Ali looked up at me after his father left, and simply said “Sorry.”
“A luxury prison, on an island where there are no stars, Ali? I’m trying to wrap my mind around that.”
“It’s just like one of my rooms, only much, much larger.” He shrugged.
“A little pocket of space then. Except he’s had a few billion years to expand and develop his places, so it’s substantially bigger than yours.” I started pacing a bit, arms held behind me, my left wrist clasped in my right hand. “Is there more to the Coyote issue than what I overheard?”
Ali tilted his head as he looked up at me. “Yes. If you want to hear about it though, you’ll need to go back to your human form.”
“Hrm? Why?” I mostly trusted Ali, but I’d just had it thrown in my face how easily his kind could play games with my head.
Can’t stay in this body forever.
Ali smiled, apparently noticing something in my body language. “No plans to play with your mind, Zeke. It’s just that I’d prefer to have a more normal feeling conversation without having to levitate, or try to look at someone’s face that is six feet above my head. If you just want to sit, that’s fine too. You probably want to take a look around at the property to see what damage was done in any case, I’d imagine. You won’t fit through any normal sized doors in that body.”
I shifted back into human form. “Sure. Let’s head into the house then. I should probably turn off all the circuit breakers and have some contractors come out and take a look.”
Ali just looked at me for a moment, clearly confused. “Zeke. You have a group of Svartalves who have attached themselves to you, mostly for the armor that you let them work on, but if you offer them other work to do, they will not turn it down.”
I considered that for a moment. “If I give them other things to do, they won’t get upset? They seem to be working all the time on the armor.”
Ali shook his head, a little bit too quickly, clearly indicating at least some irritation, but smiled. I was apparently being a slow student again. “No. They will not get upset. If it’s too much work, they will call in relatives.”
They are so different from normal people.
A lot like tinkers though, in some ways.
Ali turned back to the side of the barn, created another door, and we used that door to enter the armor lab. Five minutes after he opened that door and waved me through, we had finished talking with the Svartalve team leader, Valsom. He had agreed that his team would inspect and repair any recent damage to the house, barn, the contents of the buildings, and any of the utilities within my property boundaries. Gleefully agreed. Most of his team specialized in machinery and electronics, so they would bring in two cousins who worked with wood and masonry. They were not allowed to make improvements, only repairs. They could make suggestions for improvements, but they had to be in writing, with diagrams showing before, and after, with all changes clearly indicated so that I could read them.
It’s so weird to have people working for me that get happier the more work I ask them to do.
As we closed the door to the lab behind us at the conclusion of the meeting I asked Ali “Are we private here?”
Ali looked at me before scanning around us. After he finished looking around for a second or so, he made a hand motion. “We are now. What needs privacy?” He paused. “Do you want to talk outside in the open? I can keep us private even here, but it’s harder.”
“We can go upstairs. I need to take a look at my computer anyway, see if it survived.” I opened the door of the barn and started walking up the stairs to the apartment. Why did the gods restrict Svartalves? They seem so eager to do useful things.”
Another strange look from Ali, followed by a little grin. “Hang on to your hat, Zeke. They were indirectly responsible for the first sentient mortals of Earth killing themselves off, millions of years ago.”
I stopped climbing the stairs. “What?” I shook my head. “How…” I turned towards Ali and held my right index finger extended from the rest of my clenched fingers and thumb in the air between the two of us, ducking my head while turning it a bit, not wanting to stare directly at Ali in incredulity. There was only one intelligent question I could think of over the next couple seconds as Ali smiled at me. “Can you explain that in a little more detail?”
Ali’s grin got even bigger. “Not a fairy tale. It’s another favorite story of my father’s. You don’t have the ability to smell well enough to understand the term they used to describe themselves, but your people have a word for them, human paleontologists call them Troodons.”
“Troodons? I don’t recognize the word.”
Is Ali playing with my mind?
“They were small dinosaurs, a lot like Velociraptors, but with bigger brains. They developed sentience and discovered magic around seventy-five million years ago. When they started to become self-aware, magical beings started interacting with them. They were only around as a civilization for a few hundred thousand years.” Ali looked at me strangely.
