As the door closed behind us, I looked around. We had come out of a door on the side of the barn on the homestead. The grass in front of the door was frozen solid, and fractured into faintly tinkling bits as I stepped onto it. The expanse of frozen grass rapidly expanded away from the door as I watched.
How did I survive even a few seconds exposure to cold like this in human form?
I was interrupted by a scream from behind me.
One human mind.
The electric company meter-reader came around the corner of the barn waving an arm-length piece of electrical wiring as thick as a man’s thumb. As he charged me, it was clear he knew nothing about my power. It was also clear that he didn’t see Ali standing there after he had just closed the door and waved it out of existence. I took a couple steps to the side as the screaming man rushed me, so he wouldn’t cross the frozen section of yard. I wasn’t sure if it was magically cold in some way that might hurt him badly if he tried to cross it.
I let the man attack me, and carefully grappled with him, until I was able to touch skin. He went limp, and I shifted into human form.
Ali walked up next to me and the unconscious man. “Should I edit this in his mind?”
“No, I let the power company know they should set up remote monitoring for the property. I know they can. There was no permanent harm done.” I looked at Ali. “Now he’s got a story to tell.”
Ali looked at the meter-reader, and then at me. “He does, doesn’t he? I’m going to wake him now, if that’s fine. I need to distribute what’s in the soul well.” He paused. “Then I need to talk to my father, and maybe some other people. You need to speak to some people down in Australia too, I think. Remember that Loki has certainly been covering his tracks. He doesn’t like it when he’s exposed to scrutiny. Let others tell you what they think happened before you say anything. Trainwreck apparently uncovered something Loki didn’t want uncovered, and Jaxr’s influence kept passive efforts on Loki’s part from having any effect on him.”
I thought about what Ali had said for a moment and couldn’t think of a reason to argue about any of it. “Ali, did we just see an assassination, a mercy killing of sorts, or a play for more souls to be fed into the soul well?”
“With Loki? It was probably mostly the latter. He’s a strange one though. Conflicted. Every now and then he does something randomly honorable, but as you saw, he’s not nice about it.” Ali leaned over and touched the meter-reader on the forehead.
The man’s eyes opened. “Aaaah!” He looked to his left and right while lying on the ground, and then contorted his body, arching his neck to look towards the barn. “Where is it?”
I smiled. “I’m afraid ‘it’ was me. I let your utility company know they should automate the data connection of my power usage but apparently that request didn’t get handled properly.”
He stared at me a second. “That big, black thing was you?”
“Yes. Sorry to have interfered with your work.”
“I didn’t hurt you, did I? I probably didn’t, since it’s me laying on the ground, and you don’t look hurt, but I’m sorry.”
“Maybe a little bit.” I lied, with a grin. “No harm done. Here, let me give you a hand up.” I extended my hand. He hesitated a moment before reaching out and locking hands with me, and then I hauled him to his feet.
He brushed dirt and grass off himself after he stood. “Well, I’m here to install the remote reading meters on the barn and the house. Remote monitoring is available, but it requires new meters. That’s why it took a while. It’s usually done whole neighborhoods at a time, and we hadn’t gotten to the rural phase yet. We had to put up some equipment on the power lines leading up to your house to boost signal.”
It sounded plausible. I’d ask Valsom to check it out. “No need to give me all the details. It sounds like the timing was just bad. Sorry if I insinuated that your people weren’t doing their job when they sent you here. I’ve got a lot of things on my mind right now. Have you nearly completed your work?”
He nodded. “I was just putting the tamper seal on the barn box when you apparently changed form, or arrived, or whatever. One second there was a whistle like a tornado, and the next I was grabbing my dogwire and running around the barn because I knew there was something there I had to kill.” He looked at the ground where there was still a rime of frost on the grass and shook his head. “I’ll be leaving in five minutes or so.”
He looked over at his truck, back towards the back of the barn, at his hands, and then back to me. Looking a bit nervous.
“In case you were wondering, it was involuntary mind control. You didn’t have a choice but to attack me. I didn’t have a choice about whether or not to use the power after I appeared and you were inside my range.” I paused. “My public name is Strangest, there’s a bit about me on the internet, if you want to look me up so you know you aren’t becoming some sort of crazy killer. Even Octagon has tried to kill me, twice now.”
