The Thinning Veil, Part Eighteen

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Chapter 50 | Chapter 51| Chapter 52 | Chapter 53

Chapter 50

Chapter 50

For the first time since the waters were formed on the planet, there were no magical souls in the Atlantic Ocean. The blast from Pausnuk’s sword sent everyone fleeing, the waters charged to a point that they were unsafe. Marine life had scattered as well, many fleeing for smaller seas nearby while larger species headed deep toward the ocean’s bottom. A barrier of two-hundred fifty nautical miles around the landmass was completely empty.

Dasheng Sen was not dead, though Merric hadn’t been certain of that when he and what was left of the Mer warriors carried her into the Tyrrhenian Sea for protection. They made her a bed of kelp and surrounded her with a protective reef in case there were additional attacks. The waters grew dark and flat and the tides calmed to the point they were hardly noticeable. 

Dashen Sen’s body had shrunk in size, leaving her smaller than the swordfish that was guarding her. The blast hit her directly, knocking her and every soul near her over a hundred miles away from the landmass. The wound scarred her face and neck, leaving her with a skeletal appearance that was frightening to observe. Her hair hung like loose seaweed from her scalp. Her eyes were sunken, their lids dark and thin. She was barely breathing and the breath she did take was halting and difficult.

Mediterranean ports had been full since the sinking of ships days earlier, their captains too fearful to venture out despite full cargo holds. Merric stationed sentries around the islands of Corsiva, Sardinia, Elba, and Capri. Their orders were to keep the waters calm and free of ships with heavy rotors that disturbed the natural currents. 

Word spread quickly throughout the Hantu Air of Dasheng Sen’s injury with a new fear causing them to question what magic the Nawa’ Diyo were using. Anything strong enough to take down the queen would easily kill the rest of them, they reasoned. Even souls living deep in the waters of the Southern Pacific were hiding in fear of another blast from the horrible weapon.

Merric sent out a call among the larger clans for help. The Nereids had followed the Mer to the Tyrrhenian Sea. The Callirrhoe had not been far away and were quick to respond. Glaucyllas, magical water souls born from curse made by Circe against Scylla, were also quick to respond. Maerons traveled invisibly from the Nile delta to join them. Others would come when they were more certain that traveling was safe.

For the moment, Merric gathered the clan leaders in hopes of creating a strategy that would keep every one of the water souls safe while Dasheng Sen was healing. He was unaware of what had transpired among the lakes region of North America. Neither could he easily communicate with the freshwater souls in nearby rivers. Only Dasheng Sen had been able to unify them. Merric was incertain how to reach them all and questioned whether they could do anything practical to help the situation.

As the clan leaders gathered outside the reef, Merric told them, “Our realm is in danger. Whatever weapon the Nawa’ Diyo have developed, there is nothing in our resources strong enough to counter it. Where we cannot rely on strength, we must rely upon our wit and intelligence to keep all those in the water realms safe from another attack like this one.”

Chloris, the leader of the Nereids, said, “The Nawa’ Diyo were already keeping us back from the new land, disrupting our magic and making it difficult for us to hold a steady position. I do not remember their power being as strong as it is now, nor as cruel.” Her soft pink hair wove around her face as she spoke, her eel-like tail snapping back and forth in anger. “We had been firmly in control until those beasts showed up. If we couldn’t fight them off with the help of the queen I don’t know what chance we stand without her.”

Icathus, his gelatinous body buoyed by an array of tentacles, spoke for the Callirrhoe. “The queen’s actions against the humans and the Nawa’ Diyo have disturbed the waters for all of us. The winds no longer blow in our favor. We must stay away from all coastlines and flee to deeper waters where we can hide. That is the only way to keep all of us safe. We cannot continue a war without her. We don’t dare.”

“Do we give up, then?” asked Terryphan, the leader of the Glaucyllas. His spiked round body bobbed in the water, struggling to stay in place as a mild current flowed around him. “Do we dare surrender on behalf of the queen? Perhaps we should end the war now.”

“We were supposed to have a truce,” Merric answered. “Dasheng Sen was only trying to protect the Mer bodies trapped on the landmass. Now, humans are going to take apart the corpses of our brothers and sisters, violating the sanctity of our souls and our bodies. We cannot retrieve our fallen to send them on to Oceanus in the immortal realm. Once the humans begin to understand what we are, they will come looking for us and will hunt us for sport as they do all marine life. Humans consider everything other than themselves expendable. If we surrender now, we give our fates over to them and all of us are doomed to fearful existence and possibly death by their cruel hooks and nets.”

“So, we separate the humans from the protection of the Nawa’ Diyo, or whatever their connection is,” Chloris said. “I had thought they were as tired of the human problem as we are. Seeing them defend humans on land their own queen raised defies logic.”

“Queen Apa’ii is cunning. She may protect one group of humans to make a larger group more vulnerable,” said Perata, the nearly invisible leader of the Maerons. The outline of her feminine body was barely more than a ripple in the water. “There’s no way she’s protecting them because of any alliance. She’s up to something. My question is whether her target is the humans or us?”

