“Danny, sit. Ali and I will explain.”
Danny looked behind himself and slowly sat, in his too-short chair, looking at me, Anne, and then at Ali, in turn.
I turned and looked at Ali. He had a big, beaming grin on his face. From the corner of my eye, I could see Anne frowning as she looked at Ali, but she remained silent.
I started to speak, “Ali, we agreed; you are not going to pretend to be my son.”
Anne’s head tracked from Ali to me, and her brow furrowed slightly. I noticed, and considered what I had just said. There were two ways the statement could be parsed. Anne’s expression clearly indicated she caught it.
Need to clear this up soonest.
I spoke to Anne directly. “Ali is not my son; he’s…” my voice was replaced by the sound of a squeaky toy as I tried to say Ahmed’s name, startling me. I jumped a little.
Anne and Danny started looking at me extremely oddly. I couldn’t blame them.
Ali was sitting in the chair, grinning at me. “Telling who my father is wasn’t part of the agreement, Mr. Collins.” He paused. “Please don’t tell. It’s not a big secret, but it doesn’t need to be common knowledge, and I’d rather not have to enforce my privacy after the fact, since we’re going to be working together.”
Threatening to mind-scrub my family.
I stared at Ali. “I will not tell who your father is. Do not pretend to be my son. The reason I asked you not to pretend to be my son is that it might harm my family in the long term.” I paused. “Despite appearing to understand that, the first thing you said after I got my family together to discuss you was a statement with potential to hurt my family.”
Ali stared back at me. I could look him in the eyes easily, unlike his father. We locked gazes.
Several seconds later, Anne spoke. “Zeke, what’s going on here? Who is this? How are you going to work with someone this young?”
“Ali is much more than he appears to be, Anne. He’s a Jinn. A genie. A young one. He’s spent the last several hundred years pretending to be preadolescent. Do you want to tell this, Ali?”
“Nope, you’re doing fine.” Ali smiled widely.
That damn grin again.
I’m going to hate him in a week.
“It’s hard to believe, but magic is apparently real, as Ali just demonstrated with my voice. I can’t make a noise like that.” I paused. “My shadow body is magical.”
Anne looked at Ali. “Several hundred years? Did you spend any time on farms?”
Ali nodded. “Sure did. Farmers had fewer neighbors, fewer people that might notice mysterious new kids and need to have their memories adjusted.”
Anne made a little acknowledgement noise in her throat before continuing. “OK. I grew up on a farm too, and my grandmother lived with us and taught me a few things that most children in this day and age won’t know. If I asked you to help me card wool, what would you say?”
She’s challenging his age first?
Ali grimaced. “I would say that sheep are smelly animals, and I did my fair share of willowing, lapping, carding, and drawing wool before humans controlled electricity. I spent about a hundred years working in early textile mills as well, before child labor laws.” He arched his eyebrow at Anne. “Would you like to hear some stories about industrial accidents involving children in the early textile industry?”
“How many did you cause?” Danny asked, staring hard at Ali.
Ali paused. “Danny, I prevented them in the factories I worked in while I worked in them. If the owners were lax on safety, when it was time for me to move to a new family, I would create an accident for myself that was horrendous enough to get the factory shut down or force the owners to consider safety more seriously.”
Anne looked a little disgusted. “You manufactured gruesome deaths for yourself when you needed to move to a new family?”
Anne shook her head minutely. She was apparently recognizing what she had just said reflexively, and realizing how absurd it sounded.
Ali looked at her calmly. “Sure did. It was my sister’s idea. She’s a few hundred years older than me. She’s pretending to be seventeen now. Back then, she was pretending to be fifteen, and every time she saw the death or maiming of a human child in a mill she worked in, it made her furious, for weeks. All of us who were pretending to be kids started to enact terrible accidents upon ourselves when we needed to move. Peer pressure, you know.” He shrugged.
I couldn’t help but interject. “Wait. Ali, are you trying to claim that it was a bunch of adolescent Jinn pretending to be horrible accident victims that got labor laws enacted?”
“Don’t call my sister a Jinn, she would be upset.” Ali smiled slyly, clearly thinking mischievous thoughts. A moment later, his smile faded. “No. We didn’t make it happen. We helped give the humans who wanted kids out of industry more ammunition to use against the worst offenders. It was happening to human children too, we just made sure our accidents were spectacular or noteworthy.”
Anne was clearly confused and irritated. “This sounds like a fairy tale.”