“Svartalves killed them off, somehow? I thought Svartalves were something recent, their name is a human word. Valsom seemed to indicate they have finite lives as well, even though he’s older than you.” Something else was bothering me. “What gods were around back then?”
Ali shook his head. “Humans call Svartalves by a human word, because humans can’t call them what they call themselves, or anything remotely close. Like I said, you can’t use scents to communicate. I’ll let my father tell you the whole story, if he wants to. I’ll give you the simple facts though. The Troodon were very intelligent, and highly effective at using magic. All of them were gifted, unlike humans where maybe one in ten thousand has the gift, and one in several million has it strongly enough to use it effectively. Every single Troodon could be a powerful practitioner, if they were trained. They were extremely territorial and highly aggressive. The gods they eventually created for themselves were very violent gods who wanted a great deal of war and sacrifice.”
I thought I could see where this was going. “Resource wars. They must have been at the top of the food chain, highly successful. If they were strong in magic, they could certainly extend their lives and avoid dying to simple diseases. Their population would grow hugely fast. Their gods probably wanted sacrifices of their own race.”
Ali nodded. “Exactly. Their gods ended up controlling the population of the Troodon by insisting on wars. Just like with humans, war drove Troodon innovation. Some of the Troodon began experimenting with using environmental tools rather than only magic, but they didn’t have the manual dexterity of humans. Their progress was slow, but their magic did allow them to visualize that there was real promise in non-magical tools and weapons. Some of them changed their own bodies in order to be able to work more easily with physical tools. That didn’t work well. They had the dexterity, but not the understanding of how to non-magically shape natural resources. Eventually, the leadership of one large group captured minor elementals and forced the elementals to bond to Troodon who had altered their bodies. It took several hundred years for Troodon spirit melding magic to be improved to the point that it generated sane individuals.”
Ali paused, thinking, and then continued. “Very soon after the first sane Troodon elemental mergers were created by one faction, the other Troodon quickly stole or copied the knowledge on how to create the merged minds. Shortly after that, all the factions were using both science and magic in their warring.”
“Ouch, so I’d guess it devolved into an arms race, got out of control, and they all died.”
Wow. Still not sure this isn’t a fairy tale, but it’s interesting.
Ali nodded. “Elemental bonded Troodon are what we call Svartalves today. The unmodified Troodon all killed themselves off in an orgy of war using tools created for them by the Svartalves. Those gods were not very happy when they discovered that most of their worshippers had killed each other off in a period of a few hours using Svartalve technology. Father says the only reason the Troodon gods didn’t end the Svartalves in a fit of anger was that killing them off would have killed off those gods due to a complete lack of worshippers. Instead, the Troodon gods used the power from the death of the Troodon race to force the Svartalves to repair the planet, erase the evidence of the existence of the Troodon civilization, and to never again create without being told what to create.”
“The Troodon gods are still around then?”
Ali shook his head, confidently. “Long gone. They were hoping another sentient race would develop because the Svartalves reproduce extremely slowly, and rarely have more than two children per mated pair, unlike the unmodified Troodon who could have hundreds of children over the lifespan of a mated pair. Humans eventually developed, but not before the Troodon gods were long gone. The Svartalves stopped worshipping them tens of millions of years ago. They embraced their magical heritage, and are now barely what you would call mortal.”
“Ali, are you saying that the original curse or geas, or whatever, still holds after seventy-five million years and how many generations?”
“Yes. It’s permanent according to my father, unless another god or gods collect sufficient power to manage a brute force reversal of the stricture. Father, and other ancient magical beings, make certain that new gods recognize the importance of leaving Svartalves exactly as they are.”
“I see.” I turned back towards the door to the apartment, and continued climbing the steps.
“You don’t understand though. Because of how magical beings interact with mortal beings, and the fact that Svartalves are barely mortal these days, humans can tell Svartalves to do things, and the Svartalves can then do them. That includes innovation. It’s a way around the restrictions on them. Be very careful what you ask of Svartalves, because if major powers discover that you’ve been allowing them to innovate without extremely tight controls, they will not be happy.”
