Back in the Neanderthal manifold, Kevin had a theory.
The Neanderthals had gone extinct in Core while they were still tribal. They’d never known what the natural laws of Core were like, and their basic assumptions about how the world worked would only take them into the depths of their Manifold. The scientists of Core might still have things they didn’t understand – but they were pretty sure that Core didn’t run on shamanism and spirits, and – far more importantly – there were plenty of humans living there to act as references and anchors.
To make matters worse, the Neanderthals probably hadn’t developed openers until long after they had been restricted to their Manifold – and if they’d even known what to reach for, they’d have been reaching for isolated spots of wilderness, inhabited by animals long since extinct – and Homo Sapiens had started eliminating places like that even before the last of the Neanderthals had fallen.
They’d spent tens of thousands of years in unspoiled mythic worlds. It was no wonder they’d never reached Core again directly.
Even once the Opening had begun, and routes to Core had opened, why would the Neanderthals seek to visit it? The communications problems had probably kept them from learning why one more impossibly alien and extraordinarily restrictive and inconvenient world might be important anyway. They must already have seen hundreds of those…
There wasn’t much behind that theory of course, but Kevin could jump to quite a large conclusion from no data at all and a standing start.
Still, that didn’t explain the soul-harvesting. How could the disaster realms have come into being if the Neanderthals didn’t – or hadn’t – understood the importance of Core? Had that been someone else once again? Perhaps whoever Shayn represented? Or some elder human with great cosmic awareness or massive powers of divination or some such? Some mythic gods?
The trouble with that was that the “possible suspects” list of the manifold was without end.
Oh well. Bribing people with whatever-it-was that they wanted had worked fairly well for some time. Might as well go for it again…
Punching open a gate to Greenwald took quite a lot of power – but he had the Thralls to draw upon, and he hadn’t spent any of his own in quite some time. He hadn’t even opened a gate since Yellowstone! It was well within his reserves.
The gateway opened with a crackle of energy, as the local substrate of reality bent in ways that it obviously hadn’t bent in a long, long, LONG time… Soon enough, the gateway opened to a view of a lake nestled in the mountains.
Serah and “God” had – unsurprisingly – noticed the gateway opening, and had begun arguing with each other intensely.
They were… Blaming each other for overlooking the Opener in their midst at the moment? My, they really WERE self-centered… The argument then shifted as to what to do about it, but came back around to how severely limited their varous abilities were outside the human manifold soon enough.
The argument then continued as to their powers, the destruction of their version of Inversion, and Merlin – as well as to Kevin’s origin. They floated theories about him being a native of Inversion who’d achieved an Opener breakthrough under the stress they’d been on the place, or about him being a spy, or some agent of Merlin’s, or Ryan’s, or… The list just kept on growing and growing as the argument grew more and more heated.
Marty had been standing by ready to distract the pair of them, but there was no need. The pair of hem were self-distracting. He’d seen more sensible arguments being carried out with molotov cocktails in Battling Business World! Well… if they needed to keep them arguing, all they’d have to do would be to point out that Kevin HAD said hello to Serah at the trial; she just hadn’t paid any attention. The ensuing recriminations would probably keep them going for hours more.
He voted that Kevin get the elder Neanderthal shaman to Core as quickly as possible, before either “God” or Serah came up with any sensible options as to interfering.
(Kevin, to the Neanderthal Shaman) “This should be helpful, if you’d step this way? I suspect that you’ve been having a hard time envisioning any part of Core to make a gate to.”
(Shaman) “Very well then, let us visit the realm of human fertility.”
Hm. Evidently the Neanderthals were pretty good at reading human beings… Was it just lots and lots of experience?
Stepping through the gateway led them to the lakeshore they’d seen earlier. The grass was a bit sparser here than it had looked like through the gateway – but that might just be the prospective. Still, Kevin checked; there was a functional communications grid, although the amount of traffic is very sparse at the moment. It looked like the local computer systems had detected their presence though – and they certainly seemed to be in Core… It was always possible that they’d simply arrived in an incredible simulation – but only Core had that special resistance and they did seem to match up with the Core offices and data uplinks – even if Greenwald was still partially isolated from the grid for security’s sake.
