Chapter 46: Blatant Manipulation
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The chamber was large and circular, a single room rising up five storeys to a glass ceiling. Light spilled in from above, reflecting from crystal mosaics that lined the walls to bathe the room in rainbow colours. This innermost chamber was the exact opposite of the temple’s plain exterior.

“That is certainly impressive.”

Jason walked into the room as Gabrielle closed the doors behind him. He looked at his arms as the light played over them. In the centre of the room there was a life-sized statue of a woman holding an open book. Jason walked around it, looking it over.

“Ask, and she shall answer or not, was it?”

Jason meandered around the room, looking at the crystal mosaics than ran from the floor, up five storeys to the ceiling. They depicted what he took to be various knowledge keepers; scribes, teachers, librarians. Rendered in colourful crystal and washed with light, they looked vibrant and bathed with glory.

He remained silent as he examined the artwork on the walls. He had always been prone to talking to himself, but the idea of expecting an answer back was disconcerting. He wondered if it was a little too close to prayer for his liking, then realised it actually was prayer.

“The idea,” a female voice spoke from behind him, “is that I choose whether to answer your questions, not whether you choose to ask them.”

It was the same voice he had heard in the square. He didn’t turn from where he was looking at the wall mosaics.

“And you’re in charge?” he asked.

“Definitively,” the voice said. “It is my temple.”

Her voice was melodious, with a hint of amusement. There was an undercurrent within it, an aura with the force of a tidal wave. It was somehow distant at the same time, like a photograph of a wild storm.

 “Your house, your rules,” Jason said. “My mother had a similar attitude.”

“And you left,” the voice said. “You have the same option here.”

Jason turned around to find the statue had been replaced with a woman. She looked much the same as the people outside in the square, at least the human ones, with colourful clothes and Mediterranean features. She was beautiful, yet there was something detached and untouchable about her. Jason noticed that, unlike the statue, she wasn’t holding a book.

“So, were you the woman, or were you the book?”

“Neither.”

“Misdirection,” Jason said. “That’s a magician’s trick.”

“I’m not the Wizard of Oz, Jason.”

“You know my world?”

“I am Knowledge. Everything that is, or ever was known in this world. You brought your knowledge with you when you arrived.”

“What about the other gods?” Jason asked. “Knowing everything they know would be a bit overpowered.”

“We deities are of this world, but do not exist within it. Therefore their knowledge is not mine.”

Jason looked the goddess up and down.

“It looks like you exist within it,” he said.

“If you look at a pond and see a moon,” she said, “is that moon within the pond, or is it a reflection of something much greater, very far away?”

“Nice metaphor,” Jason said. “Classic religious imagery, but I suppose that’s part of the job. You say you’re not the man behind the curtain, but for all I know, you’re just some pretty lady with several judiciously-placed mirrors.”

“You think I’m pretty?”

“Well that’s just blatant manipulation,” Jason said. “If you already know everything, then asking me questions is just pantomime.”

She laughed, a pleasant, tinkling sound. It gave Jason the sense of a country stream on a warm summer’s day.

“You’re quite fun,” she told him. “You’ve felt my aura. And Hero’s.”

“A month ago I still thought auras were made up,” Jason said. “Who knows how many ways there are to trick someone like me.”

“I do, as it happens,” she said. “What about all the people outside when Hero appeared? Do you doubt them all? Do you think we hired actors?”

“Argumentum ad populum?” Jason said. “If you’re going to convince me you’re a god, you’ll need to do better than a second rate apologist.”

“Have you considered how well the banana fits in the human hand?”

Jason burst into laughter.

“You’ve got jokes,” he said. “I like that.”

“If it makes you feel any better, just think of me as a vastly powerful, immortal entity. No need to use the G word.”

“Then what’s the difference between a god and some crazy-powerful super-being?”

“From your perspective? Very little.” she said. “The nature of transcendent beings are not bound up in physical reality. God and goddess are mortal words.”

“It doesn’t matter until I hit the level cap, is what you’re saying.”

“Something like that.”

“Can you read my mind?”

“In a way,” she said. “My knowledge of this world is absolute. So long as you know what you are thinking, I know what you are thinking.”

“So you know what I’m going to ask?”

“I know that which is, and that which was, but not that which is yet to come.”

“I bet you make some bloody good guesses, though.”

She laughed again, the sound flooding his body with pleasant feelings.

