Category: Reject Hero Storyline

Not a Chapter: Set In Stone project has begun

I have started my third writing project, called Set In Stone, and you can find the backstory here.

Set In Stone is going to be a planned project, unlike Symbiote and Reject Hero.  It is going to be science fiction, but a type of science fiction that there are very few examples of.  Stonepunk.  The story is also going to be rational fiction, meaning that everything in the setting should make sense, and the actions of most characters will be understandable.

Yes, if you are thinking Flintstones, they are stonepunk.  They are, however, not rational stonepunk!

No chapter content has been created yet, outside of my own mind.  I am now beginning to build the rough series story arc and the more detailed first book arc.  In order to build a rational world that my characters would inhabit, I felt that I needed a backstory.  I have created the backstory now, and invite anyone who reads this to follow the link above and let me know what you think.

Not a Chapter

After writing for about 20 hours straight on two chapters in the fanfic I’m writing right now, I came up with the Arch title for the next series:

Set in Stone: <x>

Since I am going to specifically create the world so it can be serialized over time with different snapshots of the life of a character, the <x> will change from book to book.

Set in Stone: Follower will be the first book.

Set in Stone: Soldier might be the next, for example, if the main character stays in the military, or Set in Stone: Wanderer if he does not.

Considering the background of the story that I’ve been building, when the phrase came to mind, I could NOT not use it.

Epilogue Book 1

Prior Chapter

I sat in my chair, in the brightly-lit room, far underground, staring at dozens of large monitors, watching preparations.  Various gods and humans with divination powers had worked to determine where these newest bugman attacks would occur.  Gods of war and battle waited at every portal.  Today, I saw Thor, Ares, Durga, Hachiman, Virtus, Serbon and Gabriel at the predicted portal emergence points.  Around them, four other gods with highly useful battle abilities waited in a loose circle around each portal, about two hundred feet from the center.  Each of the four second-line gods had a cadre of chosen human supers surrounding them.

The bugmen were apparently extremely desperate for resources.  They were extremely difficult to take alive, even by gods, but it had been done, and their minds had been read to verify the information from the one near-comatose bugman we had captured from their first attack.  Their civilization was on the verge of collapse.  They had never managed to leave their Earth, as weightlessness caused them extreme biological distress, death within hours for an adult bugman.  They had managed to get to their moon, and the gravity there was sufficient for them to survive, but they had apparently only managed that by sending eggs, which were then hatched and tended by machines, remotely, until adulthood.

They had tried to attack through a portal there, on the moon, which had not gone well for them at all.¬† That portal had manifested in sunlight, where both Ra and Luna could act upon it with their full strength.¬† Luna’s power of fascination rendered the invaders immobile, and Ra burned them down, regardless of their armor.

The attacks had become more and more desperate.  Every wave contained more attackers, with poorer equipment.  The sheer mass of dead bodies was sufficient that, after the battles, the killing grounds had to be exposed to heat sufficient to break down their body chemistry, or else their body chemicals would poison the areas where battles had occurred.

There were a couple agricultural gods that would help after the sterilization, but only rarely was there any assistance offered by the gods capable of generating sufficient heat for sterilization.¬†¬†Gods didn’t seem to be very interested in post-battle cleanup.¬† When I asked, one of Matty’s friends had volunteered to take Dr. Fusion to each battle site after the portals had collapsed, resolving that issue nicely.

“Alvak.¬† Are the Svartalve insertion contingents ready?”

The speakers built into the headrest of the chair¬†relayed his response to me.¬† “Yes.”

“OK.” I looked at the timers under each of the seven active monitors with red LED lights around their images.¬† Less than ten minutes.

I sat up a little straighter, took a deep breath, and then picked up a very large sheath knife from the table beside my chair.  It was large enough, and light enough, that I could wield it efficiently with my weak, oversized hands when I was changed into the soul well.

