As Belinda left Jason on the balcony of the cloud house, Humphrey came out to take her place, leaning against the railing next to Jason. Jason flashed him a smile before turning his gaze back out over the lagoon, shimmering with the light of twin moons.
“We’ve come a long way from that waiting room in Greenstone where we met,” Humphrey said. “But I suppose you’d already been further to get that far.”
“That was quite a week for me. I didn’t even give notice at work. Also, cannibals.”
“Jason what you did…”
“Bad thing I did or good thing I did? You’ll have to narrow it down. I’m very heroic, but also kind of a disaster.”
“You’re not a disaster, Jason.”
“I did set off the monster surge.”
“Your friend Dawn told us you would. We made Clive promise not to pester you about it until at least the second day.”
Jason snorted a laugh
“He must have had spasms after meeting Dawn.”
“I didn’t take him long to overcome the glow of diamond-rank and start interrogating her, no. She was surprisingly patient with him.”
“She spent a year running around with me, so she’s had the practice.”
“We all want to hear about it. That recording crystal you sent left us with a lot of questions and not a lot of answers.”
“You won’t be able to get rid of me now,” Jason said. “We’ll have plenty of time for that.”
“Good. Jason, by that thing you did, I meant taking the Builder’s vessel with you off that tower. Did you know you would come back from that?”
“Didn’t have a clue. How heroic was that? You should tell people about it all the time, by which I mean attractive women. Just maybe not princesses, even though, you know… damn. Have you seen the princesses they have here? I bet you've seen more princesses than me, but these ones seem frustratingly gorgeous."
Humphrey shook his head, having quickly built up his Jason tolerance again.
“Jason, what you did–”
“Is exactly what you would have done, so shut your handsome mouth right there, cobber. I know what I did, so stick to telling the ladies, yeah? Now that you’re off the market, I might actually get a look in.”
Humphrey went stiff.
“Belinda told you.”
“Mate, I didn’t need her to tell me. You and Sophie may not have been holding hands, but your auras were. The old senses are a lot sharper than they were back when we last met.”
"No it's not," Jason said. "Let me guess: You two were circling each other for a while, but your dead, rakishly-charming friend was hanging over you like a ghost. Then hey, he's suddenly alive and you realise you don't want her getting confused because she used to have a thing for him, which finally got you to sack up."
“That’s… not inaccurate.”
"Who pushed you? Lindy or your mum?"
"Lindy," Humphrey grumbled.
Jason laughed again.
"Mate, you don't have to worry about me. Sophie was always looking for you; she just didn't know it. She thought I was a good guy because I'm the one that helped her first."
Jason slapped Humphrey on the back.
“But you’re the good guy, Humphrey. The way she grew up, she needs that. And so do I. I’ve found that I tend to lose my way, left to my own devices. I need someone to keep me on the straight and narrow.”
“You are a good man, Jason.”
Jason gave him a sad smile.
“Over the next little while, you’re going to hear about the things I’ve done. I made allies, intending from the start to betray and kill them – which I did. Yesterday I almost tore a man’s soul out of his body because I was angry and I could. Shade pulled me back from that one.”
Humphrey stood up straight, turning to face Jason.
“Jason, are you okay?”
Jason also pushed himself off the railing, giving Humphrey another sad smile.
“No, Humphrey. I’m not. But I will be, now that you’re here.”
Jason sensed Sophie wandering alone, along the trail leading down the cliff face to the main village. He masked his presence until he drew close, struck by her startling figure. With her delicate grace and the moonlight shining off her silver hair, she was a moon fairy in the night.
“You’re too quiet,” she said, turning around to face him.
“I’ve had to be,” he said.
“Things go poorly for men who sneak up on me.”
“Things have been going poorly for a while.”
“Our team could use a stealth guy. If you’re nice, we might let you back in.”
“I probably won’t be nice.”
“I’m guessing we’ll let you in anyway. Humphrey’s a soft touch.”
A smile teased at the corners of his lips.
“Is that so?”
She shook her head.
“I knew he’d tell you straight away.”
“He didn’t have to; I could see it right away. It’s sweet.”
“Are you making fun of me?”
“No,” he said, giving her an honest smile instead of his trademark half-smirk. “I know sincerity isn’t one of my many things, but I’m glad for you. At this point, I’ll take happiness where I can find it.”
He turned to look out over the lagoon and she moved to stand beside him.
“You’re not doing so well, are you?” she asked.
“You know what it’s like when the bad feels like it’s never going to end.”
“I do. But it does. I found the team, and now you have too.”
She gave him a hesitant side glance.
“I… wasn’t sure how I’d feel when I saw you,” she said.
“I was kind of a mess back when we knew each other.”
“I’m kind of a mess now.”
“I’ve known him longer than I ever knew you. Been with him every day. Helping people isn’t a responsibility to him. He cares about people, genuinely. People he’s never met. I never had that in my life, and I want it.”
“So you should. I know I do. I’m probably not going to sleep with him, though.”
She snorted a laugh.
“You’re still kind of a prick.”
