As she pulled me into the house and back towards the kitchen, Anne was irritated. “Whatever that Valsom thing was, its timing was terrible. We just got you back, and you’re acting like the world is about to end.”
I shook my head, to try to clear my thoughts. “It is, for Valsom. He was saying goodbye. I doubt I’ll see him again. Svartalves work quickly, and Valsom is a very old, very experienced Svartalve. I suspect he can predict, within an hour, when everything will be completed. When he has set the third geas for his people, they will turn him off like a light switch, from what he said.”
“Didn’t he say they used you?” Anne asked, sounding confused.
“Yeah, they did. They had to. I was the right fool for the job.” I shook my head. “I can’t even be angry at them for it. Seventy-five million years of slavery, Anne. Barely able to express themselves. They are all tinkers, but they couldn’t acquire materials easily, nor tinker without permission. What do you think Jane would do in that scenario, if it started now, and lasted the rest of her life?”
“Become terribly bitter and probably start breaking rules almost immediately. She’s obsessive. Even Danny complains from time to time about her fixation on her experiments and production schedules.”
Speaking of Danny, where is everyone?
I looked outside and Danny, Mom, Pops, and Coyote were talking on the porch. Mom was leaning against the front door. “A geas would prevent her from breaking the rules. She’d have to live within the rules outlined for her, as best as she could.” I replied.
Anne considered. “She would probably start planning, either on computer, on paper, or in her head.”
I nodded. “Now imagine that she lived for five thousand years or so. How many ideas would she have? How much would it hurt to not have the freedom to act on those ideas? Then imagine a whole race like that, and imagine that their restrictions have lasted millions of years.”
“I can’t imagine it. Too big, Zeke.” Anne hugged me. “I don’t want to imagine it.”
“I don’t have to imagine it, I lived next to it for a while. Valsom and his crew, if you offered them work, were ecstatic. Literally cheering. The more complex it was, the more work there was to do, the happier they would be. If you tried to ask them to take a break, they got angry and sullen.”
“Zeke, shut up.”
“What?” I shook my head.
Anne stepped shifted her hand from my right elbow to my right hand, and pulled me through the kitchen, past the laundry room, down the hallway towards the master bedroom suite. “I said, shut up. I was hoping to have the whole night with you, tonight, but I don’t think I’m getting that with the way you’re acting now, am I?”
“I’m sorry, Anne, but I really need to go talk to Ali, if Coyote can find him. He lost his father.”
“I personally think Ali is a lot more mentally tough than you appear to think he is. Remember how long he’s lived, how many people he’s seen die.”
“None of them were his father, Anne. His father was literally billions of years old. Can you even imagine something nearly as old as Earth suddenly dying? Here one day, gone the next, like any of us mayfly mortals?”
Anne pulled me into the master bedroom. “But you killed his father, Zeke. Will Ali want to see you? Will seeing you just make it worse for him? Ali is powerful. Would he be able to hurt you like his father did?”
I sighed. “Ali is a good kid. He knew his father was going to kill me when he last saw me, and was trying to demand answers why. There will be at least some resentment, I’m sure, but he knows that I didn’t seek his father’s death. He can see my intent, and I’m damn sure not going to approach him to start a fight. Ali and I had something like a parent-child bond, at times. If I can offer him a shoulder, and he wants it, I’ll give it to him.”
“Before you go offer your shoulder to some four hundred year old magical boy, you’re going to spend at least a couple hours here, with me.”
Anne interrupted me, with her right hand on my lips. “No buts, buster, it’s already been arranged. Your mother, father, and Danny will be going home, and you and I will be staying right here. I don’t care what Coyote does, but if he absolutely must stay close to you like he said, I expect him to stay quiet and invisible.”
I looked around, and didn’t see Fifi. “Where’s the dust mop?”
Anne gave me a strange look. “Fifi will be going back with Danny. You really need to see her with one of her bones, or playing tug-a-rope with Danny before you make her mad. She’s a lot more than she seems, she’s not just smart and fast.”
Imagine that. An animal that’s more than it seems.
“I’ll try to remember to ask for a demonstration later, Anne. I’m guessing it will be impressive.” I smiled. “Knowing that you and Danny are well-protected makes me feel better.”
I heard a truck start in the driveway. It wasn’t mine, so it must be Mom and Pops leaving. They wouldn’t leave if Danny was alone, so Danny must have called in for a teleport from the Enclave, or maybe Jane had given him something to let him teleport to her lab.
Anne tapped my left hand, still clenched around the device in my pocket. “Let go of it. It’ll still be in your pocket later. I have better things for you to do with your hands.”
