Maybe the meeting is extremely important.
I heard several people start to laugh.
Or maybe not.
I decided that it would probably be a good thing to remember this conversation, so I looked around me, preparing to shift.
“Good Day, Mr. Collins.” Ahmed said as I turned and saw him standing directly behind me.
“Ahmed, are you always immune to my power, or is it something you can only do for a while?” I asked.
“You may shift to your alternate form now; it will have no effect on me.”
That wasn’t what I asked.
Ahmed grinned at me.
And he knows it.
“Zeke, you should know by now that I am tied up in bows and knots by commands and obligations, many of which are well-thought-out and extremely difficult to side step.”
“What did they bring me here for, Ahmed?”
“All of them have their different reasons, but only those of greatest concern to the largest number of individuals will be voiced officially.”
I looked at the other end of the chamber. Things seemed to be settling down there, more of a mumbling drone, fewer spikes of laughter or sounds of scraping chairs. There were a few individuals still finding seats. They were all wearing grey.
“This is the Grey Lodge, not the Enclave.”
“I guess they must wield enough power in the Enclave that the Grey Lodge mostly controls the Enclave?”
“As I mentioned before, you learn quickly.”
Almost-yes, but not really an answer.
“What is your purpose as you stand next to me now, Ahmed? I guess you are here to protect them from me, but can I ask favors of you as well? Do I have any guest rights? Can you explain my obligations, and their obligations?”
Ahmed just looked at me and grinned for a moment. “I am, indeed, here to protect them from you, and to a lesser degree protect you from them.” He paused. “I haven’t had this much fun in centuries, Zeke, thank you. Give me a moment to consider your questions, and how they compare to my commands and obligations.”
Ahmed cleared his throat and started to speak. “You are not a practitioner, so some of the obligations are moot. However, there are some that apply to you.”
“Firstly, reasonable accommodations for comfort and refreshment that do not defy the held beliefs of those who have called a meeting. If you ask for a podium made of human skulls at a meeting of the White Lodge, it won’t happen. Simply asking will be seen as an insult, and one of your obligations as a non-coerced guest is to avoid offering insult.”
“Am I allowed to ask you to advise me if a request or statement would be considered an insult?”
Obligation, rules, old school diplomacy.
I didn’t actually ask.
“Ahmed, please advise me if any of my requests or actions would be considered an insult to the others here, including yourself.”
“I will do so. You do not have the power to bind, but what you ask is within guest rights.”
“Thank you Ahmed.”
“Secondly, as for guest rights, do you speak Latin? Or perhaps Babylonian?”
“I’m afraid not, Ahmed, I only speak English.”
“Latin is the language of most practitioners, though Babylonian is also a powerful language and is spoken by many. If you can speak neither, I may offer a gift of comprehension to you for the duration of the meeting if you ask for it.”
Being given a gift?
“Is there a cost for this gift of comprehension, Ahmed?”
“As a guest, you do not bear the cost of the gift of comprehension.”
“Will the gift of comprehension work for me in either of my forms?”
“I do not know. I would be pleased to find out though, Mr. Collins.”
Comprehension is useless if I don’t remember it.
“May I request that I retain my memories of this event?”
“You may make that request.”
“I request that I retain my memories of this event.”
“Your memories will remain then. Be careful of requesting such memory retention often, as the human mind tends to have issues dealing with fixed memories.”
“Would it be safer to instead request that my memories of this event not be intentionally modified by anyone involved with this event, directly, or through proxy?”
“Yes, it would be safer, and cause fewer headaches.” Ahmed smiled.
“I rescind my request of memory retention, and instead request that my memory not be intentionally modified by anyone attending this event, physically, remotely, or through proxy.”
“Done, and Done. The memories of your time present at this meeting will not be modified by the Grey Lodge, me, or others in attendance.”
“My shadow form is proof against at least some mental powers, is it also proof against magical mental manipulation?”
“I do not know. That sounds like a fine experiment. Would you like to try something very simple as a test?”
“Will changing into my shadow form cause offense?”
“No, in fact, it is expected.” Ahmed took a step back to give me room.
“OK,” I moved away from the microphone and shifted.
“We have talked about two tests of my shadow self, Ahmed, one for comprehension, the other for memory. What would you suggest for a simple test of comprehension, with the least potential harm to me?”
“I cannot speak to potential harm of your shadow self as I do not fully understand it. It is unique and fascinating. However, I will promise to do all that is within my power to correct any harm done to you through testing, and the testing will be performed with the lowest risk that I can manage while still gaining useful information. At first I would suggest that we test your comprehension of Babylonian.” Ahmed stated, with his hands held behind his back, cane sticking out at an angle, at a near-parade rest.
