I sat in my chair, in the brightly-lit room, far underground, staring at dozens of large monitors, watching preparations. Various gods and humans with divination powers had worked to determine where these newest bugman attacks would occur. Gods of war and battle waited at every portal. Today, I saw Thor, Ares, Durga, Hachiman, Virtus, Serbon and Gabriel at the predicted portal emergence points. Around them, four other gods with highly useful battle abilities waited in a loose circle around each portal, about two hundred feet from the center. Each of the four second-line gods had a cadre of chosen human supers surrounding them.
The bugmen were apparently extremely desperate for resources. They were extremely difficult to take alive, even by gods, but it had been done, and their minds had been read to verify the information from the one near-comatose bugman we had captured from their first attack. Their civilization was on the verge of collapse. They had never managed to leave their Earth, as weightlessness caused them extreme biological distress, death within hours for an adult bugman. They had managed to get to their moon, and the gravity there was sufficient for them to survive, but they had apparently only managed that by sending eggs, which were then hatched and tended by machines, remotely, until adulthood.
They had tried to attack through a portal there, on the moon, which had not gone well for them at all. That portal had manifested in sunlight, where both Ra and Luna could act upon it with their full strength. Luna’s power of fascination rendered the invaders immobile, and Ra burned them down, regardless of their armor.
The attacks had become more and more desperate. Every wave contained more attackers, with poorer equipment. The sheer mass of dead bodies was sufficient that, after the battles, the killing grounds had to be exposed to heat sufficient to break down their body chemistry, or else their body chemicals would poison the areas where battles had occurred.
There were a couple agricultural gods that would help after the sterilization, but only rarely was there any assistance offered by the gods capable of generating sufficient heat for sterilization. Gods didn’t seem to be very interested in post-battle cleanup. When I asked, one of Matty’s friends had volunteered to take Dr. Fusion to each battle site after the portals had collapsed, resolving that issue nicely.
“Alvak. Are the Svartalve insertion contingents ready?”
The speakers built into the headrest of the chair relayed his response to me. “Yes.”
“OK.” I looked at the timers under each of the seven active monitors with red LED lights around their images. Less than ten minutes.
I sat up a little straighter, took a deep breath, and then picked up a very large sheath knife from the table beside my chair. It was large enough, and light enough, that I could wield it efficiently with my weak, oversized hands when I was changed into the soul well.
Removing the knife from its sheath, I stared at it, turning it slowly so it glinted in the light. I felt a bit queasy, but dry-swallowed, and calmed myself. The soul well deadened emotion in me, but it didn’t eliminate fear completely. It had been a great help to me during mental recovery, by allowing me to face my fears. Black birds, especially large ones, still scared the crap out of me in human form, but I could act, they didn’t mentally freeze me or cause uncontrolled panic. Darkness was just a minor irritation now, even pitch blackness, unless I was already fearful, in which case darkness magnified my fears unpredictably. Black birds in near darkness were still bad. Very Bad. Knives still bothered me, which was one reason I refused to allow anyone else to use knives on me for what I was about to do. Alvak had offered to make a machine to do it, but I refused that as well. Anne thought I was nuts, but it wasn’t Anne’s choice.
Get to it. Not much time left.
I carefully cut a foot-long, inch-wide strip off my left thigh, and handed it to the first Jinn in line, an albino, about six feet tall and three hundred pounds with Polynesian features, wearing flip-flops, a pair of black Bermuda shorts, and an obnoxiously brilliant neon yellow pullover T-shirt. One of Ali’s uncles. He called himself Jamar.
A youngster, by his own admission, barely older than the human race.
I smiled. “Thank you for helping today, ‘youngster.'”
Jamar grinned as he dropped the strip from my leg into a fanny pack at his side, and then moved to a nearby wall and created a door. “Calvart, please ask Thor if I can open a door and enter the area with him?”
Calvart spoke. “Thor, base here. Are we clear to send a soul well fragment to your location?”