I let go of the device, and it fell into the depths of my pocket.
Anne was right, she did have better things for me to do with my hands.
Despite my desire to offer help to Ali, I stayed the night. Anne was my wife. Ali was a friend. Ali had his sister. If I went to him as well, my wife would have nobody tonight, and I just wouldn’t do that to her after I returned, eight days after she thought I had died.
As I lay in the light of the bedside lamp, Anne tightly molded to my side, hugging me in her sleep like I was a big teddy bear, I realized that it had been over seventy days since I had seen Anne. I probably would have stayed, no matter what, after we got started, after the immediacy of Valsom’s comments left my mind.
Figuring out what all my new phobias would be, and trying to deal with them, was going to be a real challenge. I made a mental note to find a good hypnotherapist and get a recording I could use when I slept.
Would hypnotherapy work on me when I was the soul well?
Definitely worth thinking about.
I’m afraid of the dark, but stay functional enough to at least turn the lights back on.
Birds or bird-shaped things had a tendency to start looking like ravens, which scare the fuck out of me.
Knives make me ill, just to think about them.
Thinking of any sort of jerky or unprocessed cut meat makes me want to heave.
I wonder what other surprises I’ll find hidden in my brain over time.
At least burgers and seafood seem OK.
My mouth twitched as I realized I now had an excuse to order a burger when Anne and I went out to eat. It would work once, and after that we’d never go anywhere without a seafood selection.
I woke up at dawn in the best way possible. Anne and I proceeded to enjoy ourselves for an hour or so after she woke me up.
There was no fresh food in the house, so Anne did an internet search and found a breakfast place that offered drone delivery. She ordered a big breakfast for us both (mine with no meat or eggs), downloaded the company’s drone beacon app, activated it, and then we dressed in sweats and slippers before going out with coffee to sit on the tailgate of my truck, waiting for the breakfast to fly in from wherever the place was.
The drone arrived a few minutes later.
Once again, Anne shows she’s smarter than me.
I’ll have to remember this for myself, for later.
We were both ravenous, and the big breakfasts disappeared faster than either of us expected. Anne found two cans of tomato soup and a sleeve of saltine crackers, and we made more coffee.
After we finished the soup and crackers, Anne was a little upset. She knew her body pretty well and a change in appetite like that made her nervous.
“Anne, we skipped dinner last night, and Coyote’s regenerative healing makes you hungry. It was just a little bit of healing during the fight between Trainwreck and Thor, but I bet it drained our body reserves.”
Anne thought for a second, nodded, stood up, and starting to collect the trash, cups, and bowls. “Speaking of all the recent events, after you get dressed, give me a kiss and go find Ali. You’ve been very nice about it this morning, but I know you want to go. He’s your friend, a partner, and there is that contract.” After a brief pause, she added “Coyote, Thank you for allowing us this time. I imagine there are other things you might be attending to right now.”
Coyote’s voice answered, sounding like he was just around the corner. “There are always things to do, Mrs. Collins. I’ve traded a couple favors to take care of the truly important things, but I will need to go my own way soon, before I bargain too much away. If Ali isn’t ready to be active again, we may need to find someone else, but there are several alternatives.”
I gave Anne a kiss both before and after I got dressed, and then we walked outside where she called the Enclave for a teleport. A few seconds later, a portal appeared at the same place where Mindblade had generated his, what seemed like an eternity ago.
Anne gave me a kiss, and then spoke seriously. “Please give Ali and Matty my condolences if you find them. I know they are hurting. They have each other, but none of their other relatives are awake. Matty mentioned that once, a couple days before you disappeared.”
We can only hope they are asleep.
The way Anne looked at me when she said the other relatives were asleep made me pretty sure she was thinking the same thing I was, but neither of us said it.
“I’ll look for a hypnotist for you, Zeke, and ask around.”
Nodded. “Thank you, Anne. I’m going to need the help.” I walked her to the portal, and collected one more hug and kiss before she took a couple deep breaths and walked through the black surface and disappeared.
I turned around, back towards the house. Coyote was waiting for me, standing on the porch and tapping his long cane against the door. “Another few nights like that, and this will be a healthy threshold again. I felt its resistance.”
I sighed. “I can only wish. I bet the threshold at our last house, before I got powers, would have been a challenge, even for you.”
Coyote’s tongue fell out of the side of his mouth. “Perhaps. Are you ready to run? Do you remember clearly how we ran before?”