Removing the knife from its sheath, I stared at it, turning it slowly so it glinted in the light.¬† I felt a bit queasy, but dry-swallowed, and calmed myself.¬† The soul well deadened emotion in me, but it didn’t eliminate fear completely.¬† It had been a great help to me during mental recovery, by allowing me to face my fears.¬† Black birds, especially large ones, still scared the crap out of me in human form, but I could act, they didn’t mentally freeze me or cause uncontrolled panic.¬† Darkness was just a minor irritation now, even pitch blackness, unless I was already fearful, in which case darkness magnified my fears unpredictably.¬† Black birds in near darkness were still bad.¬† Very Bad.¬† Knives still bothered me, which was one reason I refused to allow anyone else to use knives on me for what I was about to do.¬† Alvak had offered to make a machine to do it, but I refused that as well.¬† Anne thought I was nuts, but it wasn’t Anne’s choice.

Get to it.  Not much time left.

I carefully cut a foot-long, inch-wide strip off my left thigh, and handed it to the first Jinn in line, an albino, about six feet tall and three hundred pounds with Polynesian features, wearing flip-flops, a pair of black Bermuda shorts, and an obnoxiously brilliant neon yellow pullover T-shirt.¬† One of Ali’s uncles.¬† He called himself Jamar.

A youngster, by his own admission, barely older than the human race.

I smiled.¬† “Thank you for helping today, ‘youngster.'”

Jamar grinned as he dropped the strip from my leg into a fanny pack at his side, and then moved to a nearby wall and created a door.¬† “Calvart, please ask Thor if I can open a door and enter the area with him?”

Calvart spoke.¬† “Thor, base here.¬† Are we clear to send a soul well fragment to your location?”

On one of the monitors, I saw Thor hold his wrist up to his face.¬† “Yes.” Came the response, slightly after Thor’s arm was already moving back towards his side.

I continued cutting, intentionally forcing myself to recognize what I was doing, to try to help deaden my fear of knives.

It has helped.  A lot more than those hypnotherapy recordings.

Six more long slices from my left leg.  Six more Jinn and Jiniri with fanny packs.  Six more gods were asked permission, and six more Jinn and Jiniri stepped through doorways to stand beside those gods, preparing to use the pieces of my body as lures.  Ali and Matty were two of them.

I cut one more strip and handed it to Karina, who would stay by my right side as a reserve.  One of the last two of the youngest ten Jinn and Jiniri on the planet that were wakeful stood to the left side of my chair.  He would accompany me, myself, if I had to act directly.  The last Jiniri was with Anne and Danny at one of the gatherings in Enclave viewing areas where they would watch the fights.

I still didn’t understand why Anne and Danny went to the meetings.¬† I was¬†deep underground, and Jane didn’t get anywhere near the fighting.¬† I suspected it was simply to be there for others, and that was a good enough reason, even if it made me a bit nervous because they were around people that might get violent if they saw their family members hurt.

Fifi will be there too.

I pitied the poor normal human that might piss that little mop off by attacking my family.  I had, as a joke, gone to a butcher and gotten a cow femur that had been stripped of most of its meat, and brought it to the Enclave apartment, wrapped heavily in butcher paper.  I spread out the butcher paper and put the femur down next to her water bowl, and Fifi had just stared at me for a moment, before walking over, picking up the twenty pound bone with her mouth, somehow, carrying it into the bathroom, and jumping into the bathtub with it.  She then pawed the curtains shut and commenced to making crunching noises for the next five minutes that had me cringing.  Anne had silently watched the whole thing, grinning like a madwoman, and held my mouth closed as Fifi pawed the curtain back open and the bone was gone.

Now I’m Fifi’s favorite person, when I’m at the apartment.

I’m probably one of the butcher’s favorite people too.

Seeing the butchered bones helps desensitize me to meat images as well.