“Apa’ii uses our integrity and tradition against us,” Merric said. “We both may be her target. And if she’s going to start throwing around magic strong enough to nearly kill the queen, we have to assume she’s okay with assassinating any of us who might get in her way.”

“All the more reason for us all to go deep,” Icathus said. “We cannot let ourselves be targeted. We can go deep, hide from her magic until Dasheng Sen is healed and again powerful enough to take the lead. We have no business being aggressive without her.”

“You make us sound like cowards,” Merric said. “We dare not give up our realm without a fight. If we can’t match the Nawa’ Diyo in magic power, then we’ll best them through strategy.”

“What if we’re being fooled?” Terryphan asked. “What are the odds that the blast of magic that injured Dashng Sen was an accident, a new weapon gone wrong? We all know how the elves are about adding magic to everything they touch. What if something went wrong and a weapon exploded, out of anyone’s control? They may have taken injuries as severe as ours. The humans may not have survived. If what happened was an accident, then there is no weapon and we’re cowering down here for nothing. We don’t know if the Nawa’ Diyo are still over the landmass. There may not be any threat at all.”

“Who wants to risk getting close enough to find out?” Chloris asked. “Nereids want nothing to do with those waters. We lost too many souls. We cannot risk another encounter like that. I won’t ask that of my clan.”

“Terryphan’s question is worth considering, though,” Perata said. “Apa’ii has never used that level of force against anyone. Why do so now? Wouldn’t she realize that an attack on our queen makes herself vulnerable?”

“Those waters are still uninhabitable,” Icathus said. “The ionization changed. I’ve never seen the Nawa’ Diyo use such magic. We’ll have to wait for the current to balance the water before any of us can get close.”

Merric shook his head. “I don’t think it was an accident. I was there. Dasheng Sen was fighting back the Erlkönig, meeting their charge blow to blow. The blast came from above the Erlkönig. One of the queen’s counselors wielded a weapon and aimed it directly at our queen. This was a deliberate attempt to kill her.”

“I still don’t see an offensive option for us,” Icathus said. “Deliberate or not, we do not have an adequate response to whatever that blast of power was. Our first responsibility is to the safety of our clans. We go deep, let the Nawa’ Diyo think we’ve ceded power, then attack when they let down their guard. Much less risk and we have time to consolidate our power so we are not so easily overwhelmed.” 

“Or, we waste a chance to attack while they’re wounded,” Terryphan insisted. “That blast affected every water soul on this planet and, for all I know, maybe on others. I see no way they wield that kind of magic with any control. They were almost certainly as injured as we were.”

“As we were,” Chloris scoffed. “You talk as though you were there. I was on the backside of the blast. None of the Erlkönig fell. None of the vicious Fenrir blinked. They were all fine. Attacking them right now would be the most foolish thing we could do.”

“And again, being repetitive, we can’t get close to that landmass,” Icathus said. “This isn’t a power thing, this is a limitation to our existence. We cannot swim in those charged waters and it will take days to make the ocean safe again. Any talk of attack is nonsense until the water is restored.”

The five clan leaders stood glaring at each other, none wanting to back down or consider a different opinion. They each had their doubts, though, and those doubts would keep them from doing anything at all.

A sudden percussive wave shook the waters, catching the clan leaders off guard. Merric turned instinctively to check on Dasheng Sen. The others swam out to look for a source of the blast.

“The waters are all fine. All the water souls can relax,” said a booming voice strong enough to create waves through the water. The clan leaders turned to see a massive figure, his muscles coved with scales, his beard reaching below his waist, his eyes gleaming a bright green.

Merric was the first to recognize him. He quickly bowed, laying his trident in front of him. “My god,” he said. “We are not worthy of your presence.”

The others follow suit, prompting a chuckle from the deity. “I try to close my eyes for a few million seasons and look what happens,” he laughed. “You seem to have gotten yourselves into a bit of a bind. I wouldn’t have said anything, I did promise Dashen Sen autonomous rule after all, but when someone makes the sun blink, water gets messed up. No worries, though. I’ve fixed all that. I’ll slip out now before anyone else notices I was here.”

“We would that you stay, at least until Dasheng Sen is healed,” Merric said. “We could build a new temple and worship you again.”

Oceanus laughed loudly enough to cause waves on the surface of the Mediterranian. “Dasheng Sen doesn’t want to see me when she wakes up. She just had the wind knocked out of her, in a magical sense, and she’s not going to be happy. She always did have a temper in the morning. I do better by everyone staying gone. Besides, should I linger, my presence will be noted by others. There is no one guarding Tartarus now. If I decide to stay, Nyx may decide to return as well. If Nyx returns, Chronos is probably coming with her. You can be quite certain he felt that little jolt. And wherever Nyx goes, Hemeras never falls too far behind. Before you know it, everyone will want to come back and claim their original power, and then someone will steal someone’s throne and we’re all at war again. You remember what happened the last time gods went to war, don’t you, Merric?”

“Yes, my lord,” the Merman said, his head still bowed. “We remember well.”

