“There are very few things which I consider mine.”
At the middle of all things
The middle of all things, the place where the multiverse begins and ends. The place where – according to even the oldest beings – everything began. The place where the gods live in a city, a place where immortals walk among one another like mere citizens, governed by the Council of Gods.
Here, at this holy and breathtaking place, there sits a god with his ghostcat on his lap. And for all the world cares, he could as well be some measly office worker in any unthankful job.
I laugh at the thought, petting my cat as I watch the skyline of the crystal city from my office. Grumbling, I run my fingers through my purring pet's fur. The crystal city was always here and nobody knows how it was made, because not even the gods can shape the mana crystals which it was made of.
The smooth surfaces of the buildings reflect the distant star’s light and in the sky is the black hole at the middle of all things, hovering above us like a promise of doom.
My little office is within the big machinery of the bureaucracy of this megacity. For a moment, I remember my ascendancy to godhood. How I felt like nothing could stand in my way. Who would have thought that ascending to godhood wouldn't change anything in the end?
Of course, I can single-handedly obliterate worlds, but even that gets boring after a while.
If it wasn't for the Council, I wouldn't even be here. I would be out there in the multiverse and do as I please. But as life is, there are always those who want to control others and I have to admit that the Council is doing a pretty good job at it. The gods are no different from the mortals.
The Council manages the gods of the multiverse, making sure that new ascendancies don't stray out of line. I admit that having someone who keeps the sheep in line isn't a bad thing. Even when weak gods fight, worlds get destroyed.
Such is the power of the gods.
And those who don't stick to the rules tend to vanish. There are only a few ways to deal permanently with an immortal being. First, you have to kill its corporeal form, then, you have to make sure that its soul doesn't reincarnate. Otherwise, you would have a pissed-off god come after you a few decades later, or however long it takes the soul to find a new vessel.
That's mainly why I am trying to keep my head down. It doesn't happen often, but gods are vanishing when they oppose the Council. Permanently. So, for now, I try to be a reasonable and good sheep. Which means that I am doing my best to be useful. 'Cause, useful people don't vanish.
I sigh again, wondering how it's possible that by ascending to godhood I would turn into a mere desk-jockey. I mean, I was an Empress in my former life! I enslaved and ruled a whole world until I grew powerful enough to ascend into the ranks of the Crystal City. The Council gave me a little leeway in my dealings with the mortals for the first few centuries, as they always do with the new gods.
They know from experience that it will get boring soon enough.
Then, with time, all my mortal connections fell away. Family members died, by accident or by choice... apparently I am not a person who people want to hang out with for centuries. It says something about my character.
When I realized one day that I had nothing more to lose, I killed myself in an attempt to escape the Council's attention, who had roped me over the centuries ever further into their web. Turns out that they have a way of tracking souls throughout the multiverse even if they go through the reincarnation process. If I had known that, I wouldn't have killed myself.
Apart from being reborn and getting a new body, reincarnation always comes with a loss of power and memories. So, even if you aren't happy with your body because you reincarnated as a girl instead of a man, you should avoid dying at all costs. That's really the main difference between an immortal and a mortal soul, the power level which allows them to keep their memories throughout multiple lives.
My silent brooding is interrupted when someone rudely opens the door to my office and a man in silver plated leather armour steps inside.
“Ascathon!” Jahr greets me, holding a paper in his left hand while running his fingers through his hair. “I really didn't want to seek you out, but I have a message from Tjenemit.” The other god eyes me with obvious distaste. As a deity of order, he seems to have a natural aversion towards me. We never got along.
I wave a hand for him to go on. “What does he want this time? A rare beast slain? Did some sentient dragon ascend and he doesn't want to play along? Information? Who do I have to spy on?”
Jahr waves his hand, grinning with glee. “Nothing like that. He just wants you to take part in the meeting at Studio 7.”
A meeting? “What's this meeting about?”
