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“Well,” Jason said. “This is awkward.”

Every person gathered in the mezzanine lounge of the pagoda had either tried to or succeeded in killing or kidnapping at least one other person present.

“Perhaps I should take the lead,” Mr North suggested. “While I have tried to arrange several deaths amongst the group, I never tried to kill anyone here personally.”

“Whatever works,” Jason said. “Just make sure no one tries it again while I’m transfiguring the new territories.”

Gerling’s face creased with suppressed anger. Although he had ultimately agreed to participate, he was still not entirely at peace with his decision. He held his tongue, however, as Jason got on the elevating platform and ascended through the building.

"Boss," Bennett said. "Are we seriously going along with that guy after all the time you've been setting up to hunt him?"

“If we don’t bend to circumstance, Bennett, then we break,” Gerling said. “We are dealing with forces here larger than all of us. Don’t speak on that again.”

“Boss?”

“If Asano isn’t listening to us, his shadow familiars are,” Gerling said. “Watch your words with care.

***

Jason completed the transfiguration of the territories surrendered by Gerling.


  • You have claimed sufficient territory to stabilise the transformation zone and separate it from the convergent astral space.
  • Separating the space with the current territory will have a disruptive effect on the dimensional membrane of the surrounding reality. Claim additional territory to reduce the severity of this effect. Current severity reduction: 97.4%
  • Would you like to stabilise the transformation zone Y/N?

"That was worth bugger all," he complained after looking at the percentage. "Gerling, your domains were crap."

“I’m afraid he’s unable to hear you from here, Mr Asano,” Shade said. “If it would save you time, I can explain to him myself that he’s a worthless aggregation of excrement whom the cosmos would be better for wiping off its shoe. Metaphorically speaking.”

“I appreciate the sentiment,” Jason said with a chuckle. “I’m afraid it wouldn’t be productive at this stage,” Jason said. “It seems that the severity reduction does not perfectly correlate related to how many domains are claimed. It’s like a video game that immediately loads to ninety percent and then spends most of the loading time on the last ten.”

“It seems likely that broad reductions in severity are relatively easy,” Shade said, “but seamlessly integrating this anomalous realm into physical reality takes considerably more effort.”

“Even so, we are close to the end.”

Jason returned down the elevating platform to the others.

“It’s done,” he told them. “Now, what remains is to claim the final territories. It’s almost complete, but completion grows harder the closer we get.”

“I have something I’ve been wondering about,” Todd the necromancer asked.

“What?” Jason asked.

“Three of us built domains separately,” Todd said. “For each of us, our domains expanded in rings until they ran into one another. Yet, now you’ve taken over our territories, it’s all just one set of expanding rings, right?”

“That’s right,” Jason said.

“Wouldn’t that mean that the entire geography of this place is undergoing massive changes?” Todd asked. “Even the space it occupies in total would need to shift.”

“That’s exactly what’s happening,” Jason said. “I assume that, aside from Mr North, none of you has any grounding in astral magic theory. To my knowledge, most of it in your world was brought here by me, and I didn’t share much.”

“You mean our world,” Elizabeth said.

“Yeah,” Jason said. “A very bare-bones explanation of the astral is that the cosmos is like a bowl of dumpling soup. Physical realities, meaning universes like ours, with matter and energy and Knight Rider DVD box sets are the dumplings. The astral, which is raw magic that has no physical state, is the soup. You’re all familiar with proto spaces and astral spaces. These are parts of a dumpling that the soup had made a bit soggy. They’re part of the dumpling, but they work differently because of how they’re affected by the soup.”

Jason gestured broadly around them.

“This place is what happens when too much soup gets into the dumpling. It breaks apart. To drop the analogy, the magic of the astral realm renders the physical realm unstable and it breaks down. The rules of physical reality, as we understand them, go right out the window. We're doing nothing less here than trying to rebuild the laws of physics by punching monsters and hoping for the best. That’s about as likely to work as it sounds and I can’t encapsulate how many things had to line up to give us a chance at this.”

He glanced at Gerling.

“Adding more risk to the process is trying to fix Humpty Dumpty by pushing him off the wall again.”

“Humpty Dumpty?” asked Elizabeth.

“Right,” Jason said. “You’ve been asleep for centuries.”

“It’s an English children’s rhyme,” said Georges, the Frenchman amongst the vampires. “Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall; Humpty Dumpty had a great fall. Four-score men and four-score more, could not make him as he was before. It means something is irrevocably broken.”

“Exactly,” Jason said. “Broadly speaking, what I've been doing over the last year is trying to prevent what is happening in this place from happening on a global scale. I don't think it would be exactly the same, but the entire planet becoming an abnormal transformation zone isn't all that far off from what would happen.”

“How can you prevent that?” Elizabeth asked.

Jason turned to Mr North.

“Would you care to explain?” Jason asked.

“Long ago,” Mr North said, “probably in your time, Miss Elizabeth, someone was sent to our world from another to set the events of the past few years into motion. I came to this world as his companion.”

“Companion?” Gerling asked.

“His familiar,” Mr North said. “I am not human.”

“Hardly any of us are, at this point,” Jason said. “Do vampires count?”

“No,” Elizabeth said firmly. “Humans are herd animals.”

Gerling’s eyes hadn’t left Mr North.

“So, you’re responsible for putting the world in danger,” Gerling accused.

“I participated, yes,” Mr North admitted. “When I say set the current events in motion, I mean quite thoroughly. My formerly-bonded essence user is known to the Network now as the founder, as in, the man who established the network itself. Your entire organisation was created as a pressure valve. A safety measure to regulate the speed at which magic was injected into this world.”

