Jason apologised to Farrah the next day when she arrived at Jory’s clinic for his training.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t realise until afterwards that I was accusing you of being callous. I can sometimes let my mouth run off on me without thinking it through, or considering the other person’s perspective.”
“That’s very clear,” Farrah said. “You weren’t completely wrong, I guess. Mostly, but not completely. You do have to be a little callous, to do what we do.”
“Maybe,” Jason said, “but I shouldn’t be judging you when I don’t know what you’ve been through. The one thing I do know about this world is that I’m ignorant about all of it. It’s just that… in my world, I’m not a person of consequence. Being one of the faceless masses isn’t terrific, but there is one luxury the powerful don’t enjoy.”
“When you’re just a face in the crowd, then you can hold an ideal without being required to live up to it. But here, my decisions can be life and death. My principles are being put to the test, and I’m forced to confront what it means when they bend, or even break. Like anyone, I liked to think of myself as someone who would stand tall under the pressure. Now I’m really under it, standing up is harder than I thought. I have my own values, from my own world. They’re the only thing I was able to bring with me. And sometimes, most times, it feels like this world wants to eradicate them. But if I let it, then what do I become?”
“I can’t answer that for you,” Farrah said. “Being good is easy when the choices are easy, but adventurers don’t sign up for easy choices. Being a good person means being good when the choices are hard, and there’s a price to that.”
“Rufus told me something very similar.”
“He might have his blind spots,” Farrah said, “but his family have never been shirkers. When the time comes to stand, they stand at the front.”
“Again, I’m really sorry,” Jason said. “You were right that I don’t know the things you’ve seen.”
“I was, wasn’t I?” Farrah said. “But sometimes I forget how adrift you must feel, in a world you don’t know.”
“Adrift is about right,” Jason said. “All I have to anchor myself is who I am. It feels like if I lose that, then I might never find a way home.”
“You realise that doesn’t actually make sense, right?” Farrah asked.
“I’ve been in this world for three weeks,” Jason said. “I’ve been getting by on throwing myself into everything like a maniac, because if I stop moving I’m going to completely lose it. I’m one bad day from cracking like an egg.”
“So you cling to whatever you can,” Farrah said. “I can understand that. But the world isn’t going to stop and wait for you to get ready for it.”
“I know,” Jason said.
“For now, concentrate on the training,” Farrah said. “Perhaps some routine will help you keep it together.”
Even before Farrah’s prompting, Jason instinctively understood that staying busy would keep him from flying off in every direction. He threw himself into training, from early mornings with Gary to afternoons with Farrah.
Every afternoon, when his training with the others was done, he would make his way to the balcony of his personal suite. Every day he would practice the one essence ability that he was most excited to master, yet had failed to successfully use. Each power he awakened brought with it the instinctive knowledge of how to employ it, but something about this one ability was holding him back.
Ability: [Path of Shadows] (Dark)
> Special ability (teleport)
> Cost: Low mana.
> Cooldown: None.
> Current rank: Iron 0 (00%)
> Effect (iron): Teleport using shadows as a portal. You must be able to see the destination shadow.
The ability to teleport fired his imagination in ways his other abilities couldn’t match, yet it eluded him, day after day. Every afternoon he would sit under the awning on his balcony, trying to disappear into its shadow. His instincts screamed that it should be easy and natural, but there was something alien about that instinct. That feeling came from his essences, which were part of him now, but a new part. They didn’t entirely feel like a true part of him yet, and every day the sun would set on another failure.
His personal suite wasn’t on the ocean side of the building, so his balcony instead overlooked one of the guild district’s wide boulevards. Sitting cross-legged in the shadow of the awning, he would try and sink into it, for hours on end. As time went on, he became more frustrated. He could feel success was tantalisingly close, as if it brushed against his fingers, only to slip away.
As days rolled on, it felt like he was moving in the wrong direction, further from success than when he first started practicing. He pulled out his starlight cloak, letting it wrap itself around him for comfort. That ability had come so easily.
“Essence abilities should come naturally,” Rufus told him, when Jason asked for advice. “This kind of problem you’re having usually appears when people are getting in their own way. In your world, abilities like this aren’t possible, are they?”
“It may be there’s a part of you still thinks it’s impossible,” Rufus said. “Your new instincts, conflicting with your old ones. A teleport power affects you more than your other powers; it consumes you, in a way. Perhaps you feel that and instinctively draw back, like flinching from a hot stove.”