Calvart’s voice spoke.¬† “All seven emergence locations have soul well fragments in place, and defenses are ready.¬† We are activating shielding now.”¬† I watched onscreen as containment fields sprang into existence around the predicted portal emergence points and above the ground.¬† The bugs had yet to use nuclear weapons.¬† We suspected it was because they were using all radioactive materials for power generation.¬† None of the bugmen that had been captured had mental imagery of nuclear weapons.

I heard all seven war gods check in with Calvart, acknowledging the shields.¬† Coyote and a few of the other pantheon head gods had done a good job of twisting metaphysical arms to get all of the extant gods and major magical beings to sign on to the new contract.¬† Part of that was threats of selectively calling in the debts owed to me from my past actions, and the promise of future power.¬† The darker gods had been happy with the old contract, because it was easier to interfere with.¬† Loki had even admitted that in front of me with a smile before one of Odin’s wolves gripped his left leg below the knee, and growled.

I sheathed my knife, and placed it on the table next to me.

I think the new contract works much better.

I would now be assisted by five Jinn and five Jiniri, chosen to be the five youngest of each type who were wakeful, not just a single Jinn.¬† Ali and I had both been relieved when he was no longer required to be my sole attendant.¬† There had been some bad moments.¬† Now we enjoyed each other’s company again, when we were both in a mood to speak to one another.

Anne was happier as well, since having so many Jinn and Jiniri around allowed her and Danny a high degree of safety.¬† With ten Jinn and Jiniri around to make sure I wasn’t surprised or injured, she could live with me now, in the house, and the apartment was Danny’s.

Gorgon had not interfered with me at all since I gave up my company to the board of directors and Danny.¬† I sent Jamar, the oldest and most powerful of my current assistants, to talk to Gorgon and make sure there wasn’t anything being planned.¬† The response had been, and I quote.¬† “Do you think I need to be told what you are, Jamar, or what other beings Zeke Collins has for allies now?¬† I got what I wanted from him.¬† Go away.” Jamar indicated that Gorgon had been sincere, and I didn’t need to worry about him, for now.

As long as Danny and Jane stay together anyway.

I could hear Alvak and Calvart talking with others, organizing secondary and tertiary defensive perimeters.  They were probably also building circuit boards, or programming new applications, or whatever else needed to be done, but they helped me coordinate defenses well enough.

The range of the fragments of the soul well that I sent to each portal site was smaller than the whole me would have been, about fifty feet in radius, or half as much range for them than my whole body would be.  With the energies that the gods released, the shielding was likely to burst, and some enemies thrown clear.  I had seen Mjolnir pop a shield like a soap bubble when thrown, but Thor had only done that once, and apologized profusely afterwards for his thoughtlessness.  The bugmen themselves had some weapons capable of breaking shields, but we were seeing less of them now.  Still, there were always at least a few leakers, sometimes a lot of them.  The secondary defensive lines always got some action, and the tertiary defensive lines frequently had to help a little.  Every now and then either I, or tactical reserves standing by with gods that could teleport, were required.

I watched as the Jinn and Jiniri at ground zero repositioned themselves, and then buried themselves under ten feet of dirt and stone.¬† This wasn’t to protect them, but to make them immobile, at the point of entry of the invaders.¬† The invaders would then be concentrated on attacking the ground under their feet while the war gods slaughtered them.¬† The mass of earth and stone over them would prevent the gods from knocking them away from the portal.

Not needing to breathe is a plus.

If a god wanted a share of power from a battle, they must contribute either before, during, or after the fight in a way that matched the roles set out in the contract, or in an alternate way that at least three pantheon leaders agreed would be useful.  Loki had even stepped forward once and taken a place within the shields, just to show that he could, when Thor insulted him.  It had been frightening to see him fight.  The bugmen simply died as they entered our world.  They froze solid when Loki blew at them, and then shattered when Loki struck his staff on the ground.