“Good. I don’t think anyone wants a repeat of so many failures. This planet does better without any interference,” the god said quietly, his long, black tentacles spreading out, covering a great expanse of the water around him. He sighed and said, “Being back does feel good. I always enjoyed being here. Uranus simply had too many children and then when we had children the arguments only grew worse. My siblings are not well behaved at all.”

“What shall we tell Dasheng Sen when she wakes?” Merric asked.

“You will not need to tell her anything,” Oceanus said. “She will know all she needs to know and she will be angry that I interfered at all. Still, I’ve noticed that you are in a bit of a tussle and not everyone is playing nicely. Should she desire, Dasheng Sen cal call upon her sisters and I will allow one or two of them to return. She always got along well enough with Styx, or perhaps, dear Chloris, you would like to see Thetis? She and Dasheng Sen could make a good team in a crisis. I would even let Amphitrite return if Dasheng Sen would let go of that who mess with Poseidon. She was so upset with her sister marrying an inferior god, though. I see, Merric, that you are still putting his many tridents to good use. Dasheng Sen has always had options. All she has to do is get over her stubbornness and ask for help.” he paused for a moment and smiled at the great number of marine life that had gathered around him. “You are all doing well, considering the inevitable fallacies of humans. I go now. Please, make sure the sun is left alone. None of the children of Uranus and Gaia, or any of the primordial gods, are asleep. They never have been. You don’t want them back down here. They wouldn’t be pleasant.”

Before Merric or anyone else could beg him to stay, Oceanus was gone in a water spout that reached to the heavens.

Rolling over on the bed of kelp, Dasheng Sen sat up and held her head with her hands. “What the fuck happened and why was my father here?” she snarled.

Chapter 51

Chapter 51

Alice was stunned by the sudden silence that came with the total darkness over the landmass. As the light slowly returned she felt another strong gust of wind as most of the Nawa’ Diyo left the land, leaving behind only a cohort of Fenrir to protect them. Given the circumstances, Baldnr wasn’t concerned that Dasheng Sen or anyone else would bother them again anytime soon. He was confident that those he left behind were fierce enough to meet any challenge that might arise.

Alice carefully reached over and cut another sample from the merman’s skin and placed it in a bag, happy that this time there were no loud noises or sudden blackouts. Using hand signs, she motioned for the rest of her team to join her. Quickly, they descended on the corpse, taking pictures and measurements and samples of everything they thought might be relevant.

They had been working several minutes when the Marines’ search and rescue team appeared from behind a wall of ocean debris. Master Sargeant Matt Tillerson approached Alice and introduced himself. “We’re happy to find you doing well,” he said. “All our radio comms are down after that blackout so we didn’t have any easy ways of finding you.”

“But everyone’s okay?” Alice asked through her gas mask. “Everyone at the Starfish is safe?”

“Yes ma’am,” the Marine said. “We’re establishing a parameter now. We’ll have to wait for new equipment, though. Everything that runs on batteries, all our field equipment is down. Whatever that sun event was, it fried everything.”

“On the Starfish as well?” Alice asked.

“I’m afraid so,” Sargeant Tillerson answered. “We’re hoping it doesn’t take too long for someone at North Atlantic Command to notice and send replacements. We’re all rather stuck here until they do.”

Alice brushed back the stray hairs that were dangling around her gas mask. “What about light? The Neptune was carrying some high powered lights so we could go ahead and conduct field experiments.”

“The lights are fine,” Sergeant Tillerson assured her, “but the generators are down. We have people working on them, of course, and the reactor back at the Neptune, but for now, everything’s down.”

“Everything? Including refrigeration?” Alice asked.

“I’m afraid so, ma’am,” the Marine said as he adjusted the heavy pack on his back. “The good news is that we’re having to eat food before it goes bad, so there will be a good spread along the beach tonight.”

“Perhaps someone can catch some There should be plenty of that in these waters.”

“They were just starting to try when we left,” the sergeant said. “If the ground weren’t such a mess this could be a lot of fun.”

“I’m sure,” Alice replied, looking back at her team still at work. “We need to get this specimen out of the elements as quickly as possible. Do you guys have stretchers or anything with you?”

Sergeant Tillerson walked over and loaded at the corpse on the ground. “Excuse me, ma’am, but is that a…”

“A merman?” she asked, finishing his question. “That’s certainly what it appears to be. The tail definitely isn’t fake. The webbed fingers and scales and gills indicate a creature designed for living in the water. All those old sea stories may have some truth to them after all, but he’s not going to last long out here in the sun.”

Tillerson walked around a bit more, motioning for the other Marines to join him. “He’s a lot bigger than a human. What, nine feet long or something?”

“Ten feet, two inches,” Dr. Spencer said, still crouched next to the body. “And the body is composed of rather dense tissue and muscle, considerably more mass than a human body. I’m going to guess he weighs around 145 kilos.” She looked up at the Marine and added, “Sorry, about 320 pounds. Not a light haul. It does have a spine, though, and an interesting rib structure. I don’t think it’s going to fall apart if you pick it up.”