I saw Danny nodding, agreeing with her. Ali was also nodding.
Anne continued. “What’s going on, Zeke?” She paused and turned to Ali. “If you are a Jinn, like the stories, can you do, you know, magical things and prove it?” She held her hands out a little in front of her and wriggled her fingers.
“Well, I don’t have to wriggle my fingers to do things, but yes. I’m not really powerful, but I can prove what I am.” He smiled.
I braced myself. “Ali, please do not do anything gruesome to yourself.”
Ali just looked at me and laughed. “I wasn’t planning to. Even though this fake body, what we call a seeming, isn’t really me, damaging a seeming hurts. That’s one reason we made our deaths spectacular. If we were going to put ourselves through the pain of injury sufficient to kill a human, and then spend the effort to fix the seeming afterwards before the next fostering, the death had to be noteworthy.” He paused. “You have all seen the old television show, I dream of Jiniri?”
We all nodded, looking at each other.
Ali continued. “There’s a good bit of truth mixed into that show. A practitioner or perhaps even a Jinn or Jiniri or some other intelligent magical being clearly helped the writers, somehow.”
I smiled. “Maybe it was your father.”
“That’s possible. He’s well known for his tricks, and he’s expressed irritation at how Jinn and Jiniri have chosen to hide from humans since you started keeping written histories. He obeys the consensus, mostly, but it chafes him, I know.”
I was only kidding.
I’ll ask about that later.
Danny broke in. “Dad, sorry to be a spoilsport here, and interrupting the story.” He turned to Ali. “If Ali can prove he’s a magical being, I’d like to see it rather than hear about it.”
Anne was looking at me suspiciously, but there wasn’t much anger in her eyes now.
She thinks Ali and I are pranking.
Ali looked at Danny. “You’re one of those science geek types aren’t you?”
Danny looked a bit puzzled for a moment, and then agreed. “If you mean I’m an empiricist, yes. Show me your magic in a way I can sense it.”
Ali scooted himself to the edge of his chair, slid off onto the floor, and started walking towards Danny’s room. “OK, follow me, I’ll show you something in my room.”
Anne, Danny, and I all did a double take at that.
Danny spoke confidently, “You don’t have a room here. There are two bedrooms. Mine and my parents’. Please don’t go into my room; I don’t know you.”
Ali shrugged as he continued to walk towards Danny’s room. “The door to your room is on the left. Mine’s on the right. C’mon, you wanted proof, right? Let me prove myself.”
Danny was right, there were only two bedrooms, and Ali certainly didn’t have a room for himself in the apartment. I stood up and looked towards the wall where the door to Danny’s room was. There were two identical doors, one next to the other. The look on my face apparently convinced Danny to lean around his chair and look.
As he got himself turned around to see the wall with his door in it, Danny’s right elbow slipped where he was leaning on the armrest to look around the edge of the chair. As Danny struggled to rebalance himself, the only noise he made was “Ack,” followed by muttering.
Anne was still seated, with all her attention on me as I stood, ignoring Danny and Ali. When Danny made the startled noise, she turned to look at him.
Danny got himself under control and hauled himself out of the too short chair with a muttered curse, and stood up like me to look at the wall with two doors where there had been only one. With both Danny and I standing there looking dumbstruck, Anne stood up to look for herself as Ali opened the right-side door, and it was most certainly not Danny’s room that we saw inside.
What the fuck?
Danny certainly didn’t have either plants or thick patterned throw rugs in his room. There was a brief breeze carrying a strong scent of cinnamon.
Ali turned to look at us. “I offer to prove to you that I’m a Jinn, and all you can do is stand there with your mouths open? Come here, take a look. I won’t bite, though I would strongly suggest you not enter my room without permission. I’ve been creating my own personal space now for a couple hundred years, if you mess it up, I won’t be pleased.”
Danny kept looking at the door. Anne tore her eyes away from the door and looked at me. “This is real, Zeke? We didn’t have enough weirdness in our life? You adopted some magical kid sidekick?”
Ali was looking a bit irritated, so I tried to get us moving towards his room. “Anne, Danny… Ali is demonstrating his ability in good faith, as asked, and we are not appreciating it. Danny asked him to demonstrate in a way we can sense it. Let’s allow him show us. I will tell you how this happened after we allow Ali to show us a few things.”
Ali looked at me seriously, briefly, and nodded. “Thank you, Mr. Collins.”