On one of the monitors, I saw Thor hold his wrist up to his face. “Yes.” Came the response, slightly after Thor’s arm was already moving back towards his side.
I continued cutting, intentionally forcing myself to recognize what I was doing, to try to help deaden my fear of knives.
It has helped. A lot more than those hypnotherapy recordings.
Six more long slices from my left leg. Six more Jinn and Jiniri with fanny packs. Six more gods were asked permission, and six more Jinn and Jiniri stepped through doorways to stand beside those gods, preparing to use the pieces of my body as lures. Ali and Matty were two of them.
I cut one more strip and handed it to Karina, who would stay by my right side as a reserve. One of the last two of the youngest ten Jinn and Jiniri on the planet that were wakeful stood to the left side of my chair. He would accompany me, myself, if I had to act directly. The last Jiniri was with Anne and Danny at one of the gatherings in Enclave viewing areas where they would watch the fights.
I still didn’t understand why Anne and Danny went to the meetings. I was deep underground, and Jane didn’t get anywhere near the fighting. I suspected it was simply to be there for others, and that was a good enough reason, even if it made me a bit nervous because they were around people that might get violent if they saw their family members hurt.
Fifi will be there too.
I pitied the poor normal human that might piss that little mop off by attacking my family. I had, as a joke, gone to a butcher and gotten a cow femur that had been stripped of most of its meat, and brought it to the Enclave apartment, wrapped heavily in butcher paper. I spread out the butcher paper and put the femur down next to her water bowl, and Fifi had just stared at me for a moment, before walking over, picking up the twenty pound bone with her mouth, somehow, carrying it into the bathroom, and jumping into the bathtub with it. She then pawed the curtains shut and commenced to making crunching noises for the next five minutes that had me cringing. Anne had silently watched the whole thing, grinning like a madwoman, and held my mouth closed as Fifi pawed the curtain back open and the bone was gone.
Now I’m Fifi’s favorite person, when I’m at the apartment.
I’m probably one of the butcher’s favorite people too.
Seeing the butchered bones helps desensitize me to meat images as well.
Calvart’s voice spoke. “All seven emergence locations have soul well fragments in place, and defenses are ready. We are activating shielding now.” I watched onscreen as containment fields sprang into existence around the predicted portal emergence points and above the ground. The bugs had yet to use nuclear weapons. We suspected it was because they were using all radioactive materials for power generation. None of the bugmen that had been captured had mental imagery of nuclear weapons.
I heard all seven war gods check in with Calvart, acknowledging the shields. Coyote and a few of the other pantheon head gods had done a good job of twisting metaphysical arms to get all of the extant gods and major magical beings to sign on to the new contract. Part of that was threats of selectively calling in the debts owed to me from my past actions, and the promise of future power. The darker gods had been happy with the old contract, because it was easier to interfere with. Loki had even admitted that in front of me with a smile before one of Odin’s wolves gripped his left leg below the knee, and growled.
I sheathed my knife, and placed it on the table next to me.
I think the new contract works much better.
I would now be assisted by five Jinn and five Jiniri, chosen to be the five youngest of each type who were wakeful, not just a single Jinn. Ali and I had both been relieved when he was no longer required to be my sole attendant. There had been some bad moments. Now we enjoyed each other’s company again, when we were both in a mood to speak to one another.
Anne was happier as well, since having so many Jinn and Jiniri around allowed her and Danny a high degree of safety. With ten Jinn and Jiniri around to make sure I wasn’t surprised or injured, she could live with me now, in the house, and the apartment was Danny’s.
Gorgon had not interfered with me at all since I gave up my company to the board of directors and Danny. I sent Jamar, the oldest and most powerful of my current assistants, to talk to Gorgon and make sure there wasn’t anything being planned. The response had been, and I quote. “Do you think I need to be told what you are, Jamar, or what other beings Zeke Collins has for allies now? I got what I wanted from him. Go away.” Jamar indicated that Gorgon had been sincere, and I didn’t need to worry about him, for now.