Thor had attended the same defensive position as Loki’s, as one of the four inner perimeter gods.¬† He even stated clearly that he was there to take over the defense when Loki failed, because he didn’t think Loki could hold the center.¬† As the portal closed, Loki had walked past a speechless Thor, simply raising an eyebrow, saying nothing.¬† The next day it seemed as if every Goth or Emo kid in the world was wearing white face paint, carrying a staff, wearing robes, and gushing about how awesome Loki was.

Thank you for the idea, Coyote.

I just wish I had been there to see his reaction when Loki realized what happened.

Of course, the Svartalves had already had the idea of using the soul well as a bargaining tool to put darker gods into situations where they would be seen as heroic, with hundreds of different variants, when I asked.¬† In the end, the new contract would basically force all gods to assist humanity if they wanted power.¬† If they refused to help, they would be forgotten.¬† If they tried to attack sufficient numbers of humans to generate enough fear to power themselves, the other gods, powered by the soul well’s power, would tear them down and banish them in a dimensional pocket like the one Ahmed had trapped me in.¬† The Abrahamic gods, due to their inability to manifest bodies on Earth, were allowed to send angels in proxy.¬† Archangel Gabriel was their normal choice, and he was no lightweight, even compared to the war gods.

The countdowns ended, and the large containers of assault balls appeared, as always, and the war gods and Gabriel destroyed them almost instantly, like normal.  The gods and archangels could use their magical abilities to destroy the incoming devices before they were formed sufficiently to activate.

No creativity.

Not that I’d rather they be better fighters.

It was painful to watch the carnage, but about three hours later, Alvak announced total success.¬† Seven teams of Svartalves, four per team, had teleported through the portals to the other side, bypassing the battle completely.¬† They had reported from the other side that the environment found there would sustain Svartalve life, and that there was magic, but it wasn’t being manipulated within their sensing range.

I can’t even imagine how desperate the bugmen must be to keep attacking like this.

A great many rapid experiments had been performed, and the far side Svartalves were confident that their mission would be a success.¬† The Svartalves on the other side had then destroyed all seven of the bugmen’s portal generators, trapping themselves in the cross-layer dimensional space.

Twenty-eight Svartalves were now responsible for doing whatever was necessary to force the bugmen to first control their birthrate, and then to help them develop their bodies and technology to allow them to become a spacefaring race.  The Svartalves would only allow the opening of future cross-layer dimensional portals for peaceful purposes of exploration or trade.  Those transplanted Svartalves and their descendants would also protect that dimensional layer from attacks from yet other dimensional layers.

The geas on the Svartalve race would hold no matter where the race went, even to worlds with no magic, it was thought.  Svartalves had been into space, far from any magical source, to test their theories with extra care.

When Svartalves say they tested ‘with extra care’ I’m willing to take the results as ironclad.

The Svartalve racial geas was carefully designed, by Svartalves, to force any Svartalve that even thought they might have figured out a loophole in the geas to, first, not utilize the loophole, and, second, report the possible loophole to every other Svartalve they knew.  They must then communally figure out how to fix the geas and get rid of the loophole, after which point, they would create a god to adjust the geas, and then extinguish the god when the fix was in place.

Seeing the expressions of the human gods that heard the Svartalves explaining this had been hilarious.  Coyote had kept it to himself, not telling any of them.  The Svartalves had calmed the frightened gods by saying that it had taken the Svartalves forty million years of strict breeding programs to develop the ability to kill off their own gods.  The human gods just needed to prevent the human race from developing into a gestalt-capable mind.  Then, upon further questioning from Thoth, the Svartalves had explained how their eugenics program had worked, and I was the one that was sick.

Svartalves are scary as hell, sometimes.

I can’t even imagine what the Troodon must have been like.

I didn’t think the human gods needed be concerned, and they agreed with me as far as I knew.¬† Trillions of Svartalve hatchlings had been culled in the name of Svartalve racial self-improvement.¬† They had no mammal sensitivities about their young, though they did at least regret the necessity on some level.