“Oh, you were the one in the bubble around the invasion point the other day! The guy that made all the bugs attack him while Faraday, the tinkers, and the air force blew the shit out of them. That sounded like it hurt, the way you were screaming, but you did it anyway.” He paused. “Thank you, a lot. We heard what happened in Columbia. My brother’s in the guard, and he was in Atlanta as a ready reserve. It might have happened here too if it weren’t for you.”
I paused. This felt almost as good as when I stopped the robbery of the shop while wearing my armor the other day. “No, thank you.” He looked puzzled. “For the kind words. I have things I need to be doing though, and you do too.” I reached out my hand. He hesitated but then reached out and shook my hand firmly, if quickly, before turning and walking towards the back of the barn.
I spotted his ‘dogwire’ laying in the grass, and leaned over to pick it up. “You might need this later.”
He turned around, a puzzled look on his face, but saw the wire and nodded. I tossed it to him, careful to not put too much rotation on it, and he grabbed it deftly out of the air. “Thanks. Hope I don’t need it today, but I’ll certainly need it again. This one’s about the perfect length and weight, and the company doesn’t like us randomly cutting heavy wire just to make dogwires.”
I just nodded and waved before opening the barn door and heading up the stairs.
“Ali, tell me when he’s gone, and I’ll shift and let you drain the soul well. Will you need two trips, do you think?”
“No, not this time.” He paused, and looked at me, with a bit of an offended look on his face. “Our friend outside is already rewriting in his memory that what happened was a fight where he held you off for twenty seconds before you took him down, rather than three seconds of grappling.”
I laughed. “Let him have his fantasies, Ali.”
The apartment was clean. No books laying everywhere, no overturned furniture. The glass in the windows was unbroken. “Looks like the Svartalves were busy while we were gone.”
“They are rarely anything but busy, if there is work to do. You gave them a substantial job. They are probably giddy with happiness right now.”
“Ali, we were just in another dimension, right?”
Ali looked at me, clearly puzzled. “Yes. I thought you knew that.”
“I thought it was absurdly hard to travel between dimensions?” I paused a second to collect my thoughts. “Loki just knocked his staff three times to send us there, and you didn’t seem to have much of a problem opening a doorway back. The bugmen though, everyone was saying that the cross-dimensional portals they required to attack us were hugely power intensive, on the scale that an entire civilization has to devote significant resources to, in order to power them.”
Ali opened his mouth, and shut it, before starting to speak again. “No. You don’t know that. One second. I need to think of an analogy that you can understand.”
“Take your time.” I smelled under my armpits. “Whew. I’m taking a quickie shower to get rid of the worst stink. Then I’ll do a run and a long shower.” I walked towards the shelf where I had my running gear, grabbed a set, and walked into the bathroom.
When I emerged from the bathroom a few minutes later in my running gear, Ali was ready to answer my question.
“OK, Zeke. Dimensions for Dummies 101.” He grinned at me. “There are various degrees of association between dimensions. Think of it like an onion that’s been cut in half, across the grain. At the bottom, or the beginning, there is one place, where all the layers of the onion come together. Everything expands from there. Each individual cell of the onion in each layer has a very thin cell boundary. It’s easy to break the barriers between individual cells, provided that they are in the same layer of the onion. However, the boundaries between layers of the onion are much tougher. If you want to create a path from a cell in one layer to a cell in another layer, you have to pass through the layer boundary as well as the cell boundaries.”
I thought about it for a few seconds. “So everything started as one dimension, and diverged. Entire groups of dimensions are close together because they share some sort of commonality. I’d guess that the longer in the past that groups of dimensions diverged, the less in common they would have, the harder it would be to travel between them? For example, the bug dimension. Maybe it diverged a few hundred million years ago, and it has lots of similar dimensions clustered around it, sharing a great deal of its history. The bugs have exhausted places to expand to in their own ‘layer’ of dimensions, and are now seeking to expand into another layer.”
Ali nodded. “That’s mostly correct. It’s correct enough that I don’t really know how to explain the finer points without you having the ability to understand certain things about magic and reality.”