“Very well, can you understand me?” Ahmed asked.
“Do you speak Mayan?”
“What about Klingon?”
“No, only English. Magicians speak Klingon?”
Ahmed chuckled. “I enjoy languages. What about Japanese?”
“No, no Japanese either.”
“Well, the first test is complete.” Ahmed smiled.
“I thought you were going to… Wait. Are you saying that you just spoke in those other languages, and I understood?
Ahmed nodded. “There is no need for a gift of comprehension while you are in your shadow form. You understood languages both real and contrived. I expected this was possible. Beings of magic, even weak magic, tend to both understand and speak directly to content, magically. Humans with magical capability have a gift for languages, but must still learn them, even if it is typically easy for them. You, however, are a human with no magical ability, attached to a magical construct, which is normally sessile and incapable of thought. In your alternate form, you distort the soul well, and it distorts you. You can understand all languages, but only speak English. This makes your alternate form extremely interesting. I have seen nothing like it in all of my existence.”
He just told me something about what a soul well is?
I’m not going to ask how old he is.
He’s already said at least centuries.
More than that and I’m going to feel even more insignificant.
“What about a test to see if my memories can be altered magically in this form?”
“I will hold up a number of fingers, and you will tell me how many fingers I held up, each time I ask. I will test you with each memory adjusting technique I know. There are only one hundred twelve methods I know of to alter a memory by magic, so the test will only take a few minutes.”
One hundred twelve ways?
“Am I creating debt by gaining this knowledge with you? You appear to be putting a lot of effort into this.” I asked, suddenly concerned, especially after thoughts about how ancient Ahmed might be. I might have absolutely no idea what he would consider to be a debt.
Ahmed cocked his head at me. “I so wish that you were a practitioner. It would be a joy to work with you. The insightful and moderately paranoid ones are best.”
“I’m afraid I do not understand how that would be a joy for you. If I heard you correctly, you are tightly bound and restricted.” I paused.
He distracted me.
“Please answer my question. Am I creating debt to anyone by gaining this knowledge alongside you?”
“No, you are creating no debt by allowing me to test you. In fact, quite the opposite. I will have some moderately small debt to you. It has been a long time since I have seen something truly new. There are few things more interesting than finding creative ways to subvert bindings rather than simply breaking them, but you, for now, are one of them.”
I feel like a frog on a dissecting board.
He allows them to bind him because it’s fun?
All of a sudden, my mind went in completely wrong directions and I started laughing.
Ahmed just stared at me, obviously puzzled. His brow furrowed a little. “I have not yet begun the experiment for memory. I could not possibly have damaged your mind. Are you well?”
The laughing wouldn’t stop.
Should I tell him?
I think he would enjoy it.
Or maybe you will piss him off, he’ll break his bonds, erase you, and then end the world or something?
I managed to control my laughter after a few seconds. “Ahmed. I may have understood a part of your nature in a way that was humorous to me, but might not be funny to you.” I took a deep breath. “Will you forgive me if you do not find my humor to your taste? It is even possible that you might consider it something of an insult.”
“In the middle of an experiment, you wish to tell me a joke about myself? I will forgive you if it is not to my tastes, provided that the intent is not explicitly to harm me. Please remember that it is extremely difficult to hide your intent from a being such as myself.”
“I intend you no harm, Ahmed. While you described your enjoyment of being bound, and working around those bonds, I made an association with practices of a certain subgroup of humans that gain enhanced pleasure while being physically restrained during sexual acts.”
Did I really just say that?
Ahmed grinned. “No comment. No insult was given.”
I couldn’t help myself and busted out laughing.
Ahmed’s grin stayed a moment before his face became serious, and he held out his right hand to me. “Mr. Collins, how many fingers am I holding up.”
I counted. “Eight.”
I counted again. “Yes, eight.”
Several minutes later, the test was completed, and my memory was intact.
“This was expected but by no means certain. Thank you for the knowledge.” Ahmed spoke.
I looked at his hand. There were now four fingers.
Don’t ask. Make a statement.
Pointing at my own hand, I said, “I see that even if I hear all languages properly, I am still susceptible to illusion.”
He shrugged. “That is all you have ever seen of me. I had no wish to harm you.”
What was the point of the eight-fingers thing?
Ahmed bowed slightly to me. “So we have determined that you can comprehend speech in any language, and resist most magical memory manipulation while you are merged with the soul well. Do you have any other requests before the Grey Lodge representatives speak with you?”
Oh, crap, the meeting.
“Ahmed, did our experimentation cause insult?”
“No, in fact, I was directed to determine these things, but to do so within the bounds of host obligations, and without cost to the lodge beyond the cost to keep me present. The lodge members have been rapt with attention.” Ahmed smiled.
