After a few seconds of stunned silence, I realized that I was ignoring a god, a pantheon leader at that, and apologized. “I’m sorry, Lord Odin, I was a bit lost in thought.”
Odin laughed. “Zeke Collins, even though your mind is dark to me in your current body, I can imagine that living forty years in a few seconds might be a bit disconcerting. I would, however, like to suggest that you return to your normal shape. There are a few people, not too far away, who have noticed that you seem to be at least partly restored. I imagine you would like to greet them.”
For the briefest of moments, I thought Odin just wanted me to shift so he could mess with my mind, and then I realized how ignorant that was. He had just healed my mind, if he wanted my memories adjusted, they were already adjusted.
I shifted to human shape, and stood, turning to where I remembered last seeing Anne, Danny, Mom, and Pops. Riding boots are not ideal for running in sand, but I managed it anyway.
Mom and Pops were walking towards me, and Danny led them. Pops had grabbed Danny’s arm, slowing him down, and Danny was looking back at him.
Pops just nodded towards Anne, who had accelerated to a sprint in the time it took Danny to look back at him and see Pops nod. Danny’s eyes opened a bit as he saw his mother running. I stopped running at the edge of the sand and braced myself, so Anne and I wouldn’t hit each other at full speed, on rock. Less than a second later, Anne crashed into me, and I managed to fall back a little with the blow, without falling down.
Shifting now would be pretty annoying.
Anne hugged me hard.
I hugged her firmly, and rested my cheek on the top of her head. “Anne, I’ll change if you break one of my ribs, and I’d like to kiss you, right now.”
Anne pushed me out to arm’s length, and looked up at me. “Don’t you be Mr. Logical on me right now, Zeke, I’m having an emotional moment.” She grabbed my head with both hands and pulled me down to her, and kissed me firmly, a long, incredible kiss, before she started hugging me again.
I put my cheek back down on her head, folded her into my arms, and we just held each other, both of us crying. I lifted my head when I saw three shadows approaching, and noticed that Anne’s hair was wet for all the crying I’d done.
“Anne, would you mind sharing me for a moment?”
“Huh?” Anne seemed startled for a moment. “Oh.” She turned around and apologized. “I’m sorry Danny, Colleen, Ed, I’ll just move around to the other side here and let you have the front side. I’m not ready to let go yet.” Anne slid around behind me, never letting me go, but holding on a lot more loosely, around my waist. I could feel her head, held sideways against the center of my back, between my shoulder blades.
Danny and Mom stepped off the rock into the sand and I wrapped them both in a huge hug, slapping Danny hard in the back a couple times, but making certain not to crush my mother. She was in good health, but her doctor had warned her about her bones a few years back when she broke an arm after slipping on a patch of ice.
Anne slipped around behind me towards my left side, and wrapped her left arm around Danny while keeping her right hand around me, which allowed Mom to also reach around me.
Getting a little crowded here.
Pops just smiled, a couple streaks running down his cheeks, and slowly mouthed. “I’ll wait.” Then he grinned and watched us.
Mom was crying, with heaving sobs, and I disengaged my left hand from Danny’s shoulder and used that hand to lift Mom’s chin so I could kiss her on the cheek. “I’m sorry I scared you, Mom.”
“Zeke, I’m so afraid for you. All these heathen gods are real, and at least one of them hates you. I was scared when it was just supers, but gods, Zeke?” Mom looked at me. “You weren’t you, Zeke, you were broken, a shadow of yourself. This time, one of these gods helped you, but what about next time?”
“I’m sorry, Mom, but I’ve been thrown in the deep end, and I don’t think I’ll be allowed to get out of the pool. I have to learn to swim.” I was very uncomfortable with the way the conversation was moving.
Mom snuffled. “Don’t forget when Thor said all the gods owed you a favor, Zeke. I don’t think this boon to fix your mind counts against that.” Mom sniffled again. “You’ve always wanted to do things your own way, and you’ve made me and your father proud, but remember they all still owe you. Thor said so.”
Odin spoke softly, but everyone could hear him. “Your mother speaks wise words, Zeke Collins. The gods do owe you, but if possible, it’s best to keep it that way until the need is dire. Your needs here have been met, and Huninn and Muninn will be returning soon. I suspect you would like to be gone before they return.”
Yeah that might be a good idea.
I really don’t want to have a panic attack right now.
“Please, Odin, a way home would be appreciated, but a way home before your ravens return would be even more greatly appreciated.”
Odin tapped his spear on the rock beside his throne, and a portal appeared near us. Oval in shape, except for a flat bottom, twice as tall as a man, and about half as wide as it was tall. A black and white two-story farmhouse with a red barn. Two old pickup trucks and a fairly modern station wagon in the driveway.
Coyote was already visible on the other side, waving us over. I started herding everyone though.
Really want to be gone before the Ravens get here.