I collected Danny, and Anne, gently prodding them to join me and look at what Ali wanted to show us. After a few minutes of Ali’s carefully orchestrated demonstration of the contents of the room, there really wasn’t much doubt that Ali was something more than human. His room was at least twice the floor space of the entire Enclave apartment. Anne was looking bewildered, and Danny looked like had a headache. If I hadn’t been dealing with being a giant spongy-shadow guy with an anger field power for the last few months, and prepared for all this by my interactions with Ahmed and Ali, I’d probably have been more impressed.
Ali did not have the tastes of a human boy of eight. The art, furniture, and arrangements were all first class and beautiful. As we walked from place to place, the transitions were smooth, with no jarring breaks in decor. There were no games that I saw, other than a chess set with a game in progress. The books were all well-bound hardbacks, heavy and durable, most had a look of extreme age.
As we were leaving the room, Anne complimented Ali, “Ali, the room is incredible. Thank you for showing it to us. You connected this place to the houses of people whose children had to work in factories in the early industrial revolution? They didn’t notice?”
“No, I can put the door to this room wherever I want. The effort involved in keeping people from seeing a room like this permanently attached to their house would be excessive. I have a couple more rooms that are far plainer, and easy to modify. Those are the rooms I use when I am fostering with a family. This room is where I go for myself, when I can.”
Ali closed the door behind us and continued. “Please, as I said before, do not try to enter my room without my permission. Nothing permanent will happen to you, but it will be decidedly uncomfortable.”
Danny asked quietly, “Ah, Ali, what exactly are you? I mean, you say you are a Jinn, but how do you fit into the world? Animals all have things they do in the world, evolutionary niches. Even humans. How do your kind fit in?”
Ali stopped walking back towards his chair and turned slowly to peer curiously at Danny. “No, you really aren’t magically gifted. Ah well. Good question. In the magical world, Jinn are an analog of humanity. Top of the food chain except for the more potent gods humans have created. I’m a small fry for one of my kind. My father is one of the oldest. He survived the creation of Earth’s Moon. It’s one of his favorite stories to tell.”
We all stared, expecting Ali to say “Just kidding.” Or something to retract that statement.
Ali looked back at us and huffed a little bit. “It’s true. My father and some of his family were lucky enough to be on a part of the Earth’s crust that stayed mostly intact when the collision happened. The ley lines there stayed intact enough to feed them until the rest of the planet and the new Moon settled into a new natural order and ley lines expanded again as the Earth’s crust healed. He and his family had to fight off hundreds of starving Jinn and other magical beings, or everyone would have died.”
Acting like an eight-year-old seems to be a hard habit to break.
Still, it’s an amazing story.
We’ll never know if it’s really true or not.
Anne, Danny, and I just stared at one another.
Anne recovered first. “Zeke, why? Why introduce us to this? Why are you working with him? Why are we being given this knowledge?”
“Let’s all sit again before I explain.” I addressed Ali directly. “Ali, please no more bombshell explanations or stories until I’m done.”
“OK, Mr. Collins.” Ali finished walking towards the chair he had claimed and hopped up onto it. Anne automatically started to say something to him, but abruptly closed her mouth. Walking on the furniture was something we had never allowed Danny to do, more for safety than for the furniture’s sake. Ali was a bit different, and Anne probably decided to let it slide because starting an argument would only delay her answers. Or she was afraid of him.
“Ali, when possible, please do not walk on the furniture. Anne and I will automatically try to react and tell you not to, because that’s how we raised Danny, and he resisted it. We know you aren’t going to fall and hurt yourself, but it’s a habit of ours.”
Danny spoke up. “You said you were pretending to be eight. Could you pretend to be a bit bigger as an eight-year-old? I’ve known some eight-year-olds that were nearly five feet tall. If you were that tall, you wouldn’t have to jump or climb to get onto adult-sized furniture.”
Ali looked at me and asked. “Can I explain?”
Ali leaned back in his chair and shrugged. “I created this seeming two hundred years ago with my father’s help. It’s a really difficult and complex thing. It grows as I do. There’s a patterning to it, a lot like DNA. In fact, it’s modeled after DNA in a lot of ways, which is why it’s so complex. It’s almost a living spell.” He paused. “Changing it would take me weeks of study, and I’d have to consult with my father as well, just to be sure I really knew what I was doing. While I am with your family, I might be able to spend that time, but it’s not something I can snap my fingers and make happen.”