“I know everything in this world,” she said, “yet you mortals are a constant source of surprise. I did not expect, for example, that you would turn back and save the people in that sacrificial chamber.”

“That one surprised me too,” Jason confessed. He looked the goddess up and down.

“Why do you look like a local?” he asked.

“To appear requires an appearance, and this is as good as any. When I show myself to people looking as they do, it helps form a connection.”

“Then why don’t you look like someone from my world right now?”

“Because you didn’t come here for a connection. You came in wondering what happens when an atheist meets a god, so I met you as I would anyone else here. But now we have met, and the questions you came in with were not about me.”

“Yet I can’t seem to help myself,” Jason said. “Why would a goddess even bother to answer any of my questions?”

“I am Knowledge. It is my nature.”

“That feels like a lie.”

The corners of her mouth twitched up in a slight smile.

“Call it an incomplete truth.”

Jason laughed.

“You have your own agenda,” he said

“Don’t we all?” she said. “But whatever my motivations, you still have questions, and I still have answers. If it makes you feel better, know that you are insufficiently consequential to be worth manipulating.”

“That’s a little hurtful, but kind of reassuring, I guess. Can you actually smite me down?"

“We transcendent beings are limited in our ability to affect physical reality. We can affect magic, creating essences and awakening stones. We can also affect our area of influence. I am Knowledge, therefore I can bestow any knowledge I have at will.”

“And you have all the knowledge.”

She smiled.

“So, can the god of the oceans or whatever create tsunamis and such?”

“Yes, but direct intervention is antithetical to our nature, other than to redress an imbalance. More often we work through our followers.”

“So if you wanted to smite me, you could just find the nearest silver rank on the membership rolls and point in my general direction.”

“More or less,” she said. “Of course, another god could send their own agents to intervene. It is something akin to a matter of etiquette to let our followers determine the outcome of a conflict between deities.”

“Who doesn’t love a holy war?” Jason asked. “I suppose I should get on with the actual questions I came in here with, shouldn’t I?”

“Please do,” she said.

“Alright, then. When I was brought to this world, was I chosen?”

“No, it was happenstance. While your world is magically barren, this one is magically rich. That magic builds up over time, finding various forms of release.”

“Is that why the monster surges happen?” Jason asked.

“Indeed it is,” she said. “The magic can also be released by flaring out from this world, sometimes coming into contact with another. If conditions are just right, that contact forms a connection; an inadvertent bridge across which someone can be drawn.”

“If it’s just random chance, where do my outworlder abilities come from? They feel designed.”

“They are designed,” she said. “By you. The journey between worlds altered your body, flooded it with magic. Outworlders like yourself unconsciously shape that magic into a form they can understand, to help them navigate this world using the rules of their own.”

“So, I gave myself powers?”

“It would be more accurate to say that when the power came upon you, you chose its form. A way of framing this world through your own in order to make it comprehensible. As is so often the case when dealing with the dark depths of the mind, the results are more intuitive than practical. But what I am describing isn’t what really happened to you. It is simply the closest I can get to an explanation you could understand. Trying to explain the true forces at play would be like explaining mathematics to a rock. You fundamentally lack the capacity to perceive what I would need to show you.”

The goddess held her hands in a show of helplessness.

“If you were one of my followers,” she said, “I could do better. Imbue the knowledge directly into your mind.”

“No thanks,” Jason said. “I’m all about that self-determination.”

“Our followers are free to act as they will,” she said. “We are not tyrants.”

“Of course you don’t think that. To you, being all-powerful seems natural. If you know everything I know, then you know I’ve heard all that ‘freedom within faith’ nonsense before.”

“But the gods of this world are not remote entities that never show themselves or take action.”

Jason laughed.

“And you think that makes it better?” he asked. “I never abdicated my moral responsibility to an absentee sky wizard in my world, and I’m not doing it now that the wizard’s shown up to enforce it.”

The goddess chuckled.

“I didn’t think so, but I had to try,” she said.

“I get it,” Jason said. “Got to get those bums in pews.”

“You’re stalling,” she said. “Going off on tangents to avoid the question you’re not sure you want the answer to.”

“That’s a go-to move for me,” Jason said.

“I know. You won’t find me easy to manipulate.”

“I didn’t think so, but I had to try,” Jason said.

“We are both beholden to our natures,” she said. “Ask your question. The only real question you came in here with.”

“You already know the question,” Jason said.