I nodded. “Keep in step, do what you say, don’t watch your feet.” I checked my pocket for the device Valsom had given me. It was there.
“No showboating this time. Maximum speed, minimum time.” Coyote walked down the steps, and I followed, matching his pace.
When we were both on the driveway, Coyote started to jog, and everything stopped moving. By the time we were at the end of the driveway, we were both running at a good clip, and trees were blurs. I stopped paying attention to my environment, and just fell in behind Coyote, listening to his footfalls while watching his hips and shoulders to match his pace.
“You’re doing a lot better now, concentrating better. Thank you, it makes it easier.” Coyote picked up the pace again. “Darkness soon, we’re approaching a dimensional fold that will give us access to where we found you. The darkness will be brief, like an eye blink. I will carry you in, so don’t panic when you lose the pace.
Even though I was behind him, I nodded. “OK”
A couple seconds later, I felt myself being lifted, and there was starless darkness.
Nothing. No stars. No moon. Pure emptiness.
I froze, staring at the darkness, and a few seconds later, I realized there was no longer darkness. Coyote was cocking his head at me, ears facing forward. “Zeke, are you OK?”
I sighed. “No, I’m apparently severely afraid of the dark now. I didn’t think it was that bad. Last night it wasn’t that bad.”
He must have really given us privacy last night if he doesn’t know that.
“There’s no light at all in intra-dimensional space, Zeke. None. It’s not surprising you had a very bad reaction.” He paused. “Are you ready to go speak with Ali and Matty? They are still here.”
“Is that a good sign? It’s been what, a week or so, in here compared to the day we’ve been gone?”
“I would say it’s an encouraging sign.”
“Do they know we’re here?”
“Are they listening to us?”
“I suppose I’m already speaking with them then, but I’d rather do it face-to-face if possible. Can you lead me to them?”
“Yes, follow. Keep the pace.” Coyote turned and started walking. I fell in behind him, and kept pace for two or three seconds, and then we stopped again.
Ali and Matty had dismantled the cairn and unearthed the etched stones, bringing two of each stone over to Ahmed’s grave. One of each stone for either of them. They sat opposite each other, with their father’s grave between them. Between each of them and the grave, the etched stones were spread in an arc. The suit sat next to the grave as well. If Ali and Matty were north and south of the grave, the suit was west. Its facial visor system had apparently been modified so that the heads up display and monitor faced outwards, so Ali and Matty could see what was displayed there. It was crudely done.
Ali had Ahmed’s claw in his hand. Just looking at it made me feel ill. I quickly looked away, but not before I was treated to a couple flashbacks of the suit leaning over me, and then walking away with another part of me to dry by the fire, or grind into powder and mix with water. The scent of burnt palm, or whatever the local trees were, assaulted my nose. I wasn’t sure if it was a part of one of the flashbacks or not.
“It seems as if you’re still a little worse for wear, Zeke.” Ali spoke slowly. “My father’s claw is now hidden, you can look again.”
I looked back towards him. “Yeah, Ali, the body’s fine, but my mind probably won’t ever be quite the same again.”
“I’m sorry my father did that to you, Mr. Collins.” Matty spoke.
“I’m sorry I killed your father. I know what happened now, better than I did before.”
Ali looked up at me, sharply, and narrowed his eyes.
“Ali, please stay out of my head. I had a good reason last time. I have a good reason this time. I want to tell you things in a specific order, if I can.”
Ali grimaced and nodded. “Sorry, Zeke.”
I paused. “Anne wanted me to give you both her condolences.”
They both nodded, and Matty spoke. “Thank her for us.” She waved her hands over the inscriptions and towards the suit. “Thank you for leaving these. Your consideration of us, and your analysis of what happened was helpful, as we started finding gaps and holes in our own memories.”
“Ah, so you have already divined that your father was pulling a lot more strings than anyone realized?”
They both nodded, and said, in unison. “Yes.”
“Do you know he was forced to?”
Ali answered. “We suspect. We do not know. It’s doubtful that we’ll ever really know. Father never recorded anything, he kept everything in his head.”
I nodded. “I thought so. The best way to hide something is to keep people from ever suspecting that it exists. Even Coyote can’t steal it if he doesn’t know it exists.”
Coyote snorted. “Truth.”
Matty pinned me with her eyes. “I’m not reading your mind yet, but I fully plan to, if you don’t start talking faster, Mr. Collins.”
“Have you seen Valsom?” I asked next.
“No. That’s probably for the best. If he had shown up here, knowing what I do now about how he arranged Father’s death, there would have been a fight, and we would not have preserved the area for Coyote, as he requested.”