“Still, we want to treat it as though it were glass. I’d like to keep it as intact as possible,” Alice said.

“Hey Sarge, come look at this funky pitchfork over here,” a young corporal yelled. He was standing a few meters away from the body on the opposite side of a small rise. Tillerson, Alice, and Ellen looked over to see the marine holding up a magnificently detailed trident.

Alice and Ellen looked at each other in disbelief. “Could it really be…” Ellen started.

“Poseidon’s trident? Probably not,” Alice said as they started walking over to where the corporal was standing. The trident was over four meters long, its shaft covered in carefully embedded shells, sapphires, and jade. Its tines were hooked and dangerously sharp. Most interestingly, there was no sign of corrosion, indicating that it wasn’t part of the trash composing the landmass.

“Do you think it belonged to that merman?” Sergeant Tillerson asked innocently. “Or maybe Aquaman?”

Ellen snorted and Alice smiled though neither gestures sufficiently communicated either scientist’s humor beneath the gas masks. “I think we can rule out any superheroes since this one’s dead,” Alice said. “Look around for anything else that looks like it might be a tool or weapon. We have to assume this creature was caught by surprise when the land rose out of the water. For all we know, his home may be around here somewhere. Don’t discount anything.”

The scientist looked back at Sergeant Tillerson. “Sergeant, do you think your stretchers can get our specimen back to camp?”

The sergeant shrugged. “I’m not sure but we can give it a try. Our stretchers are only a little over six feet long. We can probably let some of the tail hang off the end, though, if that’s okay with you, ma’am.”

“Beats leaving it out here,” Alice said. “See what you can do, just be as careful as possible. Think of it as being as fragile as your grandmother’s best china.”

The sergeant laughed. “I’m 32 years old and my grandma still won’t let me eat off her china. Paper plates, every time.”

“This is every bit as fragile and several times more valuable,” Alice said. “We’ll help where we can. Put your stretcher next to the body and we’ll roll it over.”

Sergeant Tillerson motioned to the corpsmen carrying the stretchers and they carefully followed Ellen’s instructions as they prepared to transport the merman’s body. They were happy to be wearing the gas masks as the pungent aroma of saltwater and rapidly decaying forms of sea vegetation were beginning to form a toxic gas. They expected the merman’s body to feel like a dead fish and were surprised at how rigid the corpse had become. Carefully, with the help of Alice and her team, they rolled the merman over onto the stretcher. Not only was the body too long, but its torso was exceptionally broad and heavily muscled.

As they rolled the body, the portion of its flesh that had been pressed next to the ground revealed for a moment the alright luminescent colors natural to the Mer in their underwater state. The photographers quickly snapped all the pictures they could as the colors quickly faded once they were exposed to the air.

Under the body was a sword, its hilt delicately and similarly decorated as the trident, its long blade glistening in the sun. 

“That’s interesting,” Alice said. “Our corpse isn’t wearing anything that could hold a scabbard. Why would he have been carrying an unsheathed sword?”

“Not an effective way to go fishing, I wouldn’t think,” Sergeant Tillerson said. “A spear would be better for that.

Alice nodded and motioned to have the sword carefully bagged and tagged for study.

“Hey Sarge, we found another one of those things over here, and damn, she’s a beast!” another corporal called.

Alice and her team quickly climbed over the small hill to where the Marine was standing. Another corpse of similar shape and construction, slightly smaller but definitely feminine with voluptuous breasts that would have been tempting for the hardiest of sailors. Unlike the other body, this one was holding a long spear, its shaft made of gold, its hooked head made of a stronger metal that looked something like titanium. The expression on her face seemed to be one of anger rather than fear. Her long, blonde hair stretched out behind her, tangled in the mess of trash.

“She got caught in the trash and couldn’t work herself free,” Alice said with a mix of compassion and scientific interest. “We’re going to need her, too, for comparison. There are more around here as well, according to the first satellite images. That’s why we need refrigeration. Keep looking for anything else that looks like a tool of any kind. I don’t know what these creatures are but they clearly are not any marine species we’ve seen before and I don’t think they had a clue that the land was going t rise up and leave them stranded.” 

As the Marines were preparing to put the second corpse on a stretched under Ellen’s careful guidance, marine zoologist Tori Stoneman made her way carefully over the uneven ground to talk to Alice. Despite being the most athletically toned of any of the scientists, Tori was finding the terrain difficult to navigate as she surveyed the various forms of sea life caught stranded on the landmass.

“Find anything interesting?” Alice asked as Tori approached.

The younger scientist shook her head. “What interesting is what I’m not finding,” she said. “Out this deep, I expected to find samples of larger species that were caught by surprise when the landmass was assembled. They’re not anywhere around here, though. Neither are there any signs of schooled fish that would have been traveling with the current. All I’m finding are shells and pieces of bottom dwellers. Outside the bodies you’ve found, there seems to be little other marine life here and that’s totally out of character for this type of event.”