“A new project. And it so happens that I expect to become the project's leader.” His expression turns even more gleeful than it already is. “Which means that you will be my bitch. I'll make you do twice the work.”
“I am not going to be anyone's bitch,” I answer matter of factly. Jahr isn't the first asshole who I don't get along with, and I am sure he won't be the last. Maybe it's time to remind everyone why the Council keeps me around?
“You heard the order, so come along like a nice little pet.” Jahr huffs and turns around, then he tries twisting the doorknob – without result. He yanks at the door, but nothing happens. Losing his patience, he kicks it but stumbles back. It's like some mortal is trying his best to get through a heavy metal door without any tools at hand. “What's this! How is this possible!?”
“It's a special magical circuit, aimed at disconnecting everything within this room from the aether. Very useful in subduing a new test subject. It's the secret of why I am so good at catching runaway deities,” I educate him patiently. “Inside this room, you are nothing more than a mere mortal. At least as far as your power is concerned. There will be no high-power energy conversion of any kind. I am afraid that I haven't figured out how to catch a soul within this space. An essential part of catching other gods – or at least to incapacitate them.” I shrug. “One day I’ll solve that problem too.”
And until then I’ll have to make do with other solutions.
Jahr turns to face me. “Let me go.”
“No.” I huff. “Haven't you listened? You are my newest test subject. Feel honoured.”
“You have no idea. Tjenemit knows where I am. He will punish you...” Then – suddenly – a light bulb seems to switch on in that stupid brain of his and Jahr chuckles, searching the walls with his eyes. “But if this inhibition field affects the entire room, then that means that you are also weak and helpless.” He reaches for the shiny sword at his belt. “A grave mistake. Even without magic or a god's power I am a skilled swordsman. A martial artist of the highest calibre.” His eyes shine with happiness at the opportunity that presented itself. “And you are nothing more than a weak mage. You are nothing without your spells!”
The time he needed for his speech was more than enough for me to sneak a hand beneath my desk, gripping the handle of the small, handheld crossbow.
“You are completely right.” I raise the crossbow from beneath the desk and aim it at his chest, releasing the first bolt with a satisfying 'Twang!' of the string.
The projectile, a bolt tipped with the shard of a mana crystal, embeds itself inside Jahr's chest. The other god stumbles backwards with a shocked expression on his face. His shiny armour may be functional, but it's still just metal. The heads of my darts are made out of mana crystal, a mysterious material that's to gods as metal is to mortals. The pure energy and magic inside a mana crystal is able to cut through any barrier if wielded with enough force.
There are only very few places in which you can acquire this rare material, like in the middle of all things. Actually, the whole planet is made out of the stuff. Some ancient and long forgotten cataclysm created it. I still had to search the planes outside the city for a long time until I found a fitting piece of mana crystal.
Not waiting for the results of the first shot, I fire five more times, manipulating the automated loading mechanism of the neat toy. The barrel with the six darts rotates each time with a satisfying 'clink' until the last dart finds Jahr's forehead.
Stumbling backwards, he is stopped by the door and slowly slides to the ground, his hand still on the half-drawn sword.
I watch, fascinated whether it will work or not, as the enchanted darts do their job of catching Jahr's soul.
Studying his aura, I watch as it congeals around the first bolt which embedded itself in his chest. There are only very few beings who can deal with an enchanted weapon stuck inside their body. To counter the effects of a spell that's activating inside one's own body would require incredible skill with inner mana manipulation, a skill in which even I can't claim proficiency in. As a god, it's so much easier to just release your aura and blast anything away that might be able to harm you.
“Don't worry, Fluffers,” I coo at the cat on my lap. “The evil man won't harm you.”
Lifting the little kitten off my lap, I put it on the table, then I get up to inspect the corpse.
