I hadn’t been able to sleep well, despite the mental tiredness resulting from struggling through all the legal documents and letters to loved ones. I remembered looking at the alarm clock and seeing 0418, but at some point after that, eventually, I had fallen asleep. Sunlight woke me at 0808. Less than four hours sleep, but there was no way I could fall back to sleep again. I bounced out of the bed with nervous energy, which I felt was highly inappropriate. I was certain I would have been better off with another two hours of sleep.
One of the things I had realized late last night that had kept me awake was that I was counting on two things being true. The first being that most magical beings really weren’t super-intelligent, and the second was that Valsom had properly understood me, which would require that he was probably a lot smarter than I was, if he figured it out based on what I had asked him, and what he and his workers had overheard.
So, on the one side, magical beings weren’t super intelligent. On the other, I was counting on at least some of them to be a whole lot smarter than me.
I couldn’t send Ali away again, because I had told him I wouldn’t. I couldn’t confirm that Valsom really understood what I had said, because Ali would almost certainly figure it out, even if Valsom and I were highly careful.
Valsom’s understanding wasn’t critical though. He wouldn’t have a direct role in the first step. It would certainly cause some chaos on his end if he wasn’t on the same page with me, but Svartalves seemed to thrive on forcing order onto chaos. If need be, I imagined they would probably be happy to completely change their plans.
If I survived the first step, I would probably just be able to step back, out of the way, and let others take over.
I threw on a jogging outfit, did some quick stretches, and hit the trail. I was full of nervous energy. I didn’t want to tire myself out too much, but I needed to calm down a bit. I hoped a couple miles would center me.
I stopped at around the halfway point and looked for the tracks Valsom had left when he ran back towards the house the other day. Gone, like they had never been there. Even the claw-cut roots were healed with no evidence of past damage. I could still remember them though.
This is helping a little.
I was definitely calmer after a mile, and when I finished the second mile a few minutes later, I was feeling good. Worried, but not jittery. Worried was inevitable.
I did a couple cooling down stretches and quickly showered, as hot as I could stand it, coming out of the bathroom in only a towel.
I called out in a normal voice, “Ali, can you open the door to the lab, so I can get my armor?”
Ali appeared with a sigh. “You’re going through with this, whatever it is? Without advice.”
“Afraid so, Ali. Not much longer, and you will know”
“Should I go ask my father to come here, or are you going to ask me to take you to him?”
Aw shit, did he figure it out?
Ali looked at me. “Thought so. No, I haven’t figured it all out, but I know it has something to do with Father and Svartalves, and that’s a very bad combination. He’s never forgiven them.”
He’s definitely been paying attention.
Ali paced back and forth. “You know that Father likes you, but you have to know that he has no extreme fondness for you that would keep him from killing you if you become a great enough threat. You’re about to challenge him in some way on the Svartalves, and you don’t want me getting in the way, because you’re afraid he’s going to hurt me? I’m his son, but you seem to think he’ll hurt me because of something you say or do, just because I know about it? Either that, or you think my knowledge of what you are planning will change what my father’s response to you will be?”
Avoid, deflect, distract.
He looked so serious, pacing rapidly, back bent, head down, hands held behind him, and at the same time he was barely over four feet tall, wearing a Doofy Duck T-shirt. I concentrated on the silliness of the shirt, and made myself chuckle.
Ali’s head tracked to mine like a turret, and his eyes glowed bright blue, reminding me a lot of Loki’s eyes for an instant. “NOT funny. Oh, for…” He waved his hands and his clothes changed to faded black jeans and a solid red t-shirt.
“Not a good color today, especially for a shirt, Ali.”
Ali just stared at me for a second. “You are an idiot.” Then he waved his hand and the shirt changed to green. “Better?”
“Much better, Ali.”
He’s figured out too much, I can’t talk about it at all with him.
“I’ve figured out a pretty big part of it then, but I still don’t understand?” Ali was clearly waiting for a response from me.
“Please Ali, let me have access to my armor.”
“It’s the second day, I should take it from your mind now. I’ve failed to figure it out, and you’re probably going to get yourself killed. If I let you into the armor, I won’t be able to get into your mind without immediately triggering the suit to hurt you so you trigger, which would cut me off from your mind.”