“That’s certainly odd,” Alice admitted. “The expressions on the two bodies we’ve found so far indicate a level of surprise as though there was no warning. If it rose fast enough to trap them, I would think others would be trapped as well.”

“Of course, we’ve not covered every much of the surface yet,” Tori said. “I suspect we’ll find more as we spread out our search, but it raises a question that’s going to sound a bit strange. What if this land didn’t rise as the result of any kind of tectonic shift? Look at how rough and sharp this composite is. Notice the absence of deep water plant life. There are no fungi, no coral, none of the indicators that any of this material spent time at the bottom of this or any other ocean. This looks as though it were deliberately constructed and set out here on purpose.”

“Constructed?” Alice asked, “As in fully designed and created by who? Humans?”

“I don’t know,” Tori said. “Someone. I would think that humans would have tried to make it a bit more habitable instead of this impossible-to-walk-over mess that we see. There’s also no indication of any use of technology in how things were put together. The composite base is totally organic but using trash to create mass and texture. What has Lilly said?”

Lillian Fanshaw was the team’s lead marine ecologist, a small person who was frequently overlooked as the rest of the team scurried around. She was obsessive about everything found in an ocean and detailed in her study, taking everything down to a level of identifiable elements.

Alice looked around and saw Dr. Fanshaw kneeling over a patch of ground several feet away. “There she is,” Alice said, nodding in Lilly’s direction. “Let’s go ask.”

Lilly looked up as Alice and Tori stumbled in her direction. “We’ve got more mystery here than I’ve ever seen,” she said preemptively as the other two approached. “This is not a naturally-occurring formation. There’s no history to the landmass, indicating that it did not exist prior to suddenly appearing out here in the middle of the ocean. Even the trash embedded in the stone is less than a year old. This isn’t something that’s been lying at the bottom gathering coral and vegetation. This is all new. And whatever or whoever made it shows some significant intelligence. The decay factor built into this sediment is significantly lower than what occurs naturally.”

“Are the base elements identifiable?” Alice asked.

“I’m seeing typical amounts of manganese, copper, nickel, and cobalt, but there’s something else there that I’m not recognizing on sight. I’ll need to toss it under a microscope. The mass is denser than what we normally find, too. A lot looks normal at first glance but when you touch it there’s nothing normal about any of this. This landmass is not naturally occurring. At least, not by any organic process we’ve previously observed.”

“That matches with Tori’s hypothesis as well,” Alice said. “I’m not willing to commit yet but let’s fully explore the possibility that the landmass and, potentially, everything on it is manufactured by someone or something. If it’s organic, it needs to be explainable as such. No easy answers. Show every detail and be meticulous about your measurements. Don’t trust what you see out here. Take all the samples you and these Marines can carry back to the Starfish where we can be precise. There’s no room for error.

Both scientists nodded and continued their work. Alice looked around at the team, each one bent over or kneeling to examine a sample of one kind or another. She could feel the pressure to be authoritative in their findings. This wasn’t going to be an easy-to-swallow project. Everything they were seeing pointed to a race of sentient beings generally assumed to be mythological. If they could prove Mer exists and have existed for thousands of years, all of the marine studies would change. No one was going to believe them, though, if there was the smallest error in any of their analysis. Everything had to be perfect and verifiable to stand up to inevitable scrutiny. Where Alice had initially been excited about the discovery, she was now concerned whether it was too unbelievable for anyone to accept, despite all the evidence. Telling the world that Merpeople exist was going to be a tough sell.

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Chapter 52

Chapter 52

Nadia was waiting in Brad’s office when he returned from yet another visit with Dr. Elliot. The bandages on her arms were still visible beneath the long sleeves of her blouse. A large bandage on her neck was discolored and yellow despite having recently been changed. Her expression was pained, her face taught as she struggled to sit upright in the hard office chair.

“You certainly weren’t on the list of people I expected to see here today,” Brad said as he set a laptop on his desk then leaned on the corner to talk with the injured analyst. “Don’t try telling me you’re ready to come back to work. I’ve seen your medical reports. You still have months of physical therapy ahead of you.”

“I hear you’re having trouble assembling a new team,” Nadia said, her speech slurred and voice grating from the damage to her face and vocal cords. “I want in.”

Brad crossed his arms and looked at her. He knew Nadia was a strong and deliberate person who was precise and forceful in her analysis. What he saw in front of him at that moment seemed to be a shadow of the person who had led a team into the wilderness less than two weeks ago. “You know I can’t let you do that,” he said firmly. “I can’t even let you come back and occupy space at a desk! You’re going to need a stack of doctors’ notes before you can sit in on a remote phone call. We’re probably violating a few rules with you sitting here right now. Please, go home, Nadia. Forget about that mountain. After this week, it’s going to be a while before anyone lets us put a team on unknown ground like that.”

“I can’t forget it, Brad,” Nadia replied. “I’m reminded of it every time I look in a mirror, every time I try to get dressed by myself or take a drink of water. That mountain is why we lost two good people. I’m not going to let their lives be lost for nothing and neither are you.”