It takes half an hour to search Jahr's mortal body and to store the cleaned shard of mana crystal inside my chest pocket, his soul safely imprisoned inside. It’s the best container I can think of to make sure that he won’t revive any time soon. Capturing souls is so much easier since I found out how to enchant mana crystals with a capturing array. The only mystery that remains is to find out how I can create the stuff. It's one of the arcane mysteries which got lost in the ages.
Because one thing is for sure in my opinion: Mana Crystals are somehow artificially created. Once I get to the bottom of that secret, I might even be able to challenge the Council. Now that would be a story! I could become a king among gods. Nobody would be able to oppose my forces if I had access to such a secret. After all, a big part of the Council's power is based on the fact that they sit on the biggest known deposit of mana crystals in the known multiverse.
Revelling in this fantasy, I deactivate the inhibition field by pressing a tile next to the office's entrance. Testing my magic, I dispose of the body with a flick of my finger and a wave of my hand turns the blood into dust which is easily dealt with thanks to a conjured up breeze. Some minor deity will soon perform the cleaning duties and all of the remaining evidence will be gone.
I huff, making sure that there is nothing obvious that would hint at the fact that a god was forcefully immaterialized in this place.
Once that's done, I access the city's network through the workstation on my desk, a nifty little device with a few hundred Petahertz of calculation power. I had to pay a pretty penny for it, but since there are plenty of surveillance systems throughout the crystal city, it was worth the investment. Having a capable hacking tool is very helpful in making sure that Jahr's last known whereabouts weren't anywhere close to my office.
Having made sure that there is plenty of false evidence regarding his movements, I pick up Fluffers who is licking itself. The little ghostcat is a remnant I kept from a previous life. By now, I am not very fond of dealing with mortal beings, but Fluffers is a familiar, a magical construct that's fed by my own mana. As long as it keeps a connection to me, it will stay alive.
Outside my office, I take the corridor which leads to the central stairway. From there I head directly towards the meeting rooms. Disposing of the corpse and manipulating the data inside the network took a lot of time. I might actually be late.
Upon reaching Studio 7 I wince, noting that the door is already closed. Which means that the meeting has already started and that I am too late.
Sighing, I open the door and enter the room. Better to get it over with than to stay outside until they start searching for me.
The room turns out to be large enough to hold a table for twenty people and a raised pedestal for someone who wants to hold a speech.
Tjenemit, a dark-skinned man with average features, is standing on the elevated ground and obviously waiting for something while he searches through a stack of documents. From his appearance, you would never guess that he is one of the rulers of the multiverse. The seats at the large table are held by gods of various races. At first glance, I recognize a few of them, but more than half of the present faces have no meaning to me.
Upon entering, the previously lively room falls totally silent as people stop chatting.
“Why is he here?”
“If he is in, I am out.”
“I would rather take my chances with-”
“SILENCE!” Tjemenit’s voice booms through the room, shutting up everyone. Turning towards me, the Council member points at an empty chair right next to a half-orc who I recognize as Marigold, a god who I had a few dealings with over the years.
Close to me are also Nazareth, a little gnome who somehow managed to become a lesser deity – a god of mountains as far as I recall.
There is also Zenial, a goddess of the moon and night of average power.
And there is Seria, a deity of life and death. She is a real powerhouse and for some reason, I have a feeling that she doesn’t like me. Looking back, we share quite a bit of history. Though I have no idea what I ever did to her, aside from hitting on her once or twice. But who would blame a healthy man for hitting on a pretty woman?
After having taken a good look at the present menagerie of gods, I follow Tjenemit’s order and walk towards the empty seat. I am a little confused about the widely different power levels in this group. Though, it seems like there is a god for each of the most common aspects of godhood.
But before I can reach my seat, Tjenemit stops me with a raised hand. “Where is Jahr? He was supposed to bring you with him.”
Oops… “I don’t know? He just told me to be here and then he ran off.”
“He is totally lying,” someone whispers to my left. “It’s written all over his face.”
“I bet he killed him… just for the kicks...” another joins in.