Pops was looking at me a little strangely, and when he caught my eye, he mouthed “Thank You” and cut his eyes in Odin’s direction.
I was startled a little at my own lack of manners for a moment, before I turned to Odin. “Thank you for the restoration, Lord Odin.” I bowed, deeply.
I can deal with a fear of black birds in exchange for my life back.
At least when there aren’t any around.
“You are welcome, Zeke Collins. A favor for a favor, one debt is paid.” After a few moments, Odin continued. “By your very nature, you will collect favors owed by the gods, over time, but remember to tend your favors and debts carefully.” He paused. “One more thing. Huginn and Muninn are me, in a way. An extension of self that I cannot fully control, much like your own mind. I know your dislike for mental adjustment, and I would like you to know that the fear of dark colored birds is something that should respond well to the human practice of hypnosis therapy.”
“That is very good to know, Lord Odin. Thank you again.” I bowed deeply. Everyone was on the other side of the portal, except me.
Wait, where’s Fifi? I quickly scanned for a black and white mop. There she is, on the other side of Anne.
“Zeke Collins, you will want to leave now, I think.” Heimdallr commented, looking away from me. “In another ten seconds, a pair of avians will return. Avians that you don’t want to meet again right now.” He turned to face me with a grin.
“Thank you for being an excellent guide, and for the warning, Heimdallr.” I bowed, and then quickly hopped through the portal, and intentionally did not look back at it.
Pops grabbed me by the upper arms and squeezed, holding me at arm’s length for a moment, before crushing me in a bear hug, saying nothing. I returned it, hoping he wouldn’t increase the pressure anymore, because it was starting to ache. A second later, he pushed me back. “Welcome back, son.” Then he slapped me on the right shoulder and turned to look at the yard. “You really need to cut the grass though.”
“I, uhh, guess I forgot, Pops.”
“Likely story.” Pops started laughing, and sat down on the tailgate of his truck. His laughter stopped suddenly. “Nobody move quickly. Whatever that is over there standing by the barn, it moves like a predator, and it’s big. Movement may attract its attention.”
I turned my head slowly towards the barn, and saw something that chilled my soul for a moment. Bipedal, extremely colorful, shaped like a velociraptor from the dinosaur movies, except for very human-like arms.
“Aw shit, I thought he was dead.” I whispered under my breath, beginning to feel panic welling up.
My family is here.
Did I just get all my memories back, only to have Ahmed kill me and my family?
Coyote spoke. “That isn’t Ahmed, Zeke, that’s Valsom.” He sighed. “Apparently the Svartalves have already broken all of their restrictions. This could get… Interesting.” The capital ‘I’ in interesting was clear in the way Coyote pronounced the word.
Valsom was clearly watching us, and immediately after Coyote spoke, he started walking towards us. Looking at the killing claws Valsom held up off the ground made me shiver, and I could feel myself start to freeze up.
I had never seen a Svartalve walk. It was… arresting. The movements were uncanny, the middle and lower neck was in constant motion, and the tail moved rapidly back and forth as he walked. The body bobbed, the legs swung back and forth with incredible grace, but the head did not move up, down, left, or right. Only forward. The combination of the motionless head and graceful body was amazing.
After he closed to a few feet away from us in that hypnotic walk of his, Valsom spoke in his high-pitched, breathy voice. “Zeke Collins. I give you one of your requests. You may now see me as you speak to me.”
I coughed into my hand to try to get air moving again and break myself out of near-freeze. “Should I be concerned that this is the case, Valsom? Are all of your race freed of all the racial limitations placed on you?”
“You should only be concerned insomuch as your instinctual reaction to me is to see me as a predator. I will not allow an attack on my person to go unpunished. All Svartalves are freed from mental slavery, and the invisibility curse, yes.” Valsom had stopped, immobile, and was tracking something with his eyes.
I turned around and saw Pops slowly moving around to the passenger side of his truck, and spoke quickly. “Pops, if you take your shotgun out of the cab of your truck, you might just get someone killed. Consider Valsom to be at least the equivalent of a combat tinker like Machine Spirit.” I named one of the most famous combat Tinkers and hoped Pops knew him.
Coyote spoke, with no indication of humor or emotion. “Perhaps not so dangerous as to be a threat to me, but Valsom is certainly well defended and carrying a substantial number of pieces of high energy technological and magical equipment. Stand down, Eldest Collins. Your son knows Valsom, and if there is a threat of danger, I will deal with it.”
Is Coyote acting as a stand-in for Ali right now?
I turned back around towards Valsom, and I heard Pops walking on the gravel again, but Valsom seemed to relax.
Valsom spoke again. “Thank you for defusing a potentially bad outcome, Mr. Collins and Coyote. I can also respect the instinct to defend against the unknown, Eldest Collins, and hold no grudge for your wish to have a weapon at hand.” Valsom tilted his head slightly to one side, held it there for a moment, and then returned his head to a normal inclination.