“I’m sure that I don’t quite understand it. Why don’t beings like the bugs attack places like Jotenheim?”
“They do, Zeke, what do you think the Jotunn thought we were when we appeared?” He shook his head. “They didn’t think we were bugs and they were probably fairly confident that we weren’t from outside this ‘layer’ of dimensions, but Loki ripped a big, ugly hole between dimensions. He could have been much more subtle, but I think he made it a big, ugly hole specifically so it would trip lots of alarms and send the Jotunn running our way. They didn’t know exactly where we were, but that Shaman and others like him damn well knew someone tore a hole into their dimension big enough to send an army through. Their reaction time was quite good. They could have known several hours or days in advance. Some Jotunn shaman are able to perform precognitive divination.”
“I see.” I thought I did anyway. “I’m sure I don’t see it all, but it makes a little more sense.”
Ali looked at me silently for a moment, and then nodded. “Speaking of the Jotunn, the meter-reader is gone and there’s nobody else nearby. Please shift so I can gather the energy in the soul well, and distribute it.”
“OK, let me step outside.”
Ali followed me downstairs, and out into the yard, where I changed into the soul well. “Ali, before you go, I was thinking. There’s a Norse god of poetry and verse, isn’t there?”
Ali nodded. “Of course. Bragi.”
“Do you think he would help you compose Trainwreck’s tale in a manner that Loki won’t have a problem with? You are delivering some of this power to him, right?”
“No and yes. If Loki wants to have a problem with it, he will have a problem with it. What you have inside you right now is what he wants, mostly, even if he sometimes acts otherwise.” He paused, thinking. “Bragi, however, is definitely a good idea. He’s had little to write about for the last several hundred years or so, after the efforts of the Abrahamic gods nearly eliminated the worship of the Norse gods.”
“The Abrahamic gods exist as well?”
“Of course. Before you ask, yes, they are nearly as powerful as humans who worship them think they are. They are also nearly as limited as humans think they are. The chances of an Abrahamic god ever stepping foot on this planet again, or taking action directly in their own hands is almost zero. They have plenty of assistants though, and it’s possible you might run into them from time to time. One of them was responsible for the mental mirroring on Octagon the other day. Several of them are associated with the White Lodge.”
That’s a bit scary.
Should I start praying again?
Haven’t done that since grade school.
Ali touched my arm and I felt the strange, draining sensation again, like syrup flowing down my arm. It lasted a few seconds and was done. “OK, thats it, all in one go.”
“Can you warn me if Bragi wants to meet with me, since I was a witness as well? I would prefer be dressed and…”
Ali laughed. “Zeke, the gods don’t even see you the way you see yourself. They can, if they choose to, but their normal mode of perception doesn’t even detect what you are wearing unless it is charged with energy of some sort. They would see your armored suit, for example, but not your jogging suit. They see energy patterns. They see emotions, magic potential, souls, and intent. To a lesser degree that’s true of me and my race as well, but the gods of humans are far better at reading humans than most of us other magical beings. I know when a human is watching me intently. A god can tell if their name is mentioned, even in passing.”
“I see. I think. Still, if possible, let me know in advance, I don’t want to feel uncomfortable because I smell bad or am underdressed, even if the god won’t see my clothes or smell my body odor.”
Ali laughed. “OK, Zeke, if I can, I will. I think these will give Bragi and me what we need though.” Ali made a motion with his hand and several of my armor’s drones appeared in the air around him.
“Oh, wow. You are controlling my armor’s drones? I didn’t know you could do that.”
I’m sure I don’t want you to do that.
Ali looked up at my face.
He can’t read my thoughts, but maybe my body language.
“They aren’t yours, but they are so useful for recording. Even my memory is not perfect. Even Father’s memory is not perfect, though it’s seemingly pretty close. Since these are available in Perfect Market, I arranged to purchase some. Four hundred years of allowance gaining interest can buy more than a bicycle.”
I can’t say anything to that.
“Ah. Can I get a copy of the video and sound?” I considered my next words for a moment. “Would it be a problem if this were made public, if Trainwreck’s team and family allow it, or would that somehow demean it in the eyes of Bragi by making it common knowledge?”