Odd really. Hadn’t most of the Greenwald system been shut down? Repairs and backups might account for it – but Kevin kept it to a very low grade interface for the moment. This was mostly a dead world after all, and it had been destroyed by broadcast memes.
Marty was listening too… The computer systems were reacting fairly normally – some basic chatter about the arrival of people via a gateway. Hospitality protocols were being activated, transports were being arranged, and so on.
Marty was pleased about that. Core didn’t have a strong security mindset, but he’d have been a lot more concerned if the local systems ignored them. He spent some time trying to explain to the shaman what to expect when the flits and other drones arrived.
It was easy enough to confirm that there wasn’t anyone else present at the moment, at least if you didn’t count a small garrison of robots in orbit and at what used to be the capital. There seriously hadn’t been any survivors… Now that was THROUGH. In fact, it didn’t seem possible… Ah. A fair number of people had escaped in one way or another – or been removed by the robots – but the meme-effects had built gradually until the explosion, and most of the population had been affected.
(Kevin, To Shaman) “I suspect that this world is much more restrictive than you’re used to a world being”
(Shaman) “I can see why this is a realm of fertility, you have little else to do here.”
(Marty) “Tell me about it. My home realm is much more exciting than this place. No offense, Kevin.”
(Kevin, to the Shaman) “Perhaps it’s more that its the base cosmos, suitable for children; all children need limits.”
Marty had to laugh. That was one way of looking at Core, but not a particularly flattering one!
(Shaman) “Perhaps, to know no boundaries is not know the limits of the self then?”
(Kevin, to the Shaman – a bit puzzledly; what was that supposed to mean? This translation thing was harder than he’d thought it would be) “Only outside of Core… Anyway, this particular planet is essentially empty, although some services have been set up. The two individuals you were treating back there apparently arranged to kill everyone here, since it was their homeworld.”
(Shaman) “A disturbing symptom of their malady. The tribe and family should be honored and respected, not slaughtered due to inconvenience. However, the emptiness of this world cannot go to waste. With the presence of a gate to this world we can now travel at our leisure. And surely having children again is worth a few hardships in the world not being as conducive to our needs as we are used to.”
(Kevin, to Shaman) “Fortunately, it usually isn’t necessary to stay very long – although you have been away for a very long time, which might change things. I don’t have the experience in such matters to say”
(Shaman) “We have time, it is not like we haven’t waited this long. A few more cycles of the sun mean little in that respect.”
Kevin had to wonder… how aware of planets and other solar systems were they? Their worlds would have been created long before they knew anything about the stars except that they’re there – and once they were extinct in Core, they wouldn’t have much in the way of sources. Most of their worlds are likely to be more-or-less flat and limited; they’d just make more when the needed them – which wouldn’t be very often any more.
Marty had to agree there – but how would they teach them if they didn’t process things symbolically?
Kevin basically voted to leave that for later. Why worry? Their full current population – which probably wasn’t that large in comparison to Core – wasn’t going to funnel through one gate anytime soon – and even if they made more gates, a planet was a fairly big and they only wanted to visit. They’d either learn or not learn soon enough. Who knew? The computers might even find a way to turn Teacher loose on them… And then their fate would be sealed!
Well, not really – but still it was an amusing thought.
Meanwhile, a flit had arrived and was asking them if they needed to go anywhere or if they needed anything.
(Kevin) “Just introducing some distant cousins to the Core again… You might want to work on language-interpretation. I suspect it’s going to be difficult, although I can provide some pointers.”
(Computers) “Pointers would be most appreciated, excess computer capacity is also readily available for translation and interpretation needs.”
Kevin still had a spare multi-tracking slot; so he can did some downloading through the smartclothes.
Meanwhile, “God” and Serah had stopped arguing the moment that they’d realized that it was Greenwald on the other side of the gate. Both seemed to be rather lost in thought over it.
(Kevin) “Are you too going to beat the rush and review some old memories?”
(Serah) “You’re one of the other students from Hogwarts aren’t you?”