As long as Danny and Jane stay together anyway.
I could hear Alvak and Calvart talking with others, organizing secondary and tertiary defensive perimeters. They were probably also building circuit boards, or programming new applications, or whatever else needed to be done, but they helped me coordinate defenses well enough.
The range of the fragments of the soul well that I sent to each portal site was smaller than the whole me would have been, about fifty feet in radius, or half as much range for them than my whole body would be. With the energies that the gods released, the shielding was likely to burst, and some enemies thrown clear. I had seen Mjolnir pop a shield like a soap bubble when thrown, but Thor had only done that once, and apologized profusely afterwards for his thoughtlessness. The bugmen themselves had some weapons capable of breaking shields, but we were seeing less of them now. Still, there were always at least a few leakers, sometimes a lot of them. The secondary defensive lines always got some action, and the tertiary defensive lines frequently had to help a little. Every now and then either I, or tactical reserves standing by with gods that could teleport, were required.
I watched as the Jinn and Jiniri at ground zero repositioned themselves, and then buried themselves under ten feet of dirt and stone. This wasn’t to protect them, but to make them immobile, at the point of entry of the invaders. The invaders would then be concentrated on attacking the ground under their feet while the war gods slaughtered them. The mass of earth and stone over them would prevent the gods from knocking them away from the portal.
Not needing to breathe is a plus.
If a god wanted a share of power from a battle, they must contribute either before, during, or after the fight in a way that matched the roles set out in the contract, or in an alternate way that at least three pantheon leaders agreed would be useful. Loki had even stepped forward once and taken a place within the shields, just to show that he could, when Thor insulted him. It had been frightening to see him fight. The bugmen simply died as they entered our world. They froze solid when Loki blew at them, and then shattered when Loki struck his staff on the ground.
Thor had attended the same defensive position as Loki’s, as one of the four inner perimeter gods. He even stated clearly that he was there to take over the defense when Loki failed, because he didn’t think Loki could hold the center. As the portal closed, Loki had walked past a speechless Thor, simply raising an eyebrow, saying nothing. The next day it seemed as if every Goth or Emo kid in the world was wearing white face paint, carrying a staff, wearing robes, and gushing about how awesome Loki was.
Thank you for the idea, Coyote.
I just wish I had been there to see his reaction when Loki realized what happened.
Of course, the Svartalves had already had the idea of using the soul well as a bargaining tool to put darker gods into situations where they would be seen as heroic, with hundreds of different variants, when I asked. In the end, the new contract would basically force all gods to assist humanity if they wanted power. If they refused to help, they would be forgotten. If they tried to attack sufficient numbers of humans to generate enough fear to power themselves, the other gods, powered by the soul well’s power, would tear them down and banish them in a dimensional pocket like the one Ahmed had trapped me in. The Abrahamic gods, due to their inability to manifest bodies on Earth, were allowed to send angels in proxy. Archangel Gabriel was their normal choice, and he was no lightweight, even compared to the war gods.
The countdowns ended, and the large containers of assault balls appeared, as always, and the war gods and Gabriel destroyed them almost instantly, like normal. The gods and archangels could use their magical abilities to destroy the incoming devices before they were formed sufficiently to activate.
Not that I’d rather they be better fighters.
It was painful to watch the carnage, but about three hours later, Alvak announced total success. Seven teams of Svartalves, four per team, had teleported through the portals to the other side, bypassing the battle completely. They had reported from the other side that the environment found there would sustain Svartalve life, and that there was magic, but it wasn’t being manipulated within their sensing range.
I can’t even imagine how desperate the bugmen must be to keep attacking like this.
A great many rapid experiments had been performed, and the far side Svartalves were confident that their mission would be a success. The Svartalves on the other side had then destroyed all seven of the bugmen’s portal generators, trapping themselves in the cross-layer dimensional space.