Aw crap. I see the connection.
“Ali, when he left, your father said that supers were the results of the lodges experimenting, centuries ago. Tinkers are supers. Svartalves seem a lot like tinkers.”
Ali grinned. “Correct. This time around though, the lodges worked with father and various other beings to be certain that human tinkers would find it extremely difficult to coordinate efforts efficiently either with each other, or with normal humans. Svartalves were an example that the lodges couldn’t ignore. The same thinking that created limitations on tinkers is responsible for the fact that most supers with high energy powers have metabolisms that require far more energy than any normal human body. The lodges tried to put limits into all the changes they made, and for the most part, they were successful.”
As I closed the apartment door and walked over to my computer desk, I replied. “Does that mean that all super powers are magical?”
“At the deepest level, yes. Powers like yours are magical at the surface. Directly magical. Most powers are not directly magical. They are enhancements of the body created and supported by magic. Things that humans can already do, except expanded, magnified by magic or a magical being.”
“Ali, so you are saying magic is the generator that drives the powers, and powers are like electric tools? The tools need the generator, but they aren’t connected directly?”
“In most cases, yes. There are exceptions, like you. Odd and unexpected cases. When you called Badger a “dirt tinker” you were a lot more right than you realized.”
Wait. How did he…
“You saw that fight?”
“Yes, Zeke, I watched the fight. Remember I’ve been watching you for a while now, even before we started openly working together.”
“Oh, right. Sorry. Go on.” As I listened to Ali, I stood my chair right-side up, inspected it for obvious damage, sat in it, and then tried to boot the computer after checking cable connections. The computer wouldn’t boot. It had power. It wasn’t even getting into BIOS, and was sending a beep code. I didn’t know the beep codes for the machine.
As I sat in my chair, Ali sat cross legged on the floor to the side of me before continuing. “Most tinkers attract minor elementals of a few lesser element types when their powers activate. Specific crystals, metals, or gemstones, for example. Some of the tinkers with broader ranges of abilities were lucky and attracted a spirit of innovation when their powers activated – such spirits are uncommon, but they tend to spring into existence around humans from time to time. Miss Perfect is one of this type. Her tinkering ability is driven by a spirit of innovation. It’s a little more in tune with humans than most elementals.” Ali paused, thinking. “Badger, on the other hand, somehow managed to attract a very crude, very powerful major earth elemental with little experience dealing with mortals. To make it worse, he managed to attract an animal spirit as well. The elemental and animal spirit were compatible. Badger is roughly one third human, mentally. The only reason his body can survive the stress of being connected to the elemental inside him is due to the animal spirit which provides him with his shape and his physical powers. Without the animal spirit, the major elemental would have burned out his body years ago.”
Crazy as hell, but fascinating.
What were they thinking!
“This experiment on the part of the lodges seems to be producing a lot of unexpected results.”
“Unpredictable, not unexpected, Zeke. Big difference.”
I looked at Ali for a moment. “It can be a big difference. Can you explain?”
“The lodges and the magical beings supporting them in their research expected at least some unpredictable outcomes. Modifying the human genetic code so that some people would be born with a connection to magic that was different from a normal practitioner’s connection was bound to lead to minor mutations as nature tried to revert things. The genes responsible for allowing a human practitioner to develop a connection to magic are hundreds of thousands of years old. There are several of them, none of them express frequently, and at least four of ten have to express to have any ability to detect magic at all. You expressed three.”
This is all fascinating, but why are we talking about it?
Superhero power origins came from Svartalve origins.
Svartalve origins came after we spoke with Valsom and arranged for repairs around the property.
Repairs around the property were due to Octagon deciding to be literally heavy handed in a dramatic fashion, probably in order to ensure that Coyote had time to steal away the people Ali had kidnapped.
Everything sort of snapped together at that moment.
Ali steered the conversation away from Coyote. Why?
I spun in the office chair to face Ali. “Ali, can you open a door to the lab again so we can get a message to Valsom and ask his team to look at my computer and its peripherals first? While I wait for them to fix it, or tell me how long it will be until it is fixed, we need to talk about the situation with Coyote.”