(Kevin) “Well yes Serah. I DID ask how you’d been doing, but you seemed rather distracted.”
(Serah) “Excuse me if having my identity shattered and my world torn apart around me causes me to overlook attorneys.”
(Kevin) “Well, I wasn’t blaming you… How have you too been? Honestly, you didn’t seem too happy there.”
(“God”) “We don’t get very many…. “lucid” moments these days. What Ryan did to us makes life in the human manifold difficult to control. Although you seem to be handling it much better than we are.”
(Kevin) “I do have specialized advantages there… I take it they’ve (indicate the Shaman) been helping you deal with it or try to get rid of that power?”
(“God”) “Indeed, although now that I am outside the Manifold, I think we’ve been used as well. Merlin has certainly been…. filtering what we’ve been told from these guys regarding the nature of the treatment and what they’ve wanted.”
(Kevin) “From what little Marty and I have seen of him, he is the type to try to exploit any situation.”
(Marty) “Yeah. He’s a real class act.”
(Kevin) “Now, if I create an overlay here, on a currently-empty world, and try to banish the darkness from you, it will – hopefully – return to the abyss. Alternatively it might try to transfer to Marty or Myself – but it should be possible to take precautions about that. Our Shamanic friend here (he indicated the Neanderthal shaman) should be alien enough that human darkness would find no place in him anyway.”
(The wheels were turning in Marty’s head.) “Should I go to the other side of the planet? I think I’m the only human here who doesn’t have any of that power in me right now.”
(Serah) “To say the least regarding that… man. I am willing to go through the procedure if that will help me retain what is left of humanity. Although looking at what’s happened, I am not sure I want to remember.”
(Kevin to Marty) “Well, the darkness normally flows along existing links – and we don’t have one to them. Still, you can always just go back through the gate there; the stuff shouldn’t have any grip at all in that world.”
(Serah, misunderstanding) “True, however spending time there is just about tantamount to discarding our humanity anyway.”
(“God”) “I wonder how the Core Computer psychology programs would deal with genocidal mass murderers anyway?”
(Kevin) “Well, there are ways around that… Lets give it a try then… I think Core has major advantages for this: the energies will have almost no choice except to return to the Manifold if cast out of a host.”
(Marty, to “God”) “Look, kid, it’s Core. They’re not going to kill you or anything. Maybe they might deprogram you, but they won’t see you as a hopeless case if you show some regret… What’s your real name, anyway?”
Marty knew – they’d known the name Matthias Lecturn on the moon – but asking might build a little trust.
(“God”) “Matthias Lecturn, although I haven’t used that name in years.”
(Marty) “I’m Marty. I’ve been working with Kevin this whole time. And believe me, I don’t like what Ryan did to you kids at all.”
(Serah) “You shouldn’t do that to children. Hell, even adults, and he did it to an entire classroom full of them.”
(Marty) “He was messing around with things he didn’t understand. Something bad was bound to happen… but he really should have done something about it.”
Kevin couldn’t have argued there if he’d wanted to – and he rather liked Ryan.
(Marty) “Hey, maybe if this works, we could make a deal. You kids are real self-starters, and I know better than to fool with that stuff like Ryan did.”
(Kevin) “Well then… Let us give this a try. I cannot guarantee success, but I’m fairly sure that this cannot make matters any worse.”
Kevin had been busy. Fortunately, he could draw on the Thralls to channel magic to him, even in Core. While Marty had talked, he’d been weaving protective spells to keep the darkness from flowing into him, throwing amplifying spells on his channeling abilities, setting focusing spells to let him channel far more power from the light – and the Silmarils – than he could normally call on at any one time, and applying his own psychic boosts and magical enhancements.
He’d sent the Thralls back through the gate to keep them safe – and wrapped himself in the fading essence of the collapsing Inversion-realm to which they’d been banished. The powers that had been available there – even if it didn’t support magic – just felt right for this.
He invoked the light, channeling it into Matthias and Serah and filling them with cleansing radiance
There was a monstrous blaze of of radiant energy – and a far more truly monstrous upwelling of darkness. The computers found that well worth recording… Yet another localized violation of natural laws; this batch of travelers seemed to indulge in a lot of those.