“Yeah,” Jason said with a chuckle. “I kind of am. So, we’ve established I’m a garbage fire; how are you doing.”
“I’m good,” she said. “Great, really. And I wouldn't be if you hadn't put me on this path. I won't forget that.”
“You may recall that I messed things up pretty badly.”
“You helped me when no one else would have even thought about it. Not even Humphrey, which is why he values you so much. I’m not sure if I ever properly thanked you. I’ll always owe you for that.”
“You’ll never owe me for that. Friends don’t count favours.”
“You say that, but your favours are kind of insane. Humphrey was angry at himself for a long time that he wasn’t the one to take the Builder off that tower.”
“Couldn’t he barely stand?”
“You think he takes that into consideration?”
Jason laughed, shaking his head.
“Of course he doesn’t. You know that you two will have obnoxiously good-looking babies.”
“It’s more than a little early to be talking about that.”
“So you say, but are you willing to bet Danielle Geller doesn’t have a timeline sketched out in a notebook somewhere?”
“Oh gods, his mother. She’s like you, except she keeps her ears open instead of her mouth, which is terrifying.”
“She’s probably already making plans for a brood of adorable chocolate babies with silver hair.”
Sophie let out a groan.
Late in the evening, after the barbecue was done, Jason was scrubbing grill plates in the yard. He smiled as someone let him sense her aura.
“It’s starting to feel like I can summon diamond-rankers by cleaning barbecues,” he said, handing the plate to Shade as he turned around. “Thank you for bringing them here.”
Dawn was standing in front of Jason, although her aura was completely invisible to him. She was in her true celestine form, with ruby eyes and matching hair that glimmered like gemstones in the moonlight. It seemed that all celestines looked good under the moon.
“I still don’t want to overplay your importance,” she told him. “Soramir Rimaros gave me a pretence to bring them here, but I suspect that was the idea when you let my name slip. He certainly does.”
“I just wanted the option running around in his head. Not sure what gave him the push to bring you in already.”
“No one told you? Farrah marched into the royal palace and gave him a talking to.”
"Seriously? Good for her."
“That’s the behaviour you want to encourage? Of course, you being a bad influence shouldn't surprise me. I know that from experience.”
Jason pointed an accusing finger.
"I knew it! I knew you took the recording crystals with all my songs by Kenny Rogers and the First Edition.”
“It was easy enough for you to make more. I was leaving the universe.”
“You could have mentioned that in the recording you left me. I almost didn't realise they were missing in time to re-record them before we left as well.”
“You wanted me to add a bit about Kenny Rogers to the message where I told you the rules a great astral being has to abide by when trying to kill you?”
“You need to get your priorities in order. I don’t care about the Builder; that guy sucks. Kenny Rogers is an icon, and his stuff with First Edition before he went solo? That's the good stuff."
They both looked up at the balcony where Jason’s house guests were all watching him argue with the diamond ranker about something they’d never heard of.
"Well, this is ridiculous," Neil said, turning to go back inside. "That didn't take long."
As Neil left, shaking his head, Farrah gave Dawn a casual wave.
“I thought everyone was asleep,” Jason mumbled into Gary’s chest. “What happened to the guy who wasn’t a hugger?”
“I realised that you can’t fight destiny,” Gary said, letting Jason go.
“That’s definitely not true,” Jason said. “It’s kind of my whole thing.”
“Well,” Gary said, “Maybe this will help with that.”
He took a sword from a dimensional bag and held it out for Jason. The hilt was black with a bone handle and white embellishments. The scabbard was simple black lacquer with a dark metal tip and very minor patterning of white and dark red.
“I had some help with it. The scabbard is new but we incorporated it into the item. Magically, it’s a part of the sword.”
Jason took a hold of the sword by the scabbard.
- You have acquired the complete [Regalia of the Dark Hegemon]. All set effect bonuses to items within the set are restored.
- Set Bonus (Item: [Amulet of the Dark Guardian]): For each instance of an affliction applied to an enemy, gain an instance of [Hegemon’s Authority].
- [Hegemon’s Authority] (boon, holy, unholy, stacking): All allies within your aura have increased resistance to aura suppression. Additional instances have a cumulative effect. Consume instances of this boon to enhance your aura suppression strength.
- Set Bonus (Item: [Cloud Flask]): Shrouds the wearer in mist. Mist can be controlled through aura manipulation to condense into small cloud constructs. Cloud constructs created in this manner only maintain integrity against attacks lower than the rank of this item; attacks of its rank and above are minimally impeded. Shroud can be withdrawn into the flask.
- Set Bonus (Item: [Hegemon’s Will]): Enemies struck with this weapon are subjected to a mild mana drain effect and are inflicted with [Hegemon’s Tribute].
- [Hegemon’s Tribute] (affliction, magic): Anyone affected by Hegemon’s tribute is subject to a mild, ongoing mana drain effect by the wielder of [Hegemon’s Will] so long as they remain within the wielder’s aura. If this affliction is cleansed or the subject dies, a final burst of mana is drained.
Because he was holding the scabbard, it was the first item Jason was able to observe.