Ali nodded, and grabbed one of the drones out of the air. “One second. I need to edit out the evidence of Loki, and references to Jaxr. Oh. Nevermind. Looks like Loki has already taken care of that. He’s definitely doing ritual magic to cover up whatever it is that Trainwreck found, including his own involvement. Most of what’s left is accurate, and the edits are pretty much what I would have done.” He shrugged and handed me the drone.
“What about Bragi, will he be upset if this goes public?”
Ali chuckled. “No, as long as it’s not edited too terribly, and he’ll know it wasn’t you with just a couple seconds of consideration and observation if he decides to check on poor edits.” Ali paused. “Think about the first four letters of his name.”
B R… Ah, Brag, I see.
“I’ll be gone a few minutes, Zeke, but I don’t think anyone who could hurt you will mess with you in that time since you don’t have power in the soul well.” He held out a small loop of what looked like thin twine as he put a similar loop around his own neck. “Break this if you need help.”
I shifted back into human form, accepted the loop of twine, walked into the barn, set the drone on a countertop next to a toolbox, put the loop around my neck, and then went back outside and started stretching, getting ready to run. Ali was already gone.
Ali said there would be a few minutes where he would be gone.
Time to see if I can validate some information.
In a conversational tone, I called out. “Valsom, are you able to speak, right now?”
There was no answer.
“If any Svartalve can hear this and let Valsom know I would like to speak, I would appreciate it.”
A few seconds later, I heard a slight pop and a shifting of air, followed by a cinnamon smell.
“Good Day, Mr. Collins. I understand that you wish to speak to me?”
I’m not so sure this is a good idea.
“Is there any way that I can run while we speak, Valsom?”
There was a pause. “I’m rather out of shape, I fear, but humans are slow. I can keep up with you without exerting myself, I suspect. You normally run less than ten of your miles. If you want to run more than that I’ll have to say no.”
“Only two miles today, Valsom, I rarely run ten or more miles.”
Bite the bullet. See if he’s willing to talk.
I started jogging at a slow pace, across the grass, leading to the running path Danny and I had defined around the property line, listening closely for other feet hitting the ground as mine did. “I have been advised of the history of Svartalves, Valsom.”
“I know, Mr. Collins. What the young Jinn told you was entirely truth to the best of my knowledge. Except for one thing, when he told you it was a private conversation.”
I laughed. “I had my doubts. Ali is impressive in his way, but he’s not perfect, and tends to be overly optimistic.”
Valsom chuckled in that strange high, pitched voice. “The young Jinn says a great many things which he believes to be true. In his defense, most are true.”
“Do not feel pressured to answer any of these questions, Valsom, but if you answer them, please answer them truthfully.”
“Of course, Mr. Collins.” I heard a footstep from the direction of the voice, and marked the spot in my mind. I would return to examine the tracks later, so I could see honest-to-god dinosaur footprints.
“Did the Troodon race create the soul well?”
“Hmmm, yes. The Troodon race did create multiple soul wells, long before they created my kind.”
I hopped across a stretch of trail where there were exposed roots. “Is the Troodon race truly extinct, Valsom?”
“To the best of my knowledge, yes, and my knowledge on such matters is somewhat extensive. It is a favorite hobby of young Svartalves to try to find any evidence of the existence of the Troodon race. We encourage it, because it is possible that some of the Troodon might have escaped the planet to other dimensions before their destruction. I was, at one time, in charge of the library where we store such research projects. When I left that position to begin another, there were well over four hundred and twenty-three million negative reports, all completed with very high degrees of professional oversight.”
“I see. Very impressive. Are you able to scry millions of years into the past?”
They certainly seem intent on finding the Troodon, if they still exist.
“That is one of many methods we have used. Our technology is restricted. Our magic is not, at least it is not limited by a geas. We are not as magically potent as many magical races due to our ties with mortality, but we tend to be far more precise and thorough when we seek answers.”
“Cross-dimensional warfare existed at the time of the Troodon, correct?”
I heard a stick crack to my left, and ahead. Valsom was apparently avoiding the trail, and ranging around me. His voice was slowly changing position relative to the path I was jogging, as he circled me. “Correct, Mr. Collins. Just like today. There was frequent travel and conflict between similar dimensions, and infrequent but not rare conflict between disparate dimensions.”