This was staged?
“So you led me to allowing myself being tested, pretending it to be a favor to me, when in reality…”
Ahmed raised his hand, interrupting me. “No.” He waited, apparently to be sure I stopped talking. “I led you nowhere. I was prepared to, but did not need to. The ideas were yours. Neither the Grey Lodge nor I coerced you to submit to testing, which would be a violation of host obligations. Neither I nor the Grey Lodge convinced you through misdirection to submit to testing, which would not have been a violation of host obligations. You chose that path yourself, in an effort to understand yourself. The only obligations generated here are minor ones from me to you, because you have provided me the opportunity to see something new to me.”
“OK, I think I understand, but…”
Ahmed interrupted me again. “If you are prepared to argue this further, remember you requested that I advise you if you were going to offer insult to the Grey Lodge, or myself. You provided us knowledge about yourself, shared in that learning, and it was done by your request. Insinuating coercion would be considered an insult to both me and the Grey Lodge.”
I took a moment to consider my thoughts before leaning towards the microphone. “I apologize if my ignorance led me to say anything that might be perceived as an insult to either the Grey Lodge or Ahmed.”
“I accept your apology, Mr. Collins.” Ahmed reassured me.
“Accepted, on behalf of the Grey Lodge.” A male voice, apparently belonging to the grey-draped figure standing next to a microphone like mine on the other side of the room.
“Might I ask if there is any other reason for my presence here today, other than to provide you information about how this body works?”
There was some muttering I could hear. Apparently, the Grey Lodge members all had microphones, and at least some of them were turned on now. Or maybe it was something magical.
“The purpose of today’s meeting is to determine how to keep you alive and useful.” He paused. “Based on your conversation with Ahmed earlier, it’s clear that you understand exactly what the Enclave intends to use you for.” He paused a moment. “Eliminating monstrous supers and defending against aliens and extra-dimensional assaults is a very fit use for your power.”
“I would appreciate some sort of briefing about what I am being dropped into the middle of, before I go, but yes, I accept that these sorts of things would be appropriate to me and my power. It feels like there’s something else you are worried about though.” I waited for a response.
“Yes. The soul well that you are merged with is not a particularly powerful artifact. Soul wells never are; they are mostly passive. However, as they collect souls, they convert them to power. The soul well itself has no way to use the power. In your case, neither do you. Even if you had a link to the power contained within the well, you are not a practitioner, and do not have the gift, so you cannot be taught to be one.”
This sounds bad.
“So, I’m some sort of battery. I gain charge when I kill someone in shadow form, and I cannot discharge myself. Can I overcharge and damage myself or others?”
The voice spoke up, and I realized it sounded like Fred, who I had spoken to yesterday, which would make at least some sense. “Clarification. You will gain charge whenever any being with a soul dies within the effect of what you call your anger field. You need not kill them yourself.” He paused. “The rest of your statements are mostly accurate. As for your question about overcharging, not directly, no.”
Give me a straight answer, dammit.
“Can you help me understand what danger I might pose?” I asked.
“Ahmed verified that the power within the well from the soul you collected earlier today is accessible to anyone who can touch you. In the magical world, this will be a great many people or beings, with any number of different potential intents.”
“How much power are we talking about here?”
“Entire souls are extremely powerful. This is why most soul wells are destroyed in short order by beings of magical stature similar to or greater than Ahmed, the lodge’s mostly-willing servant. With sufficient numbers of souls collected, a practitioner in control of the soul well could supplant a god.”
I heard Ahmed whispering. “Then we end up with an incompetent god like what happened with the Greeks and Romans, several times. Humans don’t make good gods, usually. I know of two exceptions though.”
I managed to squeak out another question. “I have the potential to raise someone else to godhood if enough people die near me? Please tell me I have misunderstood something.”
The Grey Lodge speaker responded. “Unfortunately, I cannot tell you that. However, I can tell you that we have made an arrangement on your behalf, which should allow you to avoid the attention of angry gods or greater magical beings. All you need to do is agree to it.”
“Tell me about this arrangement. It doesn’t sound like I will have much choice, or I’ll end up being zapped by an angry god or something.”
This makes me feel way too damn small.
“The Grey Lodge has made arrangements to provide a courier, a magical being with no soul, capable of transporting power from the soul well to others. When a being with a soul dies near you and the soul well captures it, the power of the soul will be distributed to all wakeful gods with followers on Earth.”
My mind was going in all sorts of directions, but tripped over one very important question. “What keeps the being responsible for distributing the power from simply taking it for themselves, and supplanting a god?”
“The being that we have chosen is a juvenile of its type, which grows not through the consumption of power, but rather through using power it collects. By attaching itself to you, it will have a massive source of magical power, and the arrangement to deliver power to gods will allow it an outlet for that magical energy which will not make it a target of greater beings.”
