it would be more likely to destroy you. I’ve seen that kind of damage leave powerful essence users as broken wrecks. I have no doubt that Mr Asano himself was taken to the brink and took no small amount of time to recover.”
“But he did recover,” Gerling said. “And now he has an incredible power.”
“I had a lot of help,” Jason said. “Specialist care, for months.”
“I can take it.”
“I don’t even know how to do that to a person,” Mr North said. “We’re talking about scouring your very soul.”
“I do,” Jason said. “If you want to know what it takes, Gerling, lower your aura defences and I’ll give you a taste.”
“You think I’ll just open myself up like that?”
“I told you, Mr Gerling,” Mr North said. “Trauma.”
“Which you could easily be making up.”
“Gerling, how many scars do you have?”
“None, obviously. Essence users can’t get…”
Gerling was looking straight at Jason face, trailing off as he realised that the small scars on it shouldn’t have been possible.
“How?” he asked.
“Some marks run deeper than others,” Jason said. “I’m going to lower my aura defences and you can see for yourself. Take a look at my soul, Gerling.”
Jason’s aura, which suffused the area as part of his domain, was suddenly diminished. None of it was emitted from Jason himself at all. Gerling, wary of a trap, slowly extended his own out to examine Jason.
Gerling was no stranger to examining the souls of others. As a bully with power, he had often forcefully looked over the souls of the people around him. None of them were anything like Asano’s.
Jason’s soul was scarred and pitted, like the wall of a fortress that had endured countless sieges and never broken. He could feel powerful forces within. Defiance, resolution. Power. A tyrannical force that would not be swayed by greater powers. There was also something else that made Gerling uneasy. It was faint, just an echo, not belonging to Jason but something that had touched him and left a profound mark. Something Gerling’s instincts wanted to call divine but he refused to do so.
Everything about Jason’s soul hinted at a story Gerling could not see. Stories of endurance and suffering. Of enemies with impossible power, not just defied but overcome. Jason’s soul told stories of victory, and the price he paid for it, time and again.
Gerling pulled his senses back.
“That’s my soul, Gerling,” Jason said softly.
“You said trauma,” Gerling said. “If a few cuts on your face is all it takes to make your break open suppression collars, I’ll take that hit.”
Jason frowned and shrugged off his light jacket. He unbuttoned his shirt and opened it up, showing the myriad cuts where fragments of star seed had been pushed out of his body. A wide, bright scar ran from his right hip to wind around the left side of his torso. That was from his first fight with a silver-rank monster, when he was only iron-rank. His desperate scramble to distract it as villagers evacuated has almost cost him his life.
“If you want scars, Gerling, I can give them to you. I can rake your soul, if that’s what you want, but now isn’t the time for that. Now, it’s time to choose. Are you going to stand with us or stand against us?”