Ali winced, and then waved his hand at the wall next to the apartment door. “Lab door right there.”
I stood up and walked to the door, opened it, and spoke inside to the apparently empty room. “If possible, can I get one of you to work on my personal computer in the barn apartment before anything else that isn’t an immediate health hazard to humans?
I heard several high pitched whispering voices muttering in a language I didn’t understand, and then Valsom, based on his voice, started speaking at a conversational volume. “I’ll get someone in there right now. It will be easier if you aren’t there watching. Can you go into the main house? We’ve already checked out the kitchen. It’s safe. Some of the glass needs replacing, but we have a temporary fix in place to prevent weather from getting in.”
“OK, we’ll head that way now. Thank you, Valsom.” I closed the door, and it faded away.
Now I really want to know what they look like.
Ali was standing next to the real apartment door, opening it and preparing to walk down the stairs.
Clearly trying to avoid questions about Coyote.
I waited until we were both out of the barn and headed towards the house before I spoke again. “Ali, I knew when I was speaking to Disco Wolf that you were in a tense discussion with him as well, even if I wasn’t privy to it. Did you say anything that I should know about?”
Ali looked at me, a little startled. “What, no. Coyote understood exactly what I was doing. He signed the contract too, and I was acting within it, as was he.”
“So you didn’t challenge him or threaten him in any way?”
“No.” Ali shook his head vigorously. “Zeke, Coyote is a several thousand year-old god who still has some active followers. I’m a Jinn that is less than four hundred years old. Even as weak as Coyote has been for the last couple hundred years, he’s still far beyond me. I stood my ground. The agreement is too valuable to him for him to intentionally break it. His friendship with my father is another thing that neither of us would want to upset.”
“Then why did you steer the conversation away from Coyote? I didn’t notice it at first, but I’m pretty certain now that you intentionally guided the conversation away from discussing him.”
Ali sighed and paused a second before responding. “Zeke, he embarrassed me. I made a stupid mistake, let the kid in me have control and kidnapped people. Coyote, in one of his first actions after publically making that bet with you as Disco Wolf to reform, targeted my stupid plan and apparently enlisted quite a few mortals to help him so he wouldn’t run into me directly.”
“Ah, I see.” I paused. “Coyote also brought your father in, and that probably rubs you a bit raw too. I’d guess that your sister and her friends, if they caught any flak from your father, are probably not very happy with you for the idea either, am I right?”
Ali just nodded. His shoulders slumped a bit. I almost laughed before realizing that I really wasn’t sure if I was dealing with the eight-year-old or the four hundred-year-old irritated with himself for acting like an eight-year-old. The reaction to unexplained laughter might not be good.
“It didn’t sound like any of the spies were hurt, right? All of them are back, and your father has made some mental adjustments on them so they don’t have any unexplainable memories?”
“Yeah” Ali mumbled.
“Coyote got an opportunity to show off and rescue a bunch of kidnap victims, to further whatever his exact plans are.”
“Yes, that’s true too.”
“And your sister probably got a much sterner talking to than you got, because she’s older, and she is pretending to be old enough that she should have talked you out of what you did.”
Ali laughed a little at that. “Good point. No matter how embarrassing it is, I guess there are still silver linings on the clouds if we look hard enough.”
As we walked side-by-side the last few feet to the porch, I bumped his left shoulder with my right fist, making him stagger. “Buck up, Shorty, it’ll all work out. We’ve got plenty of time.”
Ali laughed briefly after he had stopped and stared at me for a brief moment. “We do, don’t we”
My belt started to beep.
It has been almost a week since Arson.
Ali and I both stopped and stared at each other.
“I’ll follow you after the teleport, Zeke.” He concentrated a moment and my fanny pack ready kit with tools and teleportation grenade appeared in his hand. He handed it over to me, and then asked, “Anything else you need?”
As I clipped the fanny pack around my waist, I shook my head. “No. Nothing I can think of. That might change after we arrive.”
I hope I don’t have to kill anyone this time.