“Trust me, Ali. Please?”
“Zeke, you are trying so damn hard to protect me, when you’re the vulnerable one here. My father can unravel you like a wool sock, and…”
I’m not sure he’s going to forgive me for this.
I slashed my hand in front of my chest. “You father asked you to defer to me in adult matters after the kidnapping scenario. This is an adult matter.”
Ali’s eyes opened widely, and then narrowed, and his jaw snapped shut. He turned to the wall next to the apartment door, and abruptly waved his hand. A door appeared. “Get your damn armor. Should I ask father to come here?”
“I’d rather go elsewhere. There are still things here that Danny and Anne might want. I’m not sure how must damage your father might cause if things don’t go well.”
“You are willing to throw away your life, but a building and some fripperies matter? Whatever. I’ll find Father, and let him choose where to meet, other than here, in fifteen minutes.” Ali disappeared.
I quickly entered the lab where the Svartalves maintained the armor. Thankfully, it was still racked in the ready rack. They had built me a spare suit, but it was mostly used for testing. Pieces of the spare were scattered throughout the room on various pieces of equipment; I couldn’t even begin to guess what most of the lab equipment did.
“I have irritated Ali significantly. He might disallow us from using this room after today. Please prepare a new facility like this one under the barn, hidden, but accessible by me without needing a Jinn’s power.”
There were several high pitched cheers.
“You guys are weird, but awesome. Thank you.”
There was hissing laughter.
“Take care of yourself, human. It’s not a trivial risk you’re undertaking.” Valsom’s voice, I was pretty sure.
I bowed a little in the direction of the voice, and started quickly putting on the armor.
“Your continued curiosity about the Svartalve appearance has been noted, by the way.” Again, Valsom’s voice.
“I know you cannot expose yourself to humans, Valsom. I will not ask it, if that was some sort of invitation to request a viewing of some sort.” I was trying to put on the midsection of the armor, which required care, considering the connections that had to be made there between my body and the suit.
“We do have some ancient historical images that might be of interest.”
I’m really trying to get ready here, Valsom.
I managed to remain polite despite my irritation “Please send the images to my suit, Valsom.”
You guys can see intent.
I’m really intent on getting this suit on right now.
Stop talking to me?
“Uploaded to your armor, Mr. Collins. We will now begin the excavations for the new facility.”
I was briefly shocked, and stopped attaching the left forearm armor for a moment but continued after a moment. “You had it planned already, didn’t you, Valsom?”
“Indeed, but you need to get that suit on quickly. By irritating Ali to such a degree, his father will not delay in meeting you.”
I stopped fumbling with the right forearm armor and just stared at the place where Valsom’s voice was coming from, briefly, before shaking my head and continuing to put armor on.
Ouch I was schooled. Bastard.
I couldn’t help laughing a little as I settled the helmet into place and initiated the seal and recirculation system. Debilitating gasses wouldn’t set off my power unless they caused pain or injury. Ahmed probably wouldn’t bother with something like a simple soporific gas, but I wanted to cover as many bases as possible.
The suit self-test indicated good, so I walked out of the room, back into the barn.
I could feel vibrations through my feet, and shook my head. Svartalves were nuts.
Before I could figure out what to do while I was waiting, Ali appeared again, turned to the lab doorway, and waved his hands twice. On the first wave, the first door disappeared. On the second, a new door appeared.
I turned on the three new features of the armor, and crossed my fingers, briefly.
Ali opened the door, and waved me in, saying nothing, staring at me angrily.
There was no way I was saying anything at that moment, so I just walked in, and found myself in a strange landscape. Palm trees and ferns were everywhere, but there were no grass or weeds, despite dark, apparently fertile soil. Ahmed was sitting cross-legged on a waist-high rock looking towards Ali and me.
Ali entered behind me, and then closed the door. I saw Ahmed’s head turn to look at Ali, and heard Ali make a pained noise.
Shit. He knows.
I tried to shift, and nothing happened.
Fuck. I’m dead.