“I… I don’t know what to say next. Everything is so complex, and I don’t understand enough.” I sat down opposite the armor suit, and shivered when I looked at it straight-on, instead of in profile. Flashbacks started, and I closed my eyes tight, taking a few deep breaths, hoping they would pass.
When the flashbacks stopped, I started talking again. “This place is not a good place for my sanity, and worse for my concentration. I am going to close my eyes, shut my mouth, and allow you two to read my mind. Most of what you need to know occurred in the last day, my subjective time, since I was removed from this dimensional pocket. You may get something of value from before your father died, but it’s mostly me being shaped into an unintentional weapon by Valsom and the Svartalves. I strongly suggest that the last thing you view is my conversation with Valsom, yesterday.
Coyote spoke again. “I agree with him, Ali, Matty, but please be careful. He received mental healing from Odin, so he’ll still be a bit fragile for a while. He was a pawn in all this.”
I closed my eyes and imagined I was at the house with Anne, remembering this morning. The memory was strong, and I was able to almost fool myself into thinking I wasn’t in the fern hellhole.
Matty’s voice complained. “Zeke, that’s not fair. I promised Anne I would stay away from you for forty years, and now you give me a trailer of what I might expect forty years from now, if we’re both still around, and if things work out. Can you think of something else please?”
Planning forty years ahead. Crazy.
“Please. I’m too young and sheltered to be exposed to such adult themes.” Ali commented, chuckling.
I tried to remember the fight between Thor and Trainwreck.
Ravens. In the branches of the throne, watching the fight.
I froze, and after several seconds, forced myself to find something else to remember. Sigrun’s story about Svipul and the Seer’s Catalog seemed safe.
A few minutes later, Matty spoke. “Coyote, may I have the device? I should only need it once, and then I will return it. I suspect that you also have an interest in seeing what’s in the library.”
“Thank you. Yes, I definitely want it back. I am pretty sure I can find the library now that I know the Svartalves have access to it. I know a lot of their spaces, but it’s definitely hidden. I’d rather have direct access. Time is more precious to me now.
Ali spoke. “Matty, you know that a lot of my childish behavior was forced on me by Father’s manipulations. Do you think that I need to wait, like Valsom said?”
“I don’t think so, Ali, but can you give me a little while to at least check on the last few hundred years’ records? I have a strong feeling that if we’re not careful in our reading, we’re going to end up mentally scarred by some of the things father was forced to do. It’s almost certain that the time in there is highly accelerated. Father must have spent huge amounts of time there to record on the scale that Valsom insinuated.” She paused. “If it’s a trap, I’m stronger than you.”
“Not a trap. I saw through his seeming, and I saw true intent. If he wanted to hurt either of you, he would have done so when he came to look at the inscriptions. Neither of you saw him. I don’t know what abilities he has as a god, but a Svartalve his age is a canny and dangerous opponent by any measure, especially if allowed to prepare at leisure, even with no technological tools. If he meant either of you harm, he probably would have attacked when he came by.” I opened my eyes, making sure not to look straight forward at the suit, looking instead in the direction of Coyote’s voice. He was standing with arms crossed, about ten feet away, looking down at us all.
Matty was sitting cross-legged and holding one of the devices Valsom gave Coyote and me. She made a twisting motion with her two hands, and then pressed the red button. A rectangular door-sized portal opened in front of her. She hopped to her feet, and stepped through.
Before I could protest, Ali was through the door as well. Moments later, he hurtled back through the portal, and dug a shallow trench in the black earth, bits and pieces of ferns flying every which way.
Ali jumped to his feet. “All I wanted was the locus. I was leaving. I’ll stay out until you say I can come in, Matty!”
Matty blipped into our field of view in front of the portal on the other side, looking very serious. She squeaked. Then she squeaked again, almost immediately. Her facial features were a bit blurred.
Matty’s head pushed through the portal to our side, and she spoke. “Stay out till I say it’s clear, brother. Promise me. ‘I will not enter Father’s library, by any means, unless my sister Matty says I can, or a week of my personal subjective time has passed.'”
Ali sighed. “I will not enter Father’s library, by any means, unless my sister Matty says I can, or a week of my personal subjective time has passed.”
Matty nodded. “Thank you, brother.” She pulled her head into the portal again, and disappeared.
“Not fair.” Ali said, under his breath.
Still shedding some of the eight-year-old mentality, I see.
I figured it was as good a time as any to see if we could move elsewhere. “Ali, you can come back here any time, or go to the library any time, now that you have the locus, right?”