Mr North hung his head.

“As the centuries passed,” Mr North said, “I came to love this world. It can be ugly and cruel, and I have become both in my efforts to shield it, but it can also be wonderful. There is no magic dividing the weak from the strong. Humanity needs to advance as one to push itself forward.”

“That’s not really how it played out,” Jason said.

“No?” Mr North countered. “A diamond-ranker is a nuclear bomb that can walk around and do what it likes. No one individual in this world has the power they have in the other. Money and influence go far but no one here is immortal. There are no thousand-year kings. Until I came here and interfered with that order, this world had no taint of magic.”

Mr North’s animated body language suddenly stopped dead.

“That is why I turned against my essence user,” he said softly. “Betrayed him to Mr Gerling’s Network antecedents. This is the seed from which the advantage of the United States Network branches originates. I handed him over, both to stop him and to give myself the resources to begin my work.”

“What work is that?” Gerling asked. “Making superheroes?”

"In part, yes. I know what it looks like when essences are the source of power. I sought to democratise magic. Create a pathway to magic that I could give to everyone who wanted it, not just those who hoard and dole out essences as they please. It would give humanity more magic than I wanted them to have but that die had already been cast and I knew what was coming. What became the human augmentation project was centuries in the making and is yet to be perfected. I’ve taken shortcuts that I wish, on balance, I had not.”

“You used Builder cores to somehow stop their power from driving them insane,” Jason said.

“Modified clockwork cores, yes. My people discovered what is called a clockwork king, largely destroyed. It was here long before I ever arrived, for reasons unknown to me, but I exploited it. And Mr Asano, in turn, has exploited that to kill them with ease.”

“That’s how you killed those people in Venezuela,” Gerling said to Jason. “You know their weakness.”

“And he can exploit it, because of an artefact my essence user brought from the other world. It was the tool he brought to set off the changes in the world’s magic. It was also meant to be the most important tool to fix things if they went wrong. Which they did, but he was gone.”

“You couldn’t use it?”

“I could not, or I would have. The founder was originally from this world. He was drawn into the other and then sent back, just like Mr Asano. This bestowed the founder with certain traits and the artefact was protected such that only someone with those traits could use it. This was so that if anything happened to him, someone else could be sent to take up his work.”

Mr North turned his gaze on Jason.

“Enter, Mr Asano. I have been preparing for his arrival since long before he was born, yet he surprised me. I was expecting a zealot when what arrived was a naïve fool with a hero complex. I had been anticipating an enemy, only to receive an ally."

Jason’s lips pressed together unhappily but he held his tongue.

“Mr Asano’s disposition changed much for me,” Mr North said. “Unfortunately, I did not understand who and what he was until it was too late. I had already set events in motion that changed the world.”

“You took down the grid,” Jason said. “Initiated the monster waves and sent this world’s magic careening out of control.”

“The dangers this world faces now are only the beginning,” Mr North said. “Unfortunately, I have set in motion the very events I have sought to avoid. Mr Asano will repair the world, but the only way to do so is to set in motion that which I have been trying to stop. My actions, in trying to set the timetable of events, could have, perhaps been avoided. It is too late, now, and all we can do is weather each storm after the next.”

“What are you describing?” Elizabeth asked. “You are being very vague on the nature of this threat.”

“Yes,” Mr North said. “As I will continue to be.”

“Those are the concerns of another day,” Jason said, “but I hope you now understand why I’m willing to strike bargains when I would rather see you all dead. Mr North has more to answer for than any of you, but the people in this room constitute some of the most powerful forces on Earth. We’re going to need you all, in the future, as well as right now.”

Jason walked over to the mezzanine railing and looked out over the atrium.

“I think there will be one or two more territories before we’re done,” he said. “Progress is slow, so it may be three; I can’t be certain. With the extra territories I’ve claimed, the strength of the anomalies will be greater than what we’ve seen in the past. Expect them to have all the strength of category four monsters. Only by working as a team will we be able to beat them.”

Jason turned to look at Adrien Barbou, standing at the back with Gerling’s henchmen.

“Barbou, there’s no point taking you. You’ll die, and die fast. As for your people, Gerling, I’ll leave that decision up to you.”

Gerling turned to his own group, eight silver-rankers.

“I can enhance your powers,” Gerling told them. “Give you the strength to contribute. Make no mistake, though: If you join, the chances of death are high. That’s true for all of us, let alone, you. I won’t force anyone, and I won’t think any less of you for staying back. But you’ve heard the stakes. There are worse things to die for than saving the world.”

Gerling’s men looked at each other. One of them looked reluctant as he spoke up.

“I’m sorry, boss. I don’t… I don’t want to die.”

“It’s okay,” Gerling said. “When I asked you all to join me, this was never a part of the deal.”

***

In the end, half of Gerling’s eight participated. The other four stayed behind with Barbou in the pagoda, while Jason led the rest outside, where Shade had taken the form of a jet hovering over the driveway, a platform descending on cables to allow people to board.

As the plane winged toward the new edge of Jason’s domain, Jason sat alone in the cockpit, although Shade was doing the piloting.

“Mr Asano, may I ask what all of the explanation was in aid of?” Shade asked. “It hardly seems worth the effort.”

“Which is exactly the point,” Jason said. “If my intention was to kill them all, why bother?”

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Shirtaloon (Travis Deverell)

  • Australia

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