(Marty, to the computers) “It’s okay, guys! Kevin’s just conducting a ritual! Things will be back to normal shortly!”
[In game terms, Kevin was boosting his Charisma with psychic powers and magic, boosting his effective level as a positive-energy/sacred light Channeler, using his focusing spell to spend multiple channeling attempts at the same time to boost both the intensity and the total number of “hit dice” affected, and dumping all of that into a Specialized and Corrupted – for triple effect – version of the Cleansing power to cast out the darkness which was afflicting his two targets. The resulting totals were monstrous… Of course, controlling that mess called for a Will check, as well as for checks on Witchcraft, Demonology, Theology, and Magic Theory. Fortunately, Kevin had purchased Duality some time before, so he could avoid blasting himself. He still needed the Dismissal power to force the dark power back out into the Manifold when it tried to transfer into him regardless]
(Kevin, absently, while working) “You know Marty? Moving planets is less work than this!”
(Marty) “Moving planets was a matter of physical and temporal manipulation. This is METAPHYSICS!”
Kevin – despite the strain – had to smile. Metaphysics… Always metacrankier than regular physics!
The dark energies were reluctant to leave their current hosts – but Kevin had been controlling the darkness for fifty years. It took a tremendous amount of power, but of power he had no lack. Some of it, of course, had been incorporated into Serah and Matthias’s essence, and could not be removed save by long self-discipline and development. As for the rest… it fought of course, and it attempted to cling to him – but his spells held most of it at bay, and dispersed almost all the rest as he forced it back into the Manifold and the Abyss.
How normal the two would be remained to be seen.
(Marty, as Kevin completed the banishment) “How do you two feel?”
(Serah) “Hard to say, this is Core after all. A great deal of that sort of stuff is out of reach by default. I can definitely feel that I can’t push myself nearly as hard and I do feel more… remorse.”
(Matthias) “On a more quantitative level, my connection to all the avatars has been disrupted. Let me see if I can reestablish…”
(Kevin, hurriedly) “You probably shouldn’t you know. At least not right away. They may still be carrying some of the darkness – and they do have their own lives, at least in the case of the ones who once had souls.”
(Matthias, startledly) “You think that controlling avatars was a function of demonic links?”
(Kevin) “It might well be. Dominance and control is one of the aspects of Darkness. It might be safe enough – but it might not be safe at all. I’d suggest a good deal of cautions checking first.”
(Matthias) “Well that would certainly be annoying, those were handy to have. But if that’s the price to pay, then I suppose I can live with that.”
(Serah) “So what now, serve as doormen for the neanderthals?”
(Marty, privately) “You want them in Kadia, Kevin? I was thinking of taking them on my staff.”
(Kevin, privately) “Well, they can visit if they want – although I’ll make sure that there are plenty of Thralls keeping an eye on them – and if you want to offer them jobs, go ahead.”
(Marty) “That, or I can hire you.”
(Serah) “Hire?! To do what exactly?”
(Kevin) “If you like. Or you could just stay here; or go to Earth, or many other things. I suppose, you could go visit Hogwarts if you wanted – although you might want to put that off for a bit, you’d doubtless get stuck with teaching some weird course.”
(Marty) “Oh, typical business stuff. I run a trading operation in the Manifold. I could use some more agents, caravan guards, traders, recruiters, magical experts, or the like. Whatever you kids want to do.”
(Serah) “I think I am going to pass on that one. I believe I have things I need to do.”
(Matthias) “I think I may join Serah on that one.”
(Marty, shrugging) “Well, the offer still stands if you change your minds.”
(Kevin) “If you like, I can assign a gatekeeper-assistant to you. That will make travel easier – and, of course, allow me to monitor you a bit. That might be wise, but it is your decision.”
(Serah) “A gatekeeper assistant would be fine. I presume they maintain some level of contact with yourself?”
(Kevin) “Yes. It provides them with a variety of useful powers and allows me to bring them back if they’re killed.”
(Matthias) “A handy set of abilities then. Apparently you were luckier in how your powers manifested then we were.”