“So, what do I do?” Jason asked.
“Instead of focusing on yourself,” Rufus said, “focus on your surroundings. Farrah has been teaching you to project outside of yourself with your aura. Use that. Probe the shadows. Instead of trying to use them, just try and understand them. What they are, what you can do with them. Right now, you have this idea of what shadows are in your head, but a power telling you something different. Until you resolve that conflict, using that power will remain out of reach.”
“You picked the basics of aura manipulation up quickly,” Farrah told Jason. “You’re slow and somewhat crude with it, but that’s to be expected. The only way to smooth the rough edges is with experience. There’s no substitute for practice.”
Jason nodded. They were in Jory’s yard, sitting face-to-face on meditation mats.
“Now you have a grasp of the fundamentals,” Farrah said, “it’s time to show you the last aspect of aura manipulation.”
“I didn’t think it would be this quick,” Jason said.
“The basics of aura manipulation are exactly that,” Farrah said. “Like all essence abilities, there’s an instinctive understanding. The real difference between the capable and the incompetent is keeping up the practice. Practice is the only real secret to mastery.”
“No shortcuts,” Jason said.
“No shortcuts,” Farrah agreed. “Now we're moving on to the third aspect of aura manipulation. You can perform projection and restraint to acceptable levels, so next comes suppression. Like the other aspects, the description is right there in the name; you use your aura to suppress the auras of others. It really only works against people weaker than you, but it can be useful when you need to show dominance.”
“Alright,” Jason said.
“This is a little trickier to pick up,” Farrah explained, “because there isn’t anyone weaker than you to practise on. Even normal people won’t be far below your aura strength until your spirit attribute gets stronger. At this point I’m really just showing you, rather than teaching you. It’s something you need to know about, if only to be prepared when others use it on you.”
“So, you’re going to suppress my aura?” Jason asked. “Let me get a feel for it?”
“Exactly,” Farrah said. “It can be a disconcerting experience, so it’s best you learn what you’re in for.”
“Alright,” Jason said. “Hit me.”
“Here I go,” Farrah warned. She expanded her aura, clamping onto Jason’s and suppressing it, pushing it forcefully into his body. She looked at Jason, watching for reactions. He pulled out a small paper bag, popping a few glazed nuts into his mouth.
“Is that it?” he asked.
“Um, yes,” she said. “You are feeling that, right?”
“Yep,” he said, holding out the bag. “Want some? I don’t know what they put on these nuts, but it’s really good.”
With a confused expression, Farrah reached out and took a couple of nuts from the bag.
“They are good,” she agreed. She looked at Jason, still under the effect of her aura suppression.
“Are you alright?” she asked.
“Feels normal,” Jason said.
“Most people find having their aura suppressed to be supremely unnerving,” Farrah said. “It leaves them feeling vulnerable and exposed.”
“Yeah, I noticed that,” Jason.
“I thought you said it feels normal?”
“That is normal,” Jason said. “I arrived in this world with no idea where I was, how I got there or why. I was literally trapped in a maze, naked, fighting monsters and dodging cannibals. Compared to how vulnerable and exposed that left me, you think giving me the evil eye will put me off my knitting?”
He let out a low chuckle.
“Ever since that day,” he said, “the more I learn, the more I realise that everything I knew or believed was either woefully incomplete or flat-out wrong. I’ve almost died several times, and there’s no telling when something will come along to finish the job. I’ve been dragged into circumstances before which I am both impotent and insignificant. I have precious-little understanding the world around me, and even less control. I’ve been living with that for every waking moment since I arrived here. So you making me feel vulnerable is like throwing sand on the beach. I only noticed the change because I watched you do it.”
One of luxuries of the suite Farrah shared with Rufus and Gary was the balcony terrace overlooking the ocean. There was enough outdoor furniture to serve as a private dining area, so Farrah carried a large tray of food from the dumbwaiter out to the table where Rufus and Gary were already seated.
“What about Jason?” Gary asked.
“Still trying to get his shadow teleport to work,” Farrah explained as she sat down.
“I’ve seen this kind of problem before,” Rufus said. “He’ll work past it, sooner or later.”
“I think it’s possible we may have overlooked some of what he’s going through,” Farrah said.