A limitation. Good.
I sat down and leaned back. After Danny and Anne had sat, I leaned forward and started explaining. “OK, Anne, Danny, here’s the reason why Ali has been attached to me. As they said to us before, the Enclave is going to be using me as a ‘heavy’ which is at least sometimes going to put me in contact with supers that are toxic and uncontrollable, who need to be put down.”
Anne muttered “An executioner?”
I let it pass. Moral arguments could and certainly would come after explanations.
“Hopefully, that won’t be all they use me for because I really don’t want to be an assassin, but it was made pretty clear that people will die around me, because I’m going to be dropped into bad situations when help has been called for by other heroes.”
I paused. “The reason I’ve been paired with Ali is related to how my power works. The shadow form is a magical construct called a ‘soul well’ that has melded with me. When someone dies in my anger field, their soul is consumed by the soul well, transferred into magical energy, and can be tapped by any magical being or practitioner that can touch me.” I paused before continuing. “Apparently, magical beings and at least some magic practitioners can protect themselves from, or ignore the anger field, and would then be able to touch me and siphon the energy from my shadow form, and use it for their own purposes. It’s apparently even possible for humans to use me to become a god, though I can’t do it for myself since I don’t have the magical gift.”
Anne thought for a moment. “So Ali is more of a guard dog for you than a partner? He’s there to keep others from using your power?”
“Yes, and no.” I paused. “Ali is going to be a line of defense to keep others from misusing my power, so the guard dog comparison is good. He’s also going to be responsible for distributing the power collected when people die around me, and will distribute it to powerful beings, like gods, who might have serious issues with me carrying around a whole lot of magical energy.”
Ali was nodding at this point. Anne looked at him, and then back at me. “They chose a juvenile Jinn to do this because he would be the least threatening way to collect the power and distribute it?”
“Got it in one, Anne. Jinn apparently grow by using magic, not consuming it. By collecting the magic from my soul well and passing it on to gods and such, Ali will grow, so he gets some benefit out of the deal.”
“The more people die around you, the more he will grow?” Danny asked Ali.
“Yes. I thought of that, Danny, and it’s been addressed in the contract. I choose who dies. Now and then I might need help from Ali, and I’m sure he will mostly be happy to help, but he isn’t going to be helping himself grow by increasing my kill count without me asking him to.”
Ali looked at me, briefly, with an irritated expression. He was likely irritated because I had answered a question asked to him, but the glance was only momentary. “Except practitioners. Any practitioner that shows up around you is almost certainly going to be seeking to collect power from you. You are dangerous, and so am I.”
That was something I needed to know more about. “I still don’t exactly understand that, Ali. Can you explain it better? Why are you so sure we won’t run into practitioners by accident? I did notice the wording in the contract, but I didn’t know how common practitioners are. I still don’t. Please clarify what you can.”
“One of the first things any human practitioner learns after they can begin to mold magic is how to create an aversion ward. I have never seen a practitioner without one. It warns them of danger, like the danger sense that some supers have, except it’s not really handy in a fight. It’s a long-range aversion sense, not a short-range combat sense. Any practitioner that approaches you will be in serious danger from me.”
Ali buffed his knuckles on his chest and clenched his hands into fists with a grin. “This will deter almost any practitioner because Jinn, even little ones like me, are seriously dangerous to practitioners if we choose to be, and I will choose to be very aggressive if they approach you. If they have an aversion ward active, thinking specifically about approaching you to collect power from your soul well is going to give them a warning that will feel like a brick in the face.” He paused a moment. “Even simply thinking about travelling near you is going to make them very nervous and they will take another path if at all possible. The closer an unintentionally approaching practitioner gets to you and me, the more their aversion ward will act to make it clear that there is a danger ahead.”
I considered that. “So, if a practitioner does approach me, they are going to be either stupid or aggressive?”
“There are very few stupid practitioners. Being able to harness magic at all typically requires a degree of intelligence beyond normal humans. There are prodigies who can use magic they really don’t understand, but they normally get themselves killed in short order. Magic in the hands of the unintelligent is extremely unkind. Most unintelligent magical prodigies are never taught at all and have their gift stripped from them to protect them from themselves. The Black Lodge sometimes uses gullible magical prodigies though, training them in such a way that they never learn about aversion wards. The unfortunates are then normally used as part of a greater plan that the Black Lodge needs a distraction for.”