Hm… neither of them were Openers – or at least they hadn’t been acting like it, and neither Kevin nor Marty had seen any evidence of it, and he couldn’t sense much of any Mana around them – maybe enough for a Gatekeeper (he vaguely remembered that one of them might be a Gatekeeper anyway) – and they had gotten that gate in the arctic open – but that could just be local psychic powers. Would that leave Merlin as the flawed Opener? That kind of frustration might explain a lot (such as the apparent interest in technological and psionic gates, since he presumably had magical ones, and the experiments with Arxus) – and if he kept trying to overcome it by gathering power and magic, it would just be ever more annoying. Anyway…
(Kevin) “I suspect that, in large part, it simply lays in being fortunate enough to be an Opener to begin with. The ability to manipulate reality offers a great many options.”
(Serah) “Heh, so the Opener gets to keep his sanity through it all. Figures.”
(Matthias) “Regardless, I think we really need to be off. We appreciate the help, but I think the only path forward for us from this point is our own. You do know how to reach us though.”
(Kevin, sighing) “Unfortunately, making the universe fair – at least in the short term – is beyond any power I know of… And here are a couple of aides; one apiece. They’re assigned to help you out.”
(Matthias) “Thank you, and I am sure we will meet each other again.”
(Kevin) “You’re welcome. I Hope things work out better for you now!”
They waved – but once Serah and Matthias were gone, Kevin looked around…
(Kevin) “Ok, Xellos! Where are you hiding? I’m quite sure you picked up all that dark power, and – since I’ve assigned you a number of Thralls over the years, I know you can operate in core for quite awhile!”
(Xellos, materializing) “Oh dear, you’ve got me.”
(Kevin) “Oh well! It’s not like it’s going to corrupt YOU – and I’m sure that the Abyss would be quite cross to know that you got it instead of it going back home! Besides… you were far too ready to come along not to have some profit for yourself in mind!”
(Xellos) “Besides, I think such power belongs in the hands of those who would use it responsibly and not allow it to go to their heads. Definitely shouldn’t be allowed into the hands of children.”
Xellos cocked an eyebrow at Kevin… Kevin had to admit it… Ouch! A good shot! Wounded, struck to the quick!
(Marty) “So, you going to stick around, or will you be leaving us? I gotta know how you pulled those pranks back there!”
Oh no! Marty had become a straight man! He’d set up Xellos for his favorite line!
Marty saw what was coming an instant in advance… Good grief! He’d fed someone a straight line! If he started wearing a yarmulke and showing self-preservation he’d have to hire someone to run a hit on himself!
(Xellos) “Well, telekinesis and great speed allow for a great deal of mischief and appropriately placed misfortune. Anything more than that I am afraid…. is a secret.”
Kevin made a great display of staggering around and falling over dramatically.
So did Marty, who knew when he’d walked into a setup.
(Xellos) “As for whether or not I am sticking around. Well, I am always around, it’s just a matter of whether you happen to notice or not.”
Kevin sighed again. Oh dear. An immaterial trickster entity. Not only did that mean that Xellos – ultimately – could probably manifest as Puck, as Coyote, and as any of a dozen other entities, but he might well be able to use his own powers to travel via the Thrall-links. After all, he had close to twenty-odd Thralls bonded to him personally to help him out, and he wouldn’t put it past him to have found a way. Even if it was just the twenty-odd he had bonded to him personally and they have to spend mana to help him, it would offer him a lot of mobility in the Manifold!
Oh well, it should be entertaining.
(Xellos) “Now friends, unless you two need anything more from me, I have other business to take care of. It’s been fun!”
(Marty) “It has. I’ll keep an eye out for you!.”
(Kevin) “Yes it has… I’m sure we’ll be seeing you again!”
Xellos disappeared in a swirl of black darkness that faded into nothingness.
(Kevin) “I bet he picked up Witchcraft to go with the major Mazoku powers in really short order… It’s tailor-made for pranksters!”
(Marty) “There’s a thought.”