“Yes, I know, Mr. Collins. I’ve always known. You learned too much, and I was not able to prevent it. I have blocked your ability to shift into the soul well.”
“Ali doesn’t know, Ahmed.”
“I saw. Thank you for that kindness.” Ahmed didn’t look at me when he spoke to me, continuing to look at his son. “Be gone, Ali, I will speak with you later on this.”
Ahmed sighed. “Do I need to tell you twice?”
I broke in. It wasn’t like I was going to get a worse punishment than what was coming. “Ali, please leave. You really need to leave.”
“Father, you need to explain this. I can tell now that Zeke expects to die. Why?”
“Unacceptable. I do not need to explain it to you. This pocket is now locked. I will address your disobedience later.”
Ali disappeared, and Ahmed turned to me. “I do sincerely regret what you have forced me to do. I hope you recognize that. I will see that your wife and son are well taken care of. I will take particular enjoyment in explaining to Gorgon in no uncertain terms that interfering with your family will lead to a horrible death for him.”
I could have used that favor a couple weeks ago.
I decided that I might as well see if I could learn more before he was done. He hadn’t simply killed me right off after he dismissed Ali. Maybe I could even talk him down. Maybe he would find a way to be able to resist the geas. “I was hoping that you were unaware of the geas.”
“No. The Troodon gods were not kind gods. There was no god of love, or poetry, or any of the gentler things, only war, hate, and darker emotions. When they set the geas onto me, they took particular care that I would never escape it, never get help, and destroy anyone who discovered its existence within me.”
“You helped the Troodon create the Svartalves then, right.”
My armor indicated activation of the pain system, but I felt no pain.
Ahmed looked at me, and smiled. “Your armor is working perfectly, but your pain center is disabled. The Troodon wanted to cause me pain, the geas doesn’t require that those I kill experience it.” Ahmed paused. “Interesting. Terribly wrong but interesting. Human optimism is amazing. You are trying to distract me and hope that I find some way to defeat the geas myself because I really don’t want to kill you. Unfortunately, your magical understanding is lacking, as I’ve pointed out before. A typical geas will only effect mortals and is powered off metabolic energy, and it will not relinquish its hold on the individual or race while life remains. Svartalves have not fully left their mortality behind because the geas won’t allow it.” He paused, briefly, and then looked away from me towards a tall, carved stone with red markings on it. “When a geas is applied to a magical being, it attaches itself to magical energy. The geas is as strong as I am, no matter how strong I am.”
“Oh, and I suppose it isn’t kind enough to let you kill yourself.”
Might as well throw that out there and see if there’s any interest.
“No, not hardly. The geas requires that I prevent anyone from removing the geas on the Svartalves, it requires that I never rest, I must always be aware of the geas on me, and I must kill anyone that discovers the geas on me, amongst other things.”
“I was hoping that…”
Ahmed interrupted me. “Yes, I know what you were hoping. My geas didn’t draw me to you earlier because you didn’t understand enough about how geas magic works. I am fortunate that you at least had a proper respect for the potential power of the geas, and didn’t involve my son.”
“Ali seems like a nice kid when he’s a kid, and a good friend when he’s an adult. A bit confusing, but I figure that in a few hundred years he’ll be a decent person.”
Maybe if I make him angry something will change?
“How many of your friends and relatives have you had to kill, Ahmed?”
“Too many, Mr. Collins. I will not allow you to torment me in a futile effort to enrage me in hopes that I will miraculously discover the hidden strength within me to defeat the geas. Real magic doesn’t work that way. I wish it did. I might have avoided killing so many of my family and friends.”
The suit was constantly indicating it was trying to apply pain now, and I hadn’t felt a thing.
Ahmed must be reading me deeply.
“Yes Zeke, I’m checking to see who I have to adjust next. Hopefully none of them will be too resistant to mental reprogramming. You kept this remarkably isolated, but based on your memories, I’ll have to look more closely at how I modify the memories of the Svartalves.” Ahmed sighed. “Unfortunately, I am not allowed to kill you cleanly, I am forced to dismember you slowly, and, if possible, I must do it in the seeming I was maintaining as a Svartalve at the time of the death of the Troodon race. I’m afraid that it’s entirely possible for me to kill you in my Svartalve form.”
