The collared cultists were effectively non-threats without powers, but Jason wasn’t taking chances. Holding a hand out to the side, blood spilled out to take the form of Colin in his blood clone form.
“Watch the packaged meat,” Jason instructed. “If it starts going bad, eat it fast.”
The cultist still free didn’t try to look out for his fellows. He did just the opposite moving out of the way as the familiar approached them with slow, methodical steps. The cultist never took his eyes from Jason as he sidestepped out of the apocalypse beast’s path, remaining alert to attack.
The collared cultists tried to run, only for blood-soaked leather straps to shoot out from Colin. They grabbed the disempowered cultists and dragged them back to the familiar’s feet. Jason felt the surge of power from the star seeds within them as they tried to self-detonate and locked them down with his aura.
This was a trick Jason had instinctively picked up after ejecting the star seed placed in his own body. He hadn’t understood how the ability truly worked when he first used it back in Greenstone, but he had changed a lot since then. Jason was no longer a dual entity of body and soul, the way most physical beings were. For him, body and soul was the same thing.
This was extremely unusual, even on a cosmic scale. While the specific components of different physical beings varied, the underlying pattern that made them up was the same. Be it a normal person or an essence user, monster or familiar, physical beings were comprised of a physical component that served as a vessel for a spiritual component. Exceptions to this, where the body and spirit did not exist in a state of duality but in a unified, physical and spiritual gestalt were extremely rare. This was what made entities like the messengers and the vorger so extraordinary.
Jason’s adoption of that state had given him significant insights into the way the connection between body and spirit functioned. It helped him understand the underlying mechanisms of things he’d been doing by instinct, like using his aura to prevent star seed detonation.
The soul of any being was inviolable unless it opened itself to penetration. If a being like the Builder, with practically infinite power, could not overcome this limitation, then Jason certainly couldn't. This made a star seed inside someone's soul untouchable, however strong his ability to influence the Builder's artefacts. Not all of a star seed was held within the soul, however.
While each great astral being used its own kind of star seed, they were all, by necessity, a reflection of the basic patterns of physical beings. They were made up of both physical and spiritual components, which lodged themselves in the physical and spiritual aspects of living beings. For this reason, messengers and similar beings, which now included Jason, were immune to star seed implantation.
Jason was unable to do a lot with the physical aspect of a star seed, as the protected spiritual component was the part that controlled it. The most he could do was lock down the physical component and prevent it from enacting commands sent from within the soul.
Jason's understanding of the dual nature of most physical beings wasn't generally useful. The two aspects were like perfect halves of a sphere, seamlessly sealed together, with nowhere to take purchase. When Jason used his ability to attack a soul, all he was doing was scratching at the exterior or squeezing it like a ball. There was nothing to grab hold of and really go to work, but a star seed changed that considerably.
Jason locked down the physical aspects of the cultist's star seeds, so as to stop their self-detonation. It was something he hadn't done in years, during which time he had gone through considerable changes. This led to a revelation as he grabbed at the star seeds: the physical aspect of a star seed was like a handle sticking out a cultist’s soul. A handle that he could grab.
Looking at the uncollared cultist through a new lens, Jason didn’t see a man. He saw a sphere with a great big handle poking out the side. Half of that sphere was untouchable, but what if he grabbed that handle and used it to wrench off that half that wasn’t? He couldn’t rip the man’s soul out of his body, but maybe he could tear the body off the soul.
The cultist and Jason were still in a standoff, staring one another down. Neither had moved since Colin tied up the other cultists, who were now bound up in wet red leather straps like insects in a web. From the cultist’s perspective that was fine, buying time for reinforcements to arrive. For Jason, it allowed him to concentrate on forging a new weapon in his soul arsenal.
Jason projected his aura in twin talons that dug through the cultist’s aura. One gripped the man’s soul while the other gripped the physical element of the star seed. Then, Jason started to twist. The man froze, eyes wide as he felt something try to wrench apart the very foundation of his being. For Jason, it also felt like a physical struggle, as if he were trying to yank the man’s soul from his body with brute strength. The difference in soul strength between the two silver-rankers was like a bodybuilder fighting a child.
Jason was certain that unless the Builder stepped in and turned the cultist into a vessel, he could not be stopped. Since doing so would go far beyond simply using some vessels to talk, Jason didn’t think that he would. The two men struggled while standing dead still, staring at one another. The other cultists lay where they were tied up, watching in fear and confusion. Despite having their aura senses being sealed, the collared cultists were able to sense the powerful aura reactions coming from within the cultist Jason was spiritually attacking. Even people without magic and the aura senses that come with it would have felt it. It was not enough that they were clear as to what was befalling their companion, but they could tell that it was happening on a level that no wound should be able to reach.
“Mr Asano, I recommend against this course of action.”
Jason ignored Shade, his face warped with hate as he felt the strain he was placing on the bond between the cultist’s body and soul. The man wasn't even resisting anymore, swaying and starting to twitch. Shade rose up from Jason’s shadow.
“Mr Asano, I strongly recommend against this course of action.”
Jason continued to twist and wrench, feeling the cultist’s spiritual foundation beginning to tear.
“JASON, STOP IT!”
Shade never yelled. Shade never told when he could suggest and Shade never used Jason’s first name. Doing all three at once had finally broken through. The cultist dropped to the ground, frothing at the mouth as Jason released him and turned to his shadowy familiar.
“Mr Asano,” Shade said, his composure restored. “If I ask you to do something, will you do it?”
“Then I will ask you not to do what you were about to do. Ever. Because–”
“Why doesn’t matter,” Jason cut in, his voice soft. “If you want it, that’s all the why I need.”