“Was the soul well used to collect power from sacrifice, which would then be used to defend the Troodon against cross-dimensional assaults?”
“Hahaha.” The laugh was squeaky like a dog’s toy, but still clearly a laugh. “Indeed. Before you ask, the first gods were accidents. The Troodon created them, but didn’t fully understand what they were doing. Oh, they knew they were empowering the greatest of their battle leaders to lead the defenses against dimensional incursions, but they didn’t realize until it happened that they were creating beings that would be fundamentally different from themselves. The few histories we have from those early times indicate a great deal of war and death quickly ensued as the Troodon tried to kill their Gods, and the Gods eventually crushed their opposition with power generated by the soul wells.”
That makes a lot of sense from what Ali told me about the Troodon.
“Did the Troodon ever, themselves, attack other disparate dimensions, I think you called them? Not the ones close by, as dimensional travel is measured, but distant dimensions.”
“It is documented in a great deal of our surviving literature that such was considered many times, Mr. Collins, especially during the worst resource wars. However, any faction that tried to devote that much energy into disparate dimensional travel was crushed by opposing factions. After half a dozen attempts by half a dozen factions led to the annihilation of the factions attempting the disparate dimensional crossing, the concept was shelved by all but the most illogical. Shelved. Not abandoned. If the Troodon had ever united under a single faction, they would certainly have begun disparate dimensional travel and conquest. The death of the Troodon race might have been a blessing for more than just this universe. They were insatiable in their need for power and resources.”
“If any Svartalves were to find themselves in a disparate dimension, would the restrictions imposed by the gods still hold them?
There was a long pause. Almost long enough for me to repeat my question. “Yes, Mr. Collins. Once a geas is powered and attached to the essence of a race or individual, it will always exist, unless explicitly removed. A geas is empowered by life energy, and those to whom it is attached cannot modify it.”
“I see. The one impacted by the geas also cannot actively seek assistance for its removal or adjustment either, correct? The assistance must come from the outside, freely offered?” This was completely guesswork.
“You mostly see, Mr. Collins. You do not have the magical capacity to truly see.” Valsom’s voice sounded tired. “As your young Jinn companion said, the Svartalves are far more attuned with the magical side of ourselves than the mortal side. I can see the direction of your intent. It’s a worthy goal, and a goal the Svartalves would be thrilled to be a part of, but you will never convince the greater powers and gods that exist today to allow it. Some of them have feared us for millions of years; you won’t change that in a human lifetime.” He paused. “Granted, you might have much more than a human lifetime, with that strange connection to the soul well.”
“When I ask you to create something for me, you are required to make it as I request it, if possible, right?”
“Yes, Mr. Collins. Wait. I see.” Valsom’s voice was sharp, eager.
I grinned. “Valsom, after I speak to some others, I will probably be asking the Svartalve community to plan a replacement geas that might be used to bind your race, if others agree to it’s implementation. I would, of course, require that it have no loopholes, escape clauses, or methods by which the spirit of the agreement might be suborned. It must bind and bind forever. Does this sound like something that might work?”
“Stop playing with me, Mr. Collins. I can tell you know my answer to that. If you don’t mind, I would like to go discuss this with some of my colleagues.” Valsom’s voice almost sounded like a teapot whistle.
I guess that’s impatience.
“Go, Valsom, discuss it with your colleagues.”
I grinned and stopped jogging as I heard very heavy thumping footsteps and the sound of falling debris. I turned towards the source of the sounds of running, seeing a rooster tail of dirt and pine needles being thrown up as Valsom headed back towards the house.
He wasn’t kidding when he said humans were slow.
Based on the distance from the first heavy footprint to where I was seeing grass and dirt flying into the air at that time, Valsom must have been running at almost forty miles per hour, and he left some impressive tracks for me to marvel over. Two front toes with hefty claws. The slicing damage the claws did to a few larger roots he had run across made it absolutely certain that the claws were not just for decoration or traction, they would be deadly in a fight. I grinned and shifted to the soul well.
No way am I losing these memories.
I may not understand magic, but I damn well understand contract negotiation.