Brad leaned forward and spoke softly. “Look, Andy and Sally are not going to be forgotten. Those mountains are not going to be forgotten. But we lost 30,000 troops this week fighting something we’ve never seen. Then, the sun went out for three and a half minutes. The whole world is messed up and having to recalibrate. As much as we need to explore that mountain, we need to not lose any more people! Yes, I’m having trouble finding two people to drop down there, but I’m not going to push until I know that they’re going to be safe. We don’t need another experience like yours and we damn sure don’t need a repeat of what happened in Canada. I’m sorry, Nadia, There’s really nothing for you to do here. We miss you. We miss the whole team. But when you come back I want you healthy and I’m not putting you or anyone else in harm’s way. And you can be sure that sentiment applies all the way up the chain to Secretary Harrison.”

He stood up and walked around the desk to sit in his chair. “In my entire life, I’ve not seen a set of circumstances presenting as much trouble as what we have now. Every piece of equipment we have is going to have to be recalibrated or replaced. Of course, we don’t have the budget for that. Meanwhile, we’re getting seismic readings popping all over the place with no way to tell which ones are real. We don’t know where or when to send warnings and if we did there is not a reliable way to communicate anything. All digital systems are down. Hell, we don’t even have wi-fi in the building at the moment. Every time I turn around I’m being handed another stack of problems arising from a previous set of problems caused by something that slipped past us two weeks ago. No one is intentionally ignoring anything, Nadia, but until matters settle down and we get a few things under control, sending anyone anywhere is too dangerous.”

“Brad, I’m sitting at home, changing my bandages eight times a day, trying to not let the solitude drive me crazy,” Nadia said. She paused and looked at the floor for a moment, noticing that the patch of carpet in front of the chair was worn thin. “I hear Warren and Mary retired.”

“Yeah, we went ahead and gave them both their full set of benefits. They had been here over 30 years each so it seemed like the compassionate thing to do. Warren can spend all the time he wants with his grandkids. Mary can travel if she wants,” Brad said as he opened one of the file folders on his desk. “Of course, they’re both still getting treatment for whatever ya’ll ran into out there.”

“How badly are they hurt?” Nadia asked.

“Their injuries are relatively minor compared to yours and Terri’s,” Brad answered without looking up. “The doctors seem more concerned about possible respiratory infection than any topical effect. Shania seems to be the least affected of anyone, or we thought she was. She started having weakness in her legs last week. Seemed to come out of nowhere We assume it’s related but don’t know why or how. Of course, hospitals are swamped at the moment so right now the priority is for the most critical cases.”

He looked up from the file and added, “I’m sorry I can’t do more for you, Nadia, I really am. I’d love to have you back and out in the field. We can’t take that risk, though. Please, go home, take care of yourself, and maybe look around for a hobby of some kind. I promise if any move is made on that mountain or any of the others, I’ll loop you in on the conversation so you can keep up. Until you’re cleared by the doctors, though, I can’t bring you back to the office or even let you do paperwork remotely. We miss you. We need your expertise. But until you’re healthy it all has to wait.”

Nadia sighed and stood up, gathering her purse and the portable oxygen pump she now needed. “Look, I know nothing’s running smoothly at the moment, but I promise you, we’re looking at something bigger than you can possibly imagine. What we encountered out there was bizarre to the point I’m not sure any of it was real. I’m willing to bet that mountain has answers we need. Whenever you’re ready to get serious about it, let me know. The longer it sits there the more trouble it could cause.”

Brad stood and walked around his desk. “That seems to be the case with everything at the moment. There’s not a memo in my email that isn’t marked urgent. We could triple our staff and still not have enough people to handle it all.”

Nadia tried to force a smile but it hurt too much to hold it more than a second. “You know where to reach me,” she said softly. “Don’t wait too long.”

Chapter 53

Chapter 53

Apa’ii and Belinda stood in a large room with an endless horizon that allowed them both to observe the activities of the magic souls across the world. Normally, the view would be full of activity as souls went about their normal routines. The disruption of the sun’s energy had caused everyone to stop. There were now places where magic wasn’t working at all. Souls were forced to flee from their traditional homes looking for new environments that were similar to what they had known before. Chaos and confusion were present throughout the realms and no one was confident that solutions were possible.

“We’ve not had a forced migration of this magnitude in over a million seasons,” Apa’ii said softly. “I thought I had a pretty good grip on matters until this happened.”

“There’s never a way to stop actions that are unfathomable,” Belinda said. “You could not have known the dangers that sword carried nor the effect it would have on everything.”

“Souls on the first planet are furious,” Apa’ii said. “They want me to fire the sword again in an attempt to fix it but I’m not sure that’s possible. Wielding the sword in such a manner could make things across the universe considerably worse. I don’t know enough about the forbidden magic to handle it with any assurance of the outcome.”

“Too bad neither of us are gods,” Belinda quipped. “Perhaps they might have a clue how to restore the balance to everything. Or not, considering they banned the magic in the first place.”