Fuck me. The Troodon gods were worse than the Aztec gods.
“Indeed, Zeke, they were. The Aztec gods were tooth fairies in comparison. At least you don’t have to suffer the physical pain while I do it. If you would like to make final prayers, feel free to do so now. Nobody will hear them here, I’m afraid, but if they will give you comfort, you have a few seconds. I will let you know when I will begin.”
There are worse ways to die, I’m sure.
At least I’m not going to feel pain.
“Ahmed, there’s no need for me to pray, if nobody will hear me. Make up some lie about me dying bravely or something, please?”
“I don’t have to make up a lie about you dying bravely, but I’ll make up a lie about how you died.” Ahmed nodded.
“Let’s get this over with.”
“Very well, Mr. Collins.” Ahmed disappeared.
I’m at least going to try to fight.
Maybe I’ll get lucky or something.
I activated the armor’s enhanced sensors, and popped all the drones.
“Invisible target. Utilize all possible sensor types to locate and track threat.”
The drones and the suit itself began rapidly switching through sensor types, looking for anything that could be classified as a potential threat.
There was a thumping sound from my right, and the drones immediately showed me highlighted foot imprints and dirt flying into the air. The suit helpfully pointed out that the enemy seemed to be a bird analog, weighing about sixty kilograms. None of the suit sensors could see Ahmed, but they could see what he was doing to the environment.
I tried to judge where the legs were, and where they would be when they got to me, and kicked at where the outside leg would be when Ahmed got close to me.
I missed my kick at Ahmed’s leg. At the same time as my leg was sweeping through where I hoped Ahmed’s leg might be, there was a terribly loud screech of metal tearing. My armor reported damage to it’s right shoulder, followed by reports of severe damage to my right arm too, under the shoulder armor. I wasn’t feeling any pain.
My right upper arm wasn’t able to lift any longer. The suit was complaining with lots of red and yellow HUD images about being unable to detect the enemy, except by environmental clues.
Why in the hell is echolocation not working?
Why doesn’t visual light work for that matter.
Ahmed charged again and again. I turned on the suit’s adaptive hand to hand combat options, because I certainly couldn’t fight him myself. The suit did a lot better than me, even landing a couple hits on him, but Ahmed was still cutting my arms and legs to pieces even through the armor.
The armor was doing all it could with its extremely limited medical capabilities, but I’d probably be dead from blood loss before the suit completely failed.
Zombie Armor Zeke vs. the Slave Dinosaur.
Sounds like a terrible B movie.
I must be damn near dead of blood loss if I’m thinking shit like this.
At least he’s not taunting me.
All of a sudden, it started to rain.
I’m going to die in the mud. Lovely.
I closed my eyes. The suit was controlling everything now anyway. “On next damage caused by enemy, engage self-destruct.” It probably wouldn’t kill Ahmed, but it might. I had no idea how damage resistant he was in the Svartalve shape, but the suit had managed to hit him pretty hard twice and it didn’t seem to have phased him.
I probably should have self-destructed sooner. The suit is badly damaged and probably won’t explode with as much force as it would have earlier.
After several seconds, the suit chirped helpfully, “That feature has been disabled by user Slave Dinosaur. Wouldn’t you prefer a nice game of chess?”
“Hahaha. Fuck you Ahmed. If you can play with me a little faster, I’d appreciate it.”
The suit announced a target acquisition ping, and I opened my eyes in surprise.
I’m almost dead and now the suit can target him. Lovely.
As I looked at the sensor information I saw that the suit was apparently using echolocation in the rain to detect Ahmed’s position based on where the rain wasn’t present, he hadn’t become visible. I watched, helpless as the suit managed to actually dodge and strike Ahmed several times, finally even making him cry out once. The echolocation system dropped offline immediately after that.
Hell, I was hoping I’d be able to see him during the fight.
I still haven’t seen a Svartalve.
Oh, wait. Where did they put that file?
Oh, heh, it’s right on the desktop.
Might as well see a picture before I die, since they were kind enough to give me one.