Jason’s shoulder’s slumped. Shade had shaken the twisted rage from his expression he suddenly looked exhausted. Something festering inside him had finally rotted through and collapsed. He looked over at the cultists. The free one was having a seizure, the foam in his mouth tainted red. The others showed an expression Jason wasn’t familiar with on the face of a Builder cultist. He’d seen arrogance and disdain. He’d seen fury, madness and the slack-jawed blankness of a puppet. Fear was new. Even collared, they felt what Jason had been doing to their companion and it chilled them to a depth only the star seeds within them had ever reached before.
“I almost crossed a line there, didn’t I?” Jason asked.
“Yes, Mr Asano.”
“Or maybe I already did. If you hadn’t stopped me, I’d have torn that man’s soul out.”
“But you didn’t. There is still a path home for you.”
“And where’s that? I don’t think I know anymore.”
“It’s the same place it’s always been, Mr Asano. The place where people are waiting for you.”
The exterior of the aperture changed, the rainbow portal stopped flickering as the seal on the other side was broken. Figures started emerging from it; first the collared cultists, then Jason, who immediately locked down their star seeds again. He wasn’t able to maintain the suppression while passing through the portal. Following them was Colin, who looked like a blood-red copy of Jason and had the last cultist slung over his shoulder, still unconscious. Colin’s bloody straps shot out to wrap around the cultists again and he walked them behind Jason like dogs on a leash.
As he arrived from the astral space, Jason immediately sensed the presence of the expedition. They were arrayed in front of the Builder's vessels, who had broken down considerably in the short time he’d been gone. Jason arrived as the vessels were using their cold, mechanical harmony to address the wary expedition members.
“…have a proposal for you.”
“Not interested,” the expedition leader, Jeni Kavaloa, told the vessels.
“If Jason Asano dies,” the Builder continued, “my forces shall abandon the Storm Kingdom, never to return. The underwater city will depart. Everyone and everything that serves me will either leave or destroy itself outright. All it will cost you is one silver-rank head. It must be the silver-rankers amongst you who take it, however. The gold-ranker cannot intervene herself.”
The words arrested Jason’s attention and he stopped inside the mouth of the cave. How many times had he been thrown under the bus by someone in power that was ostensibly an ally? Lucian Lamprey of the Magic Society. Elspeth Arella of the Adventure Society. The Network more than anyone. They had turned on him over and over, with the gall to ask for things in between, passing the blame onto rogue elements and hostile factions. Jason didn’t think he could be surprised anymore, only to be proven immediately wrong.
“Stick it up your ass,” the guild team leader, Korinne, yelled. “Asano might be an asshole that takes himself way too seriously, but he's our asshole, and we don't turn on our own assholes."
Even with the Builder's vessels arrayed right in front of them, the expedition members all turned to look at her.
“Shut up,” she barked defensively. “I’m not good at speeches, alright?”
The Builder ignored her.
“What say you, gold-ranker?” the vessels asked. “You are the foremost representative of the Adventure Society here and command these silver-rankers. You do not even need to spill the blood on your own hands. How many lives can be spared in return for one silver-rank head? Are you willing to pay the blood price of war when I offer you peace?"
“We’re not handing anyone over to you,” Jeni said.
“And what of you, Princesses? The monster surge will be long and when it is gone, and I with it, a new storm will come. Will your kingdom be rested and ready to weather it or battered and tired when the time comes to face it?”
Vesper stepped forward, panning her gaze across the row of crumbling vessels.
“If having Asano dead is worth more to you than our entire kingdom,” she declared, “then the most important thing our kingdom can do is make sure he stays alive.”
“That may be harder than you think,” the vessels announced. “You may know that Asano has come back from the dead more than once. What he has hidden is that he cannot do it anymore. Until he reaches gold-rank, no power in the cosmos can revive him again.”
Taking the last word, the vessels died as the power inside them vanished and they collapsed to the ground. Jason left the cave with an unfamiliar sense of gratitude to the members of the expedition. He walked through the still-fighting constructs and abominations, those he controlled pushing those he didn't out of his path to open the way.
The expedition watched Jason and his entourage of bound cultists pass through the still-fighting Builder minions. Jason looked at the dead vessels as he walked past them. Because they hadn’t been properly prepared as vessels, they had collapsed entirely into piles of dry dirt. At least it meant they were too broken to revive as magic-sucking ghouls, the way vessels had in the past.
Jeni looked at Asano, whose aura was now a closed book to her. She hoped that it was because he had gotten a handle of the madness that had been bubbling out of him and not just that he’d gotten better at hiding it. Whatever he had been up to, the look of restrained anger on his face since she had met him had been replaced with a sunken weariness.
“Mr Asano, you and I need to have a discussion.”
“I don’t make a very good subordinate,” he acknowledged. “It’s not a new failing.”
“When you chose to join this expedition, there was an expectation that you would follow directions.”
Jason looked from Jeni to Vesper and then back to Jeni.
“I apologise for that. In my defence, I was following directions.”
Jeni took her turn looking to Vesper, then back to Jason.
“Politics,” she said, making a dirty word of it.
“Tell me about it,” Jason sympathised. “Silent and brooding was what you said, wasn’t it, Vesper? Oh, and Zara, if you’re still looking to get married, we’ll have to talk about that later. I shut down the sealing ritual on the other side of the aperture but there’s still plenty of bad guys in there and we should get going before they close it off again.”
Jason turned and wandered back in the direction of the cave.
“Okay,” Korinne said. “Who was that guy and what happened to the other guy?”
“Same guy,” Vesper said happily as she set off after Jason. “He just put the mask back on.”