Some sort of respect movement, like a bow is for us?
I stopped and gave Valsom a small bow. “What is your purpose here, Valsom? I know you value your time.”
“I have come to tell you that the facility you requested to be excavated has been built. You are no longer dependent on either Ali or Svartalves for access to your armor. There will be a few Svartalve technicians available to maintain your equipment, but the scope of Svartalve operations centered on you will be far smaller then you have become accustomed to.”
“So I was used, manipulated into killing Ahmed, and now that Ahmed is gone, I will be carefully set aside as a valued tool, in case I might be useful later.”
“Exactly, Mr. Collins. I am glad you understand our high regard for you! A few of us worried that you might take offense.” Valsom sounded happy, and hopped from foot to foot.
I laughed. “I understand that it was a compliment, Valsom, but that’s because I understand a little about how you and your people think.” I paused. “I do take some small measure of offense, but it is offset by knowing that you don’t think like humans.”
Valsom chuckled “That is acceptable. Even amongst your own race, cultural differences cause social friction.”
“That’s still not why you are here though. You could have sent anyone to tell me these things. I can imagine several reasons.” I glanced at Coyote, who nodded, briefly.
“I have come to tell you that, because of the favor you have done for us, the Svartalve race, we are willing to take upon ourselves the three major tasks that you envisioned for our race. To be very clear here, we will not allow you to dictate to us, but your ideas had strong merit, and are appropriate choices for our race in any case. Right now, we are searching through the archives for all such plans that approximate your ideas. We will implement the best of them, or some amalgam of more than one of them.” Valsom tilted his head again, a little more of an angle.
I bowed in response to his submission movement. “So, right now, your race is using a geas-driven group to design the governance system to be as foolproof as possible, while still allowing access. After that, you will institute the geas-driven governance system.” I paused a moment. “Are human tinkers going to be included in the geas?”
“Yes. We are in negotiations with the White, Grey, and Black lodges with regards to how human tinkers are to be integrated into the governance system we are developing for ourselves. The lodges created empowered humans, including tinkers, with the assistance of Ahmed and a few of the human gods, so it is right that they have some say in how we deal with humankind. That being said, we are quickly losing patience with the lodges, and are probably just going to collect ideas and then act, rather than wait for any sort of human consensus. Humans in large groups can generate surprisingly good ideas, but they don’t cooperate well at all. Chaos.”
“And the third thing? Countering cross-layer dimensional attacks?”
“Indeed. Humans do not need us as much as races driven to cross-layer dimensional conquest need us. You haven’t destroyed your ecosystem or bred beyond the food-generating capacity of the planet yet. We’ve infiltrated holding facilities and investigated the minds of captured beings from cross-layer dimensions. Just like the Troodon, their cultures are all resource-poor. Unlike the Troodon, they are almost all exclusively single-government cultures.” He paused. “We cannot initiate this cross-layer diaspora until after we implement the new racial geas. It would be better to simply use existing portals created by attackers to counter-infiltrate in any case.”
Something was bothering me, and after a second, I realized what it was. “I was told, at one point, that breaking a racial geas took fantastic amounts of power, and creating a new racial geas should do the same. Where is the power coming from, Valsom?”
“For many millions of years, until recently, the Svartalves didn’t have a god. We didn’t want one, and even if we had wanted one, Ahmed would certainly not have allowed it. After Ahmed’s death, one of us was chosen to become a god, to allow our race to project the appropriate abilities and power into them to break our geas and curse. The soul energy of our competing broodlings, wasted for so many millions of years, is useful once again, for now.”
I looked over at Coyote, who appeared a little alarmed.
“Valsom, if my guess is right, I should be congratulating you?”
“Your guess is right. Coyote has seen through my seeming. Do not be concerned, Coyote. My people have been projecting Justice and Freedom onto me. Unlike humans, all Svartalves know exactly what we are doing when it comes to empowering gods, and our race is extremely homogenous in our thought when there is a task at hand.”
Coyote spoke quietly. “A geas cannot affect a god, Valsom. And if you can place the geas on your race, you can also remove it. What prevents you from, at some point in the far distant future, simply removing the geas that forces your race to restrain itself?”
“Wrong, Coyote, it is possible to place a geas on a god, you just don’t know how. If you carefully consider what Ahmed did to you and your kind, you might begin to understand, though mental manipulation is not a strength of yours.” Valsom paused. “It doesn’t matter in this case though. There is zero possibility that I would allow anyone to subject me to a geas, as it might be used to harm my race. I cannot put a geas on myself, nor can those who are my followers. Too much feedback. After I have completed the three tasks set for me by my race, to honor our racial debt to Mr. Collins and the human race that he belongs to, I will cease to exist, except in memory.”