Marty considered. Hey now! Xellos had come on request – promptly – and had said that he’d be around… What if he’d decided that he was “working for” Kevin? Or wanted to? Wouldn’t that give him a fair chunk of the powers Kevin bestowed while leaving the interpretation of what would be “helpful” up to Xellos’s own bizarre independent whimsies? That really would be fun!
Meanwhile, the Neanderthal Shaman had attempted to hold a conversation with the Flit – without much success – and had headed home to start the influx. Would that have been not much luck or not much problem? The computers wouldn’t be worried by human problems with multi-tracking, but alien logic might defeat them.
Marty wondered what he had wanted – so they asked the computers how it had gone. Should they stick around long enough to make sure everything went well, or should they return to Kadia and let the Core authorities know that they had a bunch of Neanderthals running around on Greenwald? Presuming that they didn’t already know?
(Flit) Communication did not go well. The language appears to be only remotely related to basic human syntax structure. Reference files related to some of the older human mental disabilities have shown to be enlightening regarding basic logical precepts.
(Kevin) “Ah well. It should improve over time. They’ll be visiting a lot.”
(Flit) “Understood, pulling archives on language learning programs.”
(Kevin) “Well, Marty… It begins to look like Merlin may be our big wheel. It’s funny… I was kind of expecting the Oracles to be sticking their noses in by this time.”
(Marty) “Maybe they’re tied up. Or maybe they have. How many players are stirring this pot? Oh well. Got any fancy plans for dealing with him?”
(Kevin) “Hey, I have endless plans! But I change them every time something new comes up, or someone calls us, or that blasted quantum weather butterfly waves it’s wings, and we always wind up playing it by ear anyway!.. Maybe we should tell the House what’s going on? And maybe go talk to Ryan…”
(Marty) “Sounds good to me! Both of them need to know what we found out.”
(Kevin) “Well, there are some existing gates out of here… And I’ve bent reality enough for one day! Lets take the scenic route, since it will only be a few hours anyway!”
They did – although once out in the Manifold again they had a lot of options for simple magical shortcuts, and took a few. Along the way they discussed whether or not they should tell Ryan that he had (however indirectly) wiped out Greenwald and brought Inversion under a ruthless dictatorship for decades. They eventually decided that yes, they should – before he learned it from other sources. Besides… It was kind of something that he might need to know. You knew that the onion had too many layers when GOD turns out to be a pawn in the villains plans!
OK, so Matthias wasn’t really GOD – but still.
At least they’d drastically narrowed their pool of suspects for the next layer of puppet masters – unless there was someone behind Merlin, which they couldn’t count out. Of course, Merlin was bad enough. He didn’t seem likely to have left any gaping vulnerable points in his defenses anyway.
They emerged back in London, and went off to see “M” and the House of Roses.
London was – as befit the Core – pretty much like it had been a few months before. The House was pleased to see them as well – but unfortunately, M was occupied at the moment and would be unable to see them some hours.
They left a message; they had a few other errands to run in Core and M could easily call them when he was available.
The business offices were doing well; business was booming in the magical services industry and the travel industry. The advertising campaign was working, there weren’t any protests, the list of services was becoming well-known.
Another bit of Core; humming along smoothly without any need for their supervision. That kind of made Marty feel a bit… superfluous. The place didn’t need him at all!
On Kevin’s side… It looked like the campaign to get people to turn their neodogs into anthropomorphs had been quite successful – and that Core society had simply lumped the other anthropomorphs that he’d brought in to run the various offices in with the neodogs. There weren’t any protests, or questions about his ownership of them, or movements to get rights for them… Of course, they were used to anthropomorphs anyway; they’d appeared in centuries of entertainment productions and there were plenty of people with body mods and genegrafts.
He wasn’t entirely sure if he was pleased or disappointed with the people of Core though. He’d have thought that there would be SOME call for more rights for them – unless they regarded taking those forms as a voluntary choice to be property in the first place?
For that matter… acceptance of his contract was testing well with the various groups, even a set of parents hadn’t gotten too upset. It looked like there were no particular objections to sapient property either, so all he needed was to get the computers to amend the rules a bit – so that his recruits had the same basic status as the Neodogs (legally as well as in practice) for the duration – and to start advertising…