I quickly turn around to search for the offenders, but none of them dare to identify themselves. “I killed nobody.” If I ever learned something about the law, then it’s to deny until the end, and that’s what I am going to do here.
A tall figure in a plate armour which looks suspiciously similar to Jahr’s leather outfit bends over to ask a question of the little gnome next to him. “Nazareth, why would you make such an accusation?”
The lesser deity’s eyes widen and he sucks in a sharp breath. “Don’t just rat me out like that! I said it because it’s true! That’s Ascathon, the soul mage I told you about! Everybody knows that people who talk bad about him disappear.”
The plate-guy looks up, focusing on Tjenemit. “Is that true!?” Then he looks at me. “And why are you holding a kitten? It looks ridiculous.”
Nazareth quickly raises his hands, waving. “Whatever you do, don’t insult the kitten! The kitten is sacrosanct!”
The Council member closes his eyes and massages the bridge of his nose. “I am too old to deal with this. Ascathon, what did you do with Jahr?”
“Nothing,” I answer quickly.
Tjenemit’s eyes flicker to my chest pocket. Somehow the elder god can tell that I am hiding something, but it doesn’t seem like he is willing to put up with the hassle of pursuing the matter. “I suppose that if we start an investigation, nothing worthwhile will show up?”
“Of course not!” I reply. “Just check the surveillance feeds. Jahr left my room quickly right after delivering the message.”
Shaking his head, the Council member gestures for me to sit down. “I am just glad that I invited several people to this project, so we have a few spares. Myrm, you will have to take over Jahr’s place. It means double the work for you, but that can’t be helped. If it proves too much for you, I’ll find another deity of order.”
“Me!? Why me!? And how can it be that you just let an accusation like that slide? There must be an investigation!” the plated figure complains. “Jahr and I were supposed to play two different aspects!”
“Look.” Tjenemit’s expression turns dangerous as he smiles winningly at Myrm. “Ascathon here has a few abilities that are valuable to the Council. Which means that as long as he doesn’t cause too much of a disturbance, or gets himself caught, I don’t care. In fact, Jahr’s inability to deal with Ascathon automatically removed him from the list of candidates for this experiment. Why do you think I sent him to get this fellow?” Allowing his voice to turn menacing, Tjenemit releases his aura, pressing down on all of us with all his might.
The lesser deities pale and turn green with nausea. Nazareth bends over to puke on the floor. Even the stronger ones among us shrink back from this unrivalled power which forces itself onto us like the weight of eons. The only ones who seem fairly unaffected are Myrm, Seria, Marigold and me.
I silently berate this Myrm character for setting off a Council member. He must be new, and unaware of how things work in the world of gods. The Council may play nice on the outside, putting up a shiny facade for those who aren’t privy to its inner workings. But at the core, all the Council members operate on the principle of 'might makes right'.
Ever since I was so unlucky to gain their attention, I did my best to be unimportant enough to be left alone, but useful enough not to be disposed of.
Sick of being ignored, I do my best to ignore the sickening feeling and raise my hand like a good little kid at school. “Can I sit down now? And I still don’t know what’s going on.”
As planned, my ploy breaks the moment and Tjenemit rolls his eyes, retreating the menacing display of his aura. “Yes, I suppose we can repeat the introduction for those who were late.” His eyes wander to two lesser deities who apparently didn’t show up in time.
Happy that I am not the only person who was late, I hurry to sit down on an empty chair and try not to stand out, but the gods to my left and my right move their chairs to create a little more distance between me and them… which makes me stand out even more.
Tjenemit takes his time before continuing his speech, making sure that everyone is paying attention. “Listen up! You guys have the doubtful honour of taking part in a pilot project which the Council is trying to establish throughout the multiverse.