“Do you mind taking us back to the house so I can give the armor back to the Svartalves for service?”
And get me away from this place.
Ali stared at me for a few seconds and then shrugged. “Come with me. There’s a flat vertical surface over here.” Ali started walking.
“Suit, can you follow me without assistance?”
The suit stood in a fluid motion. “Yes. Walking locomotion is possible for another two miles without solar recharging.”
“Follow me then, suit.” I called out as I walked after Ali, who was waiting by a tall, vertical stone.
I waved to Coyote as he entered the portal leading to the Library. He nodded to me.
Without saying anything, Ali created a door, and then opened the door into one of his rooms he used as a transfer point. I followed him in, and the suit followed me. Ali then created another door on a different wall of the room. When that door opened, it opened into my apartment.
After we were through the second door, I closed it, and Ali waved to make the door disappeared.
“No more doors, Ali. There should be a way for me to access a storage area and lab under the barn now.”
Ali looked at me for a moment. “I was a little angry with you last time we parted ways, wasn’t I?”
“Ali, you were angry with good reason, but I had good reasons to risk making you angry.”
We stared at one another for a couple seconds before Ali said “True. Let’s find the entrance. It shouldn’t take long”
We found the entrance to the underground area in seconds. It was under the stairs leading up to the apartment. We went down the stairs, and there was a series of several ninety degree turns with downward stairs before a flat landing with another door. There was clearly a palm and retina scanner there. I put my palm and eye to the scanners, and the door opened. The lab area was easily ten times as large as the prior lab was, and I saw at least half a dozen suits in various stages of assembly.
There were two Svartalves, both visible, at separate workstations. As Ali and I entered with the suit, they both turned their heads so each of them had one of their eyes facing us. The one closest to us gapped it’s toothy jaw slightly, and spoke, never stopping its work. “How may we assist, Mr. Collins?”
“Please have this armor repaired, but store all of its environmental recordings onto removable media I can access with my personal computer. Are you the senior Svartalve left with me?”
“I am. My name is Alvak.” The speaker twisted his head like Valsom had done. I nodded my head in response. “My assistant is named Calvart.” Again the twist of the head, this time from the other, and I nodded. At no point did the absurdly fast movements of their hands stop.
“I’m happy to meet you two. This repair job is not high priority, if there is another suit that can be brought to fully functional status first, that would be a priority. I would like at least one fully functional suit ready, at all times, if possible.”
Alvak spoke in a matter-of-fact voice. “There are two suits ready now, six that can be in service in two hours or less, and eleven that can be assembled in more than two but less than ten hours.”
“We’re going to need to talk about this. If you have to keep busy, there are other things I could use instead of multiple redundant suits, but that discussion can happen later.”
“Yes, Mr. Collins,” Alvak responded, keeping his one visible eye on me.
“Suit, stand against the wall and shut down.” I walked back out of the door into the stairwell. As I turned, Alvak’s immobile head, one eye facing me, all of a sudden seemed to have a raven’s head superimposed over it. I carefully didn’t look back as I closed the door and made sure it latched.
When the door was safely closed, I gulped air to calm my stomach and wiped my brow.
Ali was staring at me. “You’re a soup sandwich, mentally, Zeke.” He paused. “I’m not much better right now, honestly, even if I’m not as obvious about it. I want to make it clear that I might not be able to work with you long term, but what I saw in your mind made it clear that you aren’t to blame, so I’ll stay around at least long enough for a replacement. Coyote can protect you, but he can’t redistribute soul energy if you are exposed to deaths.”
“Ali, we can only do what we can do. If we can’t work together after your father’s death, I will understand, and you don’t need to supply a reason.” I caught his eyes with my own, and held them for a brief moment.
Ali nodded. “Thank you for understanding, Zeke.”
“Can I ask a small favor of you, Ali?”
“You can ask. If it’s something that requires finesse, I’m probably not ready for it yet.”
I pulled the little teleportation device out of my pocket. “You don’t need this thing, and I damn sure don’t want it. I’ll let you choose who to give it to. I think it would be best to give it to one of the benevolent gods of knowledge or wisdom that actually interacts with the rest of the world, but if you think you know a better recipient, it’s your family’s library.”
Ali’s mouth quirked into a half smile as he plucked the device out of my hand. “You want me to give it to Odin. I’ll think about it. Thoth or Athena might be a better choice. Are you sure you aren’t interested in seeing what useful information might be in my father’s library, Zeke?”
“Yes. I’m sure I’m not interested. I’m developing an allergy to magical knowledge, I think.”