“I turned down that options millions of seasons ago,” Apa’ii said somewhat wistfully. “I lived under the domain of the gods, from Uranus to the Olympians. I saw how that much power corrupts even the best of intentions. Being god corrupts one’s spirit. We need to have our power challenged. We benefit from not knowing everything at once. We are at our best when we talk with advisors and deliberate over matters before coming to a decision. Complete authoritarianism hurts too many souls, leaves too many out of the decision-making process, does not allow an individual to control their own destiny. We don’t need a return of the fates or the gods or anything like them. Being immortal is quite enough, I think, and even now, I’m finding that I rely on Pockwatch and Fleau and some other clan leaders more. They have a better feel for what our souls need. There are limits to the benefits of centralized power.”

“Still, someone has to take responsibility,” Belinda said. “It took a lot to reassure the air spirits that they would be safe as the Valkyries returned. Eir seems to have grown a bit thoughtful over the seasons, but they were still quite ferocious to see in action. For our younger souls, seeing the skies darken with their great winged beasts was terrifying. There is no one else in the realm as large nor as strong as they are.”

“Do you fear they might take over?” Apa’ii asked.

“No more than you fear Ulaf and the Erlkönig,” Belinda said. “They are a force to consider but they are not dominant. We have an opportunity this time, now that they are no longer under the rule of Odin and his family, to integrate them into our society. They have a lot they can teach us, especially as we are at war. We have a lot to teach them when it comes to sharing airspace with the humans. They leave exile to find a world impossibly different from when they left. Humans no longer fear them. Helping them adapt to a contemporary reality gives us a chance to strengthen our realm. I’m looking forward to having Eir as a trusted advisor and a close friend.”

“I wish I could say the same for Inofar,” Apa’ii said. “Dealing with Ulaf is familiar territory. He’s a commander and a natural leader. His clan is intelligent and creative with their magic. Inofar, on the other hand, has always relied on cunning and deception. The humans think the stories of flying carpets and genies in lamps are pleasant fiction. They don’t realize the treachery with which the Deavas used those objects against the Persian people. They twisted words as they were spoken so that the one hearing did not understand what was being said. They caused endless wars by telling lies to Persian kings. Finding any redeeming quality among them is difficult.”

“Yet, you’ve brought them all here to your home,” Belinda said. “Are you not worried they will cause the same unrest here?”

“Here, I know what they are thinking and, if necessary, can stop them. I’ve already put the home tree communities under a spell so that only the truth can be told. The Deavas are having some trouble adapting but at least they are not leading souls to a torturous death. I will talk more with Inofar. He is in mourning over the state of a religiously-controlled and divided Persia. I don’t doubt that he would destroy them if I gave him the chance. I’m thinking, though, that as we war with humans, it may work to our benefit to seed their governments with the Deavas, let liars work among liars, use their gifts of confusion and disruption to thwart their plans and keep us informed.”

“You are assuming the Deavas will keep their word?” Belinda asked.

“No, I expect them to attempt to deceive us just as they’ve always deceived their supposed allies,” Apa’ii said. “The only way to work with Deavas is to assume that everything they say is a trick of some kind. As long as those tricks work to our benefit we will get along sufficiently.”

“So, how do we address this cosmic problem? If we can’t fire the weapon again, what are our options?” Belinda asked.

Apa’ii walked over to a large book containing thousands of pages open on a reading stand at one end of the room. “I’ve been pouring over the ancient spells used to fend off the magic of the gods. There is plenty to be said for defense against an action at the moment it is cast but I’ve yet to find anything that reverses the magic completely. There are a couple of spells for repairing physical damage, such as the destruction of a village, but I’ve gone all the way back to the anals of Nyx and Merana and found no mention of restoring cosmic alignment.”

“We need to find something quickly,” Belinda said. ‘You remember what happened the last time earth magic disrupted the cosmos.”

“I know. We have forever worked to hide any evidence of their visits. Too many times humans have come close to figuring out what happened. Keeping them ignorant has been a full-time task for the Ostropolers. The amount of trickery they employ grows substantially with passing seasons. Human technology has yet to explain much of what happened while the visitors were here and that that incident was minor compared to what has happened this time. Over 300 million planets are affected across the galaxy—anything, anywhere, that holds life. One incident, one accident, has endangered them all, and endangers us as well.”

“The pull of Saturn is being especially strong now that its orbit has changed,” Belinda said. “Thanks to the sixth planet, we do not have as much speed in our flight and many are experiencing failure in getting their spells to work correctly. We’ve had hailstones over the Sahara and lightning struck a running heard of antelope quite by accident. Perhaps most dire, though, is the inevitable diseases. Magic realms are not immune from bacteria and it’s all been altered now.”

Apa’ii leafed through the pages of the great book, reading each one with such speed that she appeared to not be paying attention at all. “Symptoms are matters we can address as they arise and as it works to our advantage. Should humans find themselves with another plague we might do well to let them deal with it on their own. It might keep them out of our way while we deal more fully with Dasheng Sen.”

“You think she is still alive?” Belinda asked. “She took a direct hit from the sword. At least a hundred of the souls closest to her died. She vanished almost immediately.”