Twenty-eight Svartalves were now responsible for doing whatever was necessary to force the bugmen to first control their birthrate, and then to help them develop their bodies and technology to allow them to become a spacefaring race. The Svartalves would only allow the opening of future cross-layer dimensional portals for peaceful purposes of exploration or trade. Those transplanted Svartalves and their descendants would also protect that dimensional layer from attacks from yet other dimensional layers.
The geas on the Svartalve race would hold no matter where the race went, even to worlds with no magic, it was thought. Svartalves had been into space, far from any magical source, to test their theories with extra care.
When Svartalves say they tested ‘with extra care’ I’m willing to take the results as ironclad.
The Svartalve racial geas was carefully designed, by Svartalves, to force any Svartalve that even thought they might have figured out a loophole in the geas to, first, not utilize the loophole, and, second, report the possible loophole to every other Svartalve they knew. They must then communally figure out how to fix the geas and get rid of the loophole, after which point, they would create a god to adjust the geas, and then extinguish the god when the fix was in place.
Seeing the expressions of the human gods that heard the Svartalves explaining this had been hilarious. Coyote had kept it to himself, not telling any of them. The Svartalves had calmed the frightened gods by saying that it had taken the Svartalves forty million years of strict breeding programs to develop the ability to kill off their own gods. The human gods just needed to prevent the human race from developing into a gestalt-capable mind. Then, upon further questioning from Thoth, the Svartalves had explained how their eugenics program had worked, and I was the one that was sick.
Svartalves are scary as hell, sometimes.
I can’t even imagine what the Troodon must have been like.
I didn’t think the human gods needed be concerned, and they agreed with me as far as I knew. Trillions of Svartalve hatchlings had been culled in the name of Svartalve racial self-improvement. They had no mammal sensitivities about their young, though they did at least regret the necessity on some level.
At least they say they do.
If they wanted to do humans in, they could have already, easily.
They probably have hundreds of plans already drawn up, in case they need to.
Not that I’m going to ask.
Nothing was guaranteed, but with all Svartalves forced by racial geas to monitor and take actions to repair or improve their own racial geas, it should be self-preserving. The only reason the Svartalves allowed such a geas was because they placed it upon themselves through their first temporary god, Valsom.
The inefficiency of including human tinkers in the Svartalve geas had annoyed Valsom, and he was also clear that he didn’t think the human gods could handle modifying the main geas on humans, so he had provided the human pantheon leaders a stripped down version of the Svartalve geas. The geas was far less complex than the Svartalve geas, but it apparently satisfied the human gods, who implemented it.
A great deal of mental healing efforts had been put into helping Tinkers. For some, it was a lost cause. They had grown too accustomed to their own mental illnesses, and could not be cured without basically turning them into different people. Others blossomed into fine mental health with minimal guidance. Some had mixed results. Jane, for example, was still extremely agoraphobic, rarely going outside, but she had lost most of her OCD tendencies. The Svartalves fixed the tinkering genetic modifications so that the infused elementals and spirits of innovation in future tinkers would draw energy from metabolic processes, as opposed to other parts of the human mind.
“Alvak, Calvart, are there any mop-up operations ongoing?”
“No, Mr. Collins” was repeated in stereo.
I held out my hand to Karina, and spoke. “Calvart, please call the Jinn and Jiniri with soul well fragments, and ask for them to return. Alvak, please communicate with the gods and find out if there are any strange requirements for delivery, or if there are any complaints about any gods not doing their jobs appropriately.”
“Yes, Mr Collins.” Stereo again.
Karina handed me the strip of my leg, and I fitted it into place, watching as it wriggled slightly, healing back into place, almost instantly. The other seven pieces of me arrived in short order, and were all fitted into place on my leg. I now contained the soul energy of hundreds of thousands of dead bugmen.