Item: [Hegemon’s Dominion] (silver rank [growth], legendary)
The scabbard to Hegemon’s Will, Hegemon’s Dominion is the embodiment of hegemonic control, representing the hegemon’s mastery of his domain (container, scabbard).
- This item is bound to [Jason Asano] and cannot be used by anyone else. This bond allows the weapon to share the wielder’s ability to ignore rank disparity. This item is magically bound to [Hegemon’s Will]; they are treated as the same item for all magical effects.
- Effect: Instances of afflictions affecting the wielder are periodically moved to this item, removing their effects from the wielder. This is not a cleansing effect. The rate of transfer is affected by the relative rank of the effects to the wielder. Suppressing the originator of the effect’s aura increases the rate of transfer; the wielder being aura suppressed reduces the rate of transfer. If [Hegemon’s Will] is sheathed, all afflictions are transferred to the weapon and affect the next enemy struck. Any effects resisted or subject to immunity are negated and cannot be passed to an alternate target.
- Current rank: Silver.
Looking over the growth conditions, the weapon’s growth was no longer capped by rank. The materials required for an upgrade, however, were all materials Jason had never heard of and were presumably gold-rank.
“It’s going to be fairly rough to upgrade,” Gary admitted. “It was a strange crafting process, to be honest. It’s almost like the sword knew how it wanted to be reforged.”
“That makes sense,” Jason said. “Based on a fight I lost recently, this ability on the scabbard is exactly what I needed.”
Jason looked up at Gary.
“You’re amazing,” he said, then grabbed the hilt.
Item: [Hegemon’s Will] (silver rank [growth], legendary)
A precious gift, imbued with the soul of its owner and reforged with a renewed sense of purpose. The aid of a grandmaster craftsman in the reforging process has produced a flawless result (weapon, sword).
- This item is bound to [Jason Asano] and cannot be used by anyone else. This bond allows the weapon to share the wielder’s ability to ignore rank disparity.
- Effect: You may invoke all effects of a conjured weapon into this blade for the normal mana cost of conjuring the weapon. Only one weapon’s effects may be invoked at a time.
- Effect: While invoking a conjured weapon, you may inflict additional damage for an ongoing mana cost. Damage type is based on the invoked weapon and mana cost is based on the nature of the damage. Amount of damage is based on aura strength of the wielder. Damage is increased to the degree to which the enemy attacked has their aura suppressed and decreased by the degree to which the wielder has their aura suppressed.
- Available Invocation: [Ruin, the Blade of Tribulation].
- Ongoing Mana Cost: Low.
- Damage type: Corrosive. Inflicts [Corrosion].
- Available Invocation: [Penitent, the Blade of Sacrifice].
- Ongoing Mana Cost: Moderate.
- Damage type: Disruptive-Force.
- Effect: The wielder may cleanse all holy afflictions inflicted by the abilities and soul-bound items of the wielder from an enemy touched by [Hegemon’s Will]. For each affliction cleansed, the enemy suffers an instance of [Hegemon’s Mercy] and the wielder gains an instance of [Benevolent Hegemon].
- Effect (Regalia of the Hegemon): Enemies struck with this weapon are subjected to a mild mana drain effect and are inflicted with [Hegemon’s Tribute] and the wielder gains an instance of [Benevolent Hegemon].
- [Corrosion] (affliction, damage-over-time, elemental, stacking): Inflicts corrosive damage, which has increased effectiveness against inorganic substances. Additional instances have increased effect.
- [Hegemon’s Mercy] (affliction, holy, stacking): The victim of this effect is subjected to a powerful suppressive force affecting all magical abilities. This affects essence abilities, innate abilities and item abilities. Abilities derived from external transcendent sources are affected more strongly. This affliction drops off rapidly when not within the area of the wielder of [Hegemon’s Will]’s aura. Additional instances have increased effect.
- [Benevolent Hegemon] (boon, holy, stacking): The effect strength of allied auras overlapping your aura is increased. This does not affect suppressive strength or resistance to aura suppression. Additional instances have increased effect.
- [Hegemon’s Tribute] (affliction, magic): Anyone affected by [Hegemon’s Tribute] is subject to a mild, ongoing mana drain effect by the wielder of [Hegemon’s Will] so long as they remain within the wielder’s aura. If this affliction is cleansed or the subject dies, a final burst of mana is drained.
Jason drew the sword, running his gaze up and down the black blade with stark white sigils in awe. The white sigils on the blade started glowing life-force red.
- You have invoked the effects of [Ruin, Blade of Tribulation]. All properties of that weapon have been imbued into [Hegemon’s Will]. Necrotic damage will be inflicted in addition to physical damage.
The sigils then turned from red to a rich blue.
- You have stopped invoking the effects of [Ruin, Blade of Tribulation].
- You have invoked the effects of [Penitent, the Blade of Sacrifice]. All properties of that weapon have been imbued into [Hegemon’s Will]. Disruptive-Force damage will be inflicted in addition to physical damage.
“Gary,” Jason said reverently. “It’s like finding a part of myself I didn’t know was missing.”
“You brought Farrah back to us,” Gary said. “That part I knew was missing.”