As I opened the file, a high definition image of a strange looking biped formed on screen. The first thing I noticed was the incredible colors and patterns on the skin. I marveled at the colors, before realizing they had to be artificial, probably painted on. The markings were still impressive and beautiful. The second thing I noticed was that the Svartalve was staring at the camera with a very unhappy look on his face.
He doesn’t have lips.
Maybe that’s him smiling for the camera.
I couldn’t help but chuckle.
The thing looks like a cross between a Velociraptor, a parrot, and a rainbow.
With almost human looking hands and arms.
My eyes travelled down to the legs, examining the lower parts of the photo.
Good lord, look at those claws.
They must not touch the ground when it’s running.
I didn’t see tracks from claws like that when Valsom ran.
That’s what is tearing up the armor so easily.
I zoomed in on the closer dewclaw. It was sheathed in some sort of metal.
I realized that the armor hadn’t moved from a ready combat position, and I hadn’t been hit, in probably fifteen seconds.
Cool, now I know what killed me.
Are you going to fucking end it, Ahmed?
There was no answer of any kind in my mind or out loud. No thumping sound of him charging. The suit was indicating Ahmed’s last confirmed position as about fifteen feet into the thick ferns to my right. I staggered in that direction.
Maybe the sick bastard gods that did this to Ahmed are making him play with me more.
Not that I ever had a chance.
As I stumbled into the ferns, pushing them out of the way, scanning for Ahmed, I tripped over a rock.
I heard a breathy whistle, and then a barely audible voice. “Kill me. Quickly. I will recover when you die, if you die before me.”
What the fuck?
Or Ahmed is fucking with my mind.
“Not funny, Ahmed. I don’t appreciate having to chase after you to ask you to kill me.”
“Haha, Mr. Collins. That ‘ancient historical image’ Valsom gave you. It must have been me, back before the geas. I didn’t even consider that possibility. I didn’t know any images of me as a Svartalve remained.”
I followed the voice back the way I had come a couple feet and found Ahmed laying in a lump on the ground where I had apparently tripped over him. His crumpled form was mud-covered and not much bigger than a very large turkey, but with a much larger head and neck, and far more leggy. And teeth. Lots of teeth. My legs felt weird in the suit. I stumbled on the last step and the armor recovered for me. I couldn’t kneel, but I didn’t feel any pressure of my legs against the armor. I told the suit to kneel, overriding the adaptive hand to hand systems, since the suit was still in combat mode.
I blacked out and was woken by an alarm. The suit had just dropped a substantial volume of adrenaline into my system to wake me. I had apparently only been out for a second or two.
“Mr. Collins. Now. Strike me as hard as you can on the back of my neck where the skull attaches to the spine. Before you go unconscious and your suit can’t wake you.”
The armor had recognized Ahmed’s shape as the shape of the attacker, but it had never seen his coloration and couldn’t positively identify him. It was asking me if this was an example of the enemy’s race, or the actual enemy.
“Can’t I just keep watching you, and you won’t recover? I have a hard time believing Ali won’t find his way back in here.”
“No, Zeke, you’re dying too. You’ve lost too much blood, and I can’t restore either your pain receptors or your ability to intentionally become the soul well without my magic. As for either Matty or Ali finding a way in, that won’t happen. I specifically keyed this place against both of them after I kicked them out. You never saw her, but Matty was here too, trying to figure out what was going on, because Ali had mentioned to her what you were doing to infuriate him. I cannot coddle them forever, they must become adult at some point, but there’s no way I would allow even the slightest preventable chance that my children might discover my geas. I’d have to kill them.” He paused and his head moved slightly. “I know what my children can do. Stop trying to find a way to avoid killing me. Do it.”
The suit was sluggishly taking sensor readings of the skeleton, muscles and feathers, and indicating points on the body that were potential weak points. The point Ahmed suggested seemed to be the computer’s highest priority strike point as well.
“Ahmed, do you have a message for your children?”
“Tell them I’m sorry, and that I loved them.”
“I will, Ahmed.”
I couldn’t move my arms to hit Ahmed hard enough to kill him.
“Prone biped is actual enemy”
The suit did it for me.