“Yet you must ask it. Only then will the responsibility for hearing the answer be yours.”

Jason nodded.

“Is there a way for me to go home?”

“Do you want there to be?”

“I don’t know,” Jason said. “I mean, that should be the goal, right? But there isn’t a lot waiting for me back there. Here, I see potential. What I can become. The wonders waiting over the next hill.”

He looked at the goddess.

“You know everything, right? You tell me if I want to go back.”

“That is a question only you can answer. That is why I asked it.”

“Is it possible?” he asked.

“Yes,” she said.

“How?”

“You have possessed the means from the beginning, but you are not ready to use it.”

“From the beginning?”

Jason thought back to the day he first arrived. The first time he opened his inventory there was an object inside. An object his ability couldn’t, or wouldn’t identify, and had been sitting in his inventory ever since.

“The world-phoenix token,” he said.

“Yes. I would advise against trying to learn more about it. Anyone who would actually recognise it would be unwilling to leave it in your hands.”

“Why do I have it?”

“I am possessed of every piece of knowledge in this world,” she said, “but that is a question to which I do not know the answer.”

“That’s only mildly terrifying,” Jason said. “You said I wasn’t ready to use it?”

“Choosing to use it would require an act of faith,” she said.

“And faith is very much not my thing,” Jason said.

“Of that, I am very much aware,” she said. “When circumstances dictate, the token will use itself.”

“Even if it’s in my magical void storage thing?”

“Yes.”

“And you’re not going to tell me the trigger conditions, are you?”

“You were warned that I would answer or not, as I choose. In this case, I choose not.”

“So I could just be walking along the street and whoosh, back home I go?”

“If you decide that that you do not wish to return to your world, then discard the token.”

“So I have to choose if I want to stay,” he said. “Either I throw this thing away, or hang about until these mysterious circumstances to come about. What do I do in the meantime?”

“Get stronger” she said. “You will need that strength for what is to come.”

“You told me you couldn’t see the future.”

“I’ve been known to make some bloody good guesses,” she said

Jason laughed, and the goddess smiled.

“You know,” he said, “I didn’t know what to expect from a goddess. I figured, if you were real, that I wouldn’t handle it very well.”

“You could have done worse.”

“Yeah, but that’s the thing, though; I should have. When I came to this world, the magic changed me. I’m not even human, now. Did it change the way I think? Is that how I’ve been getting though all this without losing my mind?”

“No,” she said. “Your mind remains your own.”

“Really? I don’t feel like the same person I was before I came here.”

“You aren’t,” she told him. “Circumstances change, and people change with them. That is as true in your world as it is in mine. Not everything is a matter of magic.”

Jason nodded to himself.

“Alright,” he said. “Then I guess I just have one last question.”

“I do not know if the gods of your world are real,” she answered, not waiting for him to ask. “No one from your world who knows that particular truth has ever come to this one, and I only deal in knowledge.”

“No one from my world. Are there other outworlders from my world?”

“There have been, in the past. Not for centuries, now. Those that came before either died or returned home.”

“But essence users can live for centuries,” Jason said. “Are there essence users running around my world?”

“I do not know,” she said. “Perhaps you should go back and see for yourself.”

Jason took a deep breath.

“You know,” he said, “you really dropped some bombs on me, lady.”

“People do not come to the goddess of knowledge for recipes, Jason.”

“Is that an option?” he asked.

“No.”

“I guess that’s everything, then,” Jason said. “Do I just go, now? Is there a donation box or something?”

As the goddess laughed, the doors were pulled open from the outside by Gabrielle. The acolyte gave a curious glance at the mirthful deity.

“My lady,” she addressed the goddess.

“I’m sure you can find your own way out, Jason,” the goddess told him.

“You’re going to talk about me behind my back, aren’t you?” Jason asked. “Gabrielle, try and explain privacy to your boss. I think she might have trouble with it, given her inherent nature.”

“Go away, Jason,” the goddess said, and he wandered off with a chuckle and a wave.

“I think it was this way,” they heard him say as he disappeared among the bookshelves.

“He seems like an unusual man,” Gabrielle said.

“Yes, but also a dangerous one,” the goddess warned. “Take care in your future dealings.”

“He never seemed that way,” Gabrielle said.

“It isn’t his powers or his appetites that make him dangerous,” the goddess said. “It’s his ideas. He’ll have you question your faith, just because it’s faith. He’ll have you question everything, if you let him.”

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