It grows by using power, not consuming power? Weird.
“Will I, myself, be controlled in my actions? Will I be required to kill at a certain interval, or be punished for killing the wrong people? Will this arrangement create any obligations for my family?”
“No, none of those things. In truth, there is no obligation to you at all. You are only required to agree to this because the soul well is actually attached to you, which makes you a part of any agreement in regards to the soul well.”
“So, if I do not sign, it’s only a matter of time before a god or being like Ahmed comes to destroy the soul well, and probably me with it?”
“Or something worse, yes.” said the Grey Lodge representative, helpfully.
I’m not going to ask what might be worse.
“If I sign this, I never notice anything different than the craziness of my current life?”
Ahmed chuckled. “Not exactly, Mr. Collins.”
I turned towards Ahmed, but did not turn my back to the Grey Lodge spokesman.
The spokesman chuckled. “It seems that Ahmed would like to tell you about this part. Feel free, Ahmed.”
I’m not sure I like the sound of that.
Ahmed grinned at me. “The being proposed to do the power transfers will be bound to you, to protect your soul well and prevent it from being drained or used by others. They will be bound to not harm non-practitioner mortals, but anything more or less than that is for you to work out between yourselves. You will not be able to bind them, only negotiate with them.”
That doesn’t sound too bad.
“Ahmed, will they be neutral or favorably inclined to me when bound to me? Even if they are not able to hurt my family directly, they could cause many problems if they don’t want to be bound to me, and I cannot further bind them.”
“Mr. Collins, the courier is going to have the opportunity for amazing growth, you would have to make a strong effort to anger it sufficiently that it would not be favorably inclined towards you.”
That sounds good.
Am I missing something?
Yes, I am.
“Since the courier is going to grow due to power collected by the soul well and then distributed by it, is it going to try to convince me to kill more people, so they can distribute more power, to grow faster? Will it respect my boundaries on killing? It cannot directly harm non-practitioner mortals, but it might easily arrange for them to be put in harm’s way within my anger field. I need to know that I will be the only one who commands actions that lead to the deaths of others.”
Ahmed looked at me. “That’s a deal breaker, isn’t it.”
I gulped. “Yes, I think it is. I do not want to become a walking deathtrap. Teleporting normal humans into the path of items thrown by brick type supers is just one really easy way to imagine a being like you causing a lot of death around me.”
Even though he was only a little above waist level to me, Ahmed looked up and trapped me in a gaze, and I couldn’t look away. A moment of intense scrutiny later, he announced. “Fine. It is understandable. We will make an adjustment to the agreement.”
Ahmed moved next to the microphone and spoke “A new term is to be added. The courier will not be allowed to perform actions on non-practitioner mortals which would increase their probability of death, unless specifically requested by the soul well bound mortal, Zeke Collins.”
“Do you accept the agreement as amended, Zeke Collins?”
Do I have a choice, really?
I looked at Ahmed.
For all I know, if I say no, Ahmed ends me right here.
“I do.” I felt a wave of dizziness. I wasn’t sure if it was some magical something, or just me coming close to swooning from the pressure.
I’m going to regret this.
There is no possible way this is turning out well.
How in the hell am I explaining THIS to Anne.
“That amendment is actually a very good thing for you, and will make a very good bargaining tool, if you choose to use it.” Ahmed said with a slow smile.
I knew Ahmed wasn’t human, but that smile accompanied by the idea of using the deaths of people as a bargaining tool made me realize that I had gotten too comfortable with him.
Am I being paired with Ahmed?
My eyes got bigger. “Are you the one I will be working with?”
He looked at me with what appeared to be surprise. “Oh, I forgot, you know nothing of magic, and cannot see or understand me except as a human analog. If a being of my stature tried to approach a wakeful god carrying a substantial part of the power of a soul, it wouldn’t be a gift, it would be a fight. I am older than the gods, because humans created the gods through worship. I, and a few others like me, taught your ancestors about magic when they started worshipping the moon. Most of us have no interest in becoming gods, because gods are normally boring, though Coyote and I get along well.”
He forgot. Right.
“So who is going to serve as courier?”
“My youngest son, Ali.” Ahmed said with a chuckle, tousling the hair of a young child that appeared to be about six or seven with very light complexion, freckles, and carrot red hair. “Take good care of him, please, he’s only four hundred and ten.”
Where did the kid come from?
Four hundred and ten?
“I am not four hundred and ten, I am four hundred and seventy!” Ali complained as he straightened out his hair.
“This is a western mortal society, young one, they measure age based on when you were separated from your mother, not when you were conceived.”
Ali looked up at me and winked.
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