“Let's make this as short as possible. I have a lot of things to do, and there are more groups participating in this project than just you. As you all probably know, the Council takes great pride in overseeing the awakening of new gods. Nobody wants a repeat of the age of war. That’s why we come down very hard on irregular awakenings. Not to mention that they are a big threat to the poor mortals. I mean, it’s entirely too easy for a god to take over an entire planet, dictate what everyone ought to do, and to become a tyrant on a massive scale.”
Again, everyone in the room looks at me.
“I did never do such a thing!” I defend myself. “I just made sure that an everlasting cycle of war was broken!” It’s not my fault that I had to bring down most of the planet’s important governments. Or that I had to beat the word peace into those savages. Thanks to me, the planet experienced a thousand years of relative peace. Nor is it my fault that they returned to their short-sighted ways soon after I gave up killing everyone who reached for power. After a thousand years of dealing with unruly children even I get bored.
Tjenemit clears his throat. “As I said, this project is aimed at supervising individuals who are strong candidates for ascension. For that reason, we will assign groups of gods to planets with crossing pathways, and which hold therefore a higher concentration of immortals. These gods will play the part of the planet’s pantheon. You will report anyone who might ascend to godhood to us before they actually achieve that step. Are there any questions?”
A lesser deity raises her hand. “How do you intend to force us to do such a boring job? And how are we supposed to identify candidates before the Council becomes aware of them?”
“That’s a good question, and the Council came up with an answer. We used some of our power and placed a world enchantment on the planet in question. A very complex spell, don’t worry about it. A lesser deity like you would never grasp its complexity.” He waves the matter away with a swipe of his hand. “All of you will get an amulet that weaves you into the enchantment. Each time some lesser soul prays strong enough to the aspect you represent, you will be drawn along the pathways to them and fulfil your roles as gods. Over time, you will be more and more involved in the world and build enough of a reputation to identify those with strong souls.”
Okay, I am out. Where is the exit? I didn’t keep my head down to be caught up in this bullshit! What he suggests sounds like a lot of work, and being forced to interact with mortals by being teleported to them when they pray to me? Just no!
Raising my hand, I try to get Tjenemit’s attention. “I am thankful for being given this opportunity, but I prefer my bleak office.”
“What do you mean by ‘no’?”
“There is no backing out. Especially not for you. We can’t have the position in charge of magic and chaos be left vacant. What would the world come to without an evildoer? As much as we would like to deny it, there are always those who pray for the end of the current regime, for power, for their chance.” He smiles. “But don’t worry. You will be glad to hear that you will be positioned on a world which you are very invested in. One could say, that you already have a history there.”
Tjenemit clicks his fingers and amulets appear in front of each of us. They are simple, silver coins on a chain. “Put those on, and don’t ever take them off. If you do, I’ll know, and I won’t be pleased.”
The others put on the amulets with sour expressions on their faces, and after a moment of hesitation, I follow their example. I could try to run, but I’ve seen too many times that it doesn’t work. The Council gets them all in the end.
The Council member nods after checking that everyone has his or her amulet on. “You will be given one decade during which you can build your reputation as a god. Use any measure of power you want to impress the mortals. There is just one rule, don’t fight each other openly. We all know the results of a battle between gods. I won’t tolerate you attacking each other in any form. Don’t test my patience on this matter, don’t try to find the boundaries. You will regret it.”
He looks around, making sure that he has made eye-contact with all of us. “With that said, you can begin.” Clapping his hands, he activates the amulet around my neck.
I try to complain. There are still many unanswered questions, details which would be crucial to know! But I am too late, and Tjenemit seems to be in a hurry.
The world twists and dissolves as I feel myself being pulled along one of the countless pathways against my will. In the next moment, I find myself on a battlefield in front of a bloody, babbling man who looks like a medieval crusader. Someone pinned him with a spear to the ground, leaving him to die on his own.
“...forsake you, god of light, I don’t need your order any longer! If you won’t lead us to victory against these heathens, then I’ll pray to the darkest of powers! As long as my comrades-” He notices me. “By the light! Man, what are you doing with a bloody kitten on the battlefield!?”