An early warning system.
Must be nice.
“So that’s one reason some practitioners live as long as they do.”
“Exactly. Magical health maintenance is another. It doesn’t take a lot of magic to address natural entropic forces acting on human biology.”
Anne spoke up. “So if a practitioner shows up near Zeke, and they don’t have an aversion ward, can you give them one?”
Ali paused. “I hadn’t considered that, but yes, I could. That’s an elegant solution to the whole Black Lodge throwaway acolyte problem that I can’t remember hearing before now. Put an aversion ward on a practitioner without one, who will almost always be a Black Lodge catspaw. Then tuck a little document explaining it into a pocket, and that catspaw might not only leave me and Mr. Collins alone, but probably also recognize that they are in danger from the Black Lodge too. A human practitioner couldn’t manage that, but a Jinn or Jiniri could in most scenarios.” He paused a moment. “I bet my father will like that too. I think he would have mentioned it if he had thought of it, so this might be new to him, and will make a fine gift. Thank you, you have no idea how hard it is to get my father a gift he appreciates.”
It’s been less than two decades for me, and half of what I get are ties.
I understand completely.
Wearing the fish tie to an executive meeting the day after Fathers’ Day was fun.
“No problem.” Anne responded, smiling a bit. “I imagine Fathers’ Day gets a little old after one has been around as long as your father. Some years it’s hard to get Zeke a gift.”
Ali nodded enthusiastically enough to make me smile. “You have no idea. We mainly use Fathers’ Day to prank my father. Now and then we give a real gift, when we think we have something useful or interesting. New ideas and the social antics of humans are about all Father has left to amuse him.”
Ali’s expression grew serious. “Going back to the Black Lodge acolytes who are trained in magic but not taught about aversion wards. Mrs. Collins, that was something I worried about a little. They normally don’t know they are being trained by the Black Lodge, and are typically clueless and innocent of anything more than maybe a bit of greed. If I were to kill many innocents, it am certain it would drive wedges between your husband and me. That’s important, and was a real worry. Now it is less of a worry.” He paused. “This is an opportunity for growth for me, and while I am growing at a fast pace, I’ll be keeping some unscrupulous practitioners and heavyweight magical beings from hunting Mr. Collins for the power he will eventually contain if it’s not drained off and spread around. You have offered an extremely useful idea that will help your husband and I work together with less conflict, thank you.”
Anne looked at me, then at Ali. “You’re welcome Ali. If it will help you avoid unnecessary killing and indirectly help Zeke, I’m glad I had an idea you think might be useful.”
Ali cocked his head a little, looking at Anne and I sitting next to one another on the couch. “In exchange for your excellent idea, Mrs. Collins, I offer you a boon. Can you think of a favor you might want from a Jinn? Please, nothing like ‘world peace’ or ‘no more pollution.’ I’m a Jinn, not a miracle worker. Large-scale social engineering or world-changing things are off the table. Nor can you ask me to leave. I’m under contract with Mr. Collins and the Grey Lodge, as well as a substantial number of gods and other very powerful magical beings. The boon should be something personal to you or your family. A prized possession lost or damaged, a family member with a fixable need, help at work or school that can be accomplished once, and not need constant re-organizing to maintain it.”
Anne looked at me, nervously. “Can you make Zeke’s powers disappear, or at least be completely controllable?”
Ali looked at me carefully, before shaking his head slowly. “No. It would kill him if I tried to unravel the changing mechanisms either to remove them or to modify them. His entire nervous system and his brain are linked into the mechanism for change, and it’s on both a physical and magical level.”
“I don’t know what to ask for then, Ali. Money isn’t an issue for us, and I don’t know enough to ask for a safer place than this to live. Most of the things I really care about are durable things. My parents are in good health, and I’d have to ask their permission before having you do anything that would affect them. I don’t know what you can do.”
“Dealing with uneducated non-practitioners is definitely challenging. That’s part of the reason I’ve been so chatty about the nature of things. We can fix ignorance over time; it’s certainly not your fault.” Ali smiled, probably to show he was trying not to insult us.
Anne nodded. “Zeke and I have done that before. Lots of college classes to add to our verbal skills and knowledge.”
Ali looked at Anne with an expression of concentration for a moment. “OK, since you don’t know what you want, I think I see something you will agree with.” He snapped his fingers with a flourish. “No more breast cancer, Mrs. Collins.”