“Your followers. They can simply choose to unmake you?” Coyote sounded horrified, and his ears were held flat against his head.
Valsom’s head tracked to Coyote, and it reminded me a lot of the motion of a bird’s head. I started to tense up a bit, but then relaxed as Valsom started speaking. “Yes, they can. Humans could too, with sufficient homogeneity of desires. We did it to our first gods, the Troodon gods, long ago, before they realized we were capable of it. Mr. Collins was told they simply faded away, but that was not the case. We ended them intentionally. Ahmed did not stop us from doing so, because his own geas did not direct him to protect the Troodon gods.”
Wow, they can disbelieve their own gods to death.
Valsom turned his head back to me. “My race, my current ‘followers’ can also choose to empower another new god if there is ever a need for such again. At the same time, the racial geas being developed now already clarifies that a new god cannot be empowered without a very strong need for change that Svartalves cannot manage on their own.”
“Like if a group of Svartalves enters a new dimensional layer and find themselves opposed by gods there?”
“Yes, that would be one possible acceptable scenario.” Valsom turned partly away from us. “I have duties to attend to, projects to explain to once-subordinates, and preparations to make before my passing. It is highly likely you will not see me again, Mr. Collins. Thank you for what you did for my people, even if we had to use you without your knowledge to make it possible.” Valsom looked at Coyote and then me before reaching into a pouch against his breastbone. “I am confident that neither Ali nor Matty will be ready to speak to me before I am gone. Coyote, will you give Matty this, and ask her to give it to Ali when she believes he is ready for it? It is for both of their use.”
Valsom tossed a small device into the air at Coyote, who caught it cleanly, and looked at it closely before putting it into one of his pockets. “I will.”
Valsom pulled another of the devices from his pocket and tossed it at me. “This is a duplicate of the device I just gave to Coyote. It will open a portal to a place that explains much. Be certain to bring navigational tools if you explore.”
I caught the small, egg shaped object, easily. It was marked with clear instructions and arrows, which I quickly read. To activate entrance portal, twist one full turn in direction of red arrow below, and then press the exposed red button. Portal duration one minute. Return to home position and twist in the opposite direction one full turn and then press the yellow button to return to origin. Portal duration one minute. Recharge time of forty hours in direct sun will restore both entrance and egress portal capability.
Holding the little device in my hand. “Is it dangerous?”
“Only if you consider knowledge dangerous.”
“So that’s a yes.”
Valsom made a whistling, laughing noise. “I suppose so.” Then he grew more serious. “Despite what Ahmed did to us, we Svartalves never hated him. He was instrumental in our creation. He not only helped us learn to create without magic, he created within us the capacity for emotions, which the Troodon completely lacked. Compassion, appreciation for nature and the ability to see beauty and recognize its value. Emotions besides hate, fear, and lust. I have read the stones you had your suit inscribe, Mr. Collins. There is a great deal of truth there, but incomplete. Ahmed deserves more than to be remembered as a monstrous puppet master, because he was a slave to terrible, long-dead gods.”
I looked at the little device again. “So this is a memorial of sorts that the Svartalves have created for him?”
Valsom looked at me, and just like I felt his anger, what seemed like long ago, when I asked to see him when I was talking to him, I now felt a vast, empty sadness. “No, it is his personal library, where he stored his anger, his shame, his little victories and his most tragic moments, recording everything he did to harm or influence others, and why. We Svartalves have always had access to it. Ahmed shared his pain with us, even as he was forced to enforce the Troodon gods’ geas and curse upon us, who he considered his children.” Valsom shifted his weight from one foot to the other. The brilliant colors of his scales coruscated in the sunlight as his torso moved.
After a moment, Valsom continued. “It was never stated by him, but it was always clearly understood that access to Ahmed’s library and the thoroughness of his journals was a gift to our race. Without it, we would have never understood him and his geas well enough to learn to plot in ways he wouldn’t immediately discover. Without the ability to plot and plan, we would never have been able to engineer plans to resist him, no matter how many millions of years of selective breeding for intelligence and magical capability we might have managed.” Valsom shook his head in a very human-like gesture. “It was the only way that he could help us kill him.”
Valsom disappeared from sight, and the sensation of vast, empty sorrow ended. I felt a gentle breeze of air pass over me towards where Valsom had been as I heard the telltale ‘pop’ of air filling a vacuum.
I looked at the little device in my hand. I could hear my family starting to move again, after Valsom left, but I was too much in shock to do anything but stare at the device.
I figured out part of it.
But the sheer magnitude.
Anne reached out, and gently closed my hand around the device, hiding it from my eyes. “Later, Zeke. Too much, too soon. Put it in your pocket.”
I put my hand in my pocket, but couldn’t bear to let go of the device. Anne took my other elbow and led me into the house.
Seventy-five million years of tragic mental agony in the palm of my hand.