“Really?” Gary asked. “It seems like he’s doing fine.”
“He does throw himself into things like he’s looking for a distraction,” Rufus said. “You were going to suppress his aura today, right? Did he react badly?”
“He didn’t react at all,” Farrah said. “Working for the Magic Society, I’ve taught a lot of people to use their auras, but I’ve never seen that before.”
“You think there’s something behind it?” Rufus asked.
“He said it didn’t affect him because that’s how he feels all the time,” Farrah said. “He’s isolated and alone to a degree that I’m not sure I can get my head around.”
“He has us,” Gary said.
“But from his perspective,” Farrah said, “we’re another part of the strangeness. We can propel his boat, but we can’t be his anchor.”
“Have we been pushing him too hard?” Gary asked.
“No,” Rufus said. “If anything, I suspect the structure we’ve given him is what’s propped him up for this long.”
“Then what do we do?” Farrah asked.
“What we have been doing,” Rufus said. “The stronger he becomes, the more in control he will feel. You both know what I’m talking about; that feeling of power as your abilities grow. Normally you have to stop people from running off like they’re invincible, but hopefully it makes Jason feel more secure.”
“Maybe we should start showing him around a bit,” Gary suggested. “Let him see this world isn’t all cultists and monsters. Remember the villages we passed through? He seemed a lot more relaxed around normal people, so maybe a little dose of ordinary is exactly what he needs.”
“Are you saying we aren’t normal?” Farrah asked.
“I’m normal,” Gary said. “You two can be kind of intense.”
“It’s a good idea,” Rufus said. “I’ll be administering the field testing for next month’s Adventure Society intake. I’ll need to start preparing in a few days, and then I’ll be gone for a week. Relax the training while I’m gone.
“Done,” Gary said.
“Not too much,” Rufus said, “but give him time to explore the city. This island is surprisingly impressive for a provincial city.”
“If you have the money,” Farrah said.
“Which he does,” Rufus said.
“You did give him a cut from the blood cult job, right?” Gary asked. “If it weren’t for him we would have failed and died.”
“I did,” Rufus said. “The church of purity made some noise about the completion bonus, after how things went with Anisa. The contract was through the Adventure Society, though, and the job did get done. They paid up.”
“Wait,” Gary said. “Did I get a cut? I don’t remember getting the money for that.”
”Because I gave it to Farrah,” Rufus said. “You know; the person who stores all your money?”
Because they were on the balcony, they were able to hear a sudden commotion from outside the other side of the building. There was a yell of surprised panic, followed by a crashing sound and the shouts of several people.
Unable to see the source of the commotion, the three left their own suite and entered Jason’s unlocked room across the hall. The balcony he should have been practicing on was empty. Going to the edge and looking down, they saw the outside dining area of the eatery across the street. The evening patrons had been disturbed by Jason landing heavily on a table in their midst, collapsing it to the ground. All the customers had stood up, while Jason still sprawled out in the remains of someone’s supper.
He groaned, moving feebly to pluck a healing potion out of the air, tipping it into his mouth where he lay. Regaining strength as the potion took effect, he pushed himself off the table, staggering as he found his feet. He looked at the people standing around him.
“Sorry about your dinner,” he said, looking down at the food smeared on his clothes. “Smells good.”
“Jason?” Rufus called down.
Jason looked up at Rufus and gave a sore, but cheerful thumbs up.
“I got the ability to work!”
Moments earlier, sitting on the roof, Jason had been pushing his senses out and into the shadow of the awning. In defiance of what little he knew of physics, he had come to sense that shadows were more than just an absence, but something that existed in their own right. He could feel something there as he reached out with his aura. There was a depth to the shadow, an ephemeral, but very real substance. He could almost rub it between his fingers.
He felt a call from the shadow, to something that existed inside him. The power he had tried so hard to use, yet never could. He quieted his excited mind, resisting the urge to push. He relaxed, letting the substance of the shadow and the power inside him intermingle. Gently they connected, becoming one. If felt natural, and right. Then something changed.
As if dragged by a giant vacuum cleaner, Jason felt himself get sucked through the shadow. As he did, he had the flashing realisation that in all the time he’d been working on the ability, he’s never given much thought to a destination. He emerged from the shadow of the building across the street, reason giving way to panic as he started to fall.