“She still lives,” Apa’ii said. “Merric is protecting her and I’m sure there are other water spirits tending to her, nursing her back to health. She will be aggressive when she returns and we must be ready to respond to her charge.”

“She’s more a threat to the Nawa’ Diyo than she is the air realm,” Belinda said. “Dasheng Sen cannot reach us in the same way her waves constantly lick at your shores and her rivers cut valleys through your continents. She will look for the source of the magic and attempt to destroy it and the soul who wielded it.”

Apa’ii nodded. “I am keeping Pausnuck close for that every reason,” she said. “He was above that battle for too long for her to not know he was the one wielding that sword. Lania and Fleau will take the sword and the cursed arrows to the Aesir’s fire. The magic is to be destroyed. I am hoping that with the destruction of the magic some of its consequences might be repealed, though there is nothing written that gives me any assurance.”

“I must warn my realm to stay away from that fire,” Belinda said, gazing out onto the horizon. “Any soul caught in that release of magic would themselves be scattered to the stars.”

“I will instruct Fleau to make sure you have sufficient warning,” Apa’ii said. “I am anxious for all the arrows to be assembled. The longer the forbidden magic lingers in the realm, the greater risk we face from the primordial gods. I have no desire to fight any more battles than the ones already thrust upon me. I had only desired to fight the humans for a short while. Dasheng Sen has pushed us into a faceted war exhausting our resources. Too many souls fell at the hands of the troubled ones. The water realm has suffered greatly, also. Were the gods to return in any way, were we to have angry visitors from among the stars, were someone to capture the sword before it is destroyed, the lives of every soul on this planet would be in danger and I don’t think there is enough magic between the two of us to prevent the disaster.”

Belinda turned from the window and said, “Perhaps we would do better to prepare for disaster rather than trying to prevent what could be inevitable. Not every aspect of war is controllable. Our best efforts and intentions may still lead us down the wrong path. To think that one can survive a war without being inalterably damaged is a foolish presumption. We know things go wrong.

“Our biggest failure is that we did not prepare for the possibility of betrayal. There is no fixing what Dasheng Sen did and there may not be a solution to Freyr leading that damn sword with forbidden magic. What we can do is prepare. If the gods stay away, all remains well. If our galactical neighbors can be appeased, all the better. But if our realms are caught unprepared for an attack we already know is possible then that failure belongs only to you and me. We must first protect our realms and then worry about the realms of others.”

Apa’ii stepped away from the reading stand and paced across the floor. “Do you think we would do well to set the Djinn and Roc clans as sentries against unwanted visitors?”

“At the least,” Belinda said. “I can also alter the density of our stratosphere so that getting through from outside becomes difficult. Human space ships would bounce off into orbit. I can’t promise it will stop outside visitors but it will slow them down.”

“Heavier air comes with consequences for your realm,” Apa’ii reminded her.

“Yes, it does, but nothing we have not experienced before. We want to keep matters within our range of knowledge and experience.”

“We’ll have the Heka and Fufbins begin stockpiling herbs and magic materials needed for healing. Ashvins put on alert to help with major injuries, though they’re still recovering from the lake battles themselves. I’ll ask the Paranasabari and the Svarasura to create weapons that inject fever and disease among those who might attack. Fever is a universal weapon that fells gods as easily as humans.”

“Don’t forget the Namtars,” Belinda said. “Their ancestors bordered on being demonic when they covered Mesopotamia. What is their number now?”

“Only a few hundred,” Apa’ii answered, “but not many of them are needed to inflict great casualties. Their scythes have not seen blood in many seasons. They might be a clever surprise for Dasheng Sen, should she attempt a grater attack of any kind.”

“There are many, both healers and protectors, who have taken sedate roles since the great wars,” Belinda said. “I see no harm in having them all prepare for a worst-case scenario.”

“And hope we don’t need them,” Apa’ii said. “Convincing them to take peaceful roles was never easy. The taste of blood and battle is one they find sweet and satisfying. Should they be needed, there will be more bloodshed than humans have ever seen.”

“Humans are unphased by blood,” Belinda said. “They entertain themselves with imaginations of violence worse than anything magic has ever bestowed. What matters is that our souls are kept safe and that we preserve for them a reasonable way of life. Humans can be extinguished for all I care.”

“We must always think of balance,” Apa’ii said. “Disruption of the sun is a problem not because of the event but because it disrupts the balance of the universe. All we do just work to achieve maximum balance for all. Without balance, there is no peace no matter what else we might achieve.”

“Balance for whom?” Belinda asked. “What brings harmony among our realms may cause conflict among other creatures. You have great knowledge, Apa’ii. Do not let yourself be fooled by the moment. Such is the trap that befell the gods and led to their demise. This is the moment to analyze less and act with conviction.”

“You’re starting to sound like Bogmenak,” Apa’ii said, smiling.

“You have many wise counselors,” Belinda said. “Avail yourself to them. As you said, it is to our benefit that we are not gods. We are not doomed to repeat their mistakes.

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