I saw Anne and Danny arrive on camera, and made sure the red light on the door was lit so they knew not to enter yet. Their escort Jiniri, however, needed to attend me, and opened the door, walking into the main cavern. Fifi was there with Anne and Danny, and ran in circles around the two of them a couple times before flopping down on Danny’s feet, rather than on the floor.
Even temple guardians prefer a warm place to lay down.
The last Jiniri approached, and all ten of them held hands, except the Jinn and Jiniri nearest to me, who only held the hand of one partner. They each reached out and I reached out to them as well. As they touched me, I felt the heavy syrup sensation of the soul energy being drained from me through both arms.
I looked at Ali. “Were you able to get it all, and evenly distribute it?”
“Yes, Zeke, everyone got an equal share.” Ali answered as he removed his hand from my wrist.
I stood, and then shifted back into my human self and pushed the base intercom. “Good job everyone. You all know what to do from this point on. Let Alvak or Calvart know if there are problems that you need help solving. They’ll let me know if I need to know. There will be a cookout at my place tonight, if any of you want in, just show up. I’m the grill-master tonight. Beef burgers and turkey dogs. If you want steaks, Danny will fire up the other grill. Remember, no pork, please. Bring your own anything else. The grill shuts down at ten, the lights are out at midnight.” I released the button.
“See you there, Zeke!” Ali commented as he ran to one of the nearby walls, created a door, and stepped through it with a wave.
I made sure my phone was connected to the access point system, in case someone needed to reach me. It was almost guaranteed that someone would probably think they needed me, and I’d end up pushing them off to the Svartalves unless it was something that actually needed my attention, like a social/people problem.
I pressed another button and the red light at the door turned green. Anne and Danny pushed through, and I went to meet them, tucking my phone into the inner pocket of my windbreaker.
Anne gave me a hug, and I slapped Danny on the back. Danny said he was going to get Jane from over at her mother’s, and I nodded. Anne and I hurried back to the house to close all the blinds and make sure Jane’s ‘safe closet’ was in good order.
Human technicians and practitioners, and a couple of the Jinn and Jiniri arrived in short order, before I even had the charcoal lit.
Jamar saw my predicament and grinned. “Don’t worry, Zeke, I missed giving fire to humankind by a few hundred thousand years, but I’ve got this, I think.” The charcoal caught fire, and was immediately ready to cook on.
“Thanks Jamar!” I quickly started tossing burgers and dogs on the grill.
After I had the grill covered with burgers and dogs, but before I had to carefully watch for flare-ups from dripping grease, I spent a moment looking up at the stars. I couldn’t see them well through the smoke and with the outside floodlights on, but they were still there, winking.
I wish there had been a way to save you, Ahmed.
Anne walked up behind me and put her head on my shoulder. “Thinking about him again?”
I flipped a couple burgers that really didn’t need flipping yet. “Yeah. Is it that obvious?”
“When you look off into nowhere with that pain on your face, yes. It’s obvious. At least to me. I’m sure the Jinn and Jiniri notice it too. I bet it’s part of why they like you so much.” She pushed me away from the grill a bit and pulled my head down, staring into my eyes. “Happy thoughts, Zeke. Think about what you and your team did today.” She gave me a kiss on the nose.
Anne then produced a white chef’s hat and apron, which had apparently been tucked behind her back, made me put them on, and went back inside to work with Matty to make sure the non-grilling parts of the party went well.
I put myself on autopilot on the grill, thinking about what we’d managed today, finally. The first step towards not just protecting Earth, but all Earths. The organization I’d built wouldn’t stop alien invasions from other places in our dimension, but the Svartalves said that the number of dimensional layers was finite. That meant, eventually, in a few hundred thousand years or so, we will have ended the possibility of all Earth-based cross-layer dimensional attacks.
I might even see that day.
I still knew almost nothing about magic.
I no longer wanted to know about magic.
Success isn’t magic – it just feels like it.