At least they say they do.

Stop it.

If they wanted to do humans in, they could have already, easily.

They probably have hundreds of plans already drawn up, in case they need to.

Not that I’m going to ask.

Nothing was guaranteed, but with all Svartalves forced by racial geas to monitor and take actions to repair or improve their own racial geas, it should be self-preserving.  The only reason the Svartalves allowed such a geas was because they placed it upon themselves through their first temporary god, Valsom.

The inefficiency of including human tinkers in the Svartalve geas had annoyed Valsom, and he was also clear that he didn’t think the human gods could handle modifying the main geas on humans, so he had provided the human pantheon leaders a stripped down version of the Svartalve geas.¬† The geas was far less complex than the Svartalve geas, but it apparently satisfied the human gods, who implemented it.

A great deal of mental healing efforts had been put into helping Tinkers.  For some, it was a lost cause.  They had grown too accustomed to their own mental illnesses, and could not be cured without basically turning them into different people.  Others blossomed into fine mental health with minimal guidance.  Some had mixed results.  Jane, for example, was still extremely agoraphobic, rarely going outside, but she had lost most of her OCD tendencies.  The Svartalves fixed the tinkering genetic modifications so that the infused elementals and spirits of innovation in future tinkers would draw energy from metabolic processes, as opposed to other parts of the human mind.

“Alvak, Calvart, are there any mop-up operations ongoing?”

“No, Mr. Collins” was repeated in stereo.

I held out my hand to Karina, and spoke.¬† “Calvart, please call the Jinn and Jiniri with soul well fragments, and ask for them to return.¬† Alvak, please communicate with the gods and find out if there are any strange requirements for delivery, or if there are any complaints about any gods not doing their jobs appropriately.”

“Yes, Mr Collins.” Stereo again.

Karina handed me the strip of my leg, and I fitted it into place, watching as it wriggled slightly, healing back into place, almost instantly.  The other seven pieces of me arrived in short order, and were all fitted into place on my leg.  I now contained the soul energy of hundreds of thousands of dead bugmen.

I saw Anne and Danny arrive on camera, and made sure the red light on the door was lit so they knew not to enter yet.¬† Their escort Jiniri, however, needed to attend me, and opened the door, walking into the main cavern.¬† Fifi was there with Anne and Danny, and ran in circles around the two of them a couple times before flopping down on Danny’s feet, rather than on the floor.

Even temple guardians prefer a warm place to lay down.

The last Jiniri approached, and all ten of them held hands, except the Jinn and Jiniri nearest to me, who only held the hand of one partner.  They each reached out and I reached out to them as well.  As they touched me, I felt the heavy syrup sensation of the soul energy being drained from me through both arms.

I looked at Ali.¬† “Were you able to get it all, and evenly distribute it?”

“Yes, Zeke, everyone got an equal share.” Ali answered as he removed his hand from my wrist.

I stood, and then shifted back into my human self and pushed the base intercom. “Good job everyone.¬† You all know what to do from this point on.¬† Let Alvak or Calvart know if there are problems that you need help solving.¬† They’ll let me know if I need to know. ¬†There will be a cookout at my place tonight, if any of you want in, just show up.¬† I’m the grill-master tonight.¬† Beef burgers and turkey dogs.¬† If you want steaks, Danny will fire up the other grill.¬† Remember, no pork, please.¬† Bring your own anything else.¬† The grill shuts down at ten, the lights are out at midnight.” I released the button.

“See you there, Zeke!” Ali commented as he ran to one of the nearby walls, created a door, and stepped through it with a wave.

I made sure my phone was connected to the access point system, in case someone needed to reach me.¬† It was almost guaranteed that someone would probably think they needed me, and I’d end up pushing them off to the Svartalves unless it was something that actually needed my attention, like a social/people problem.

I pressed another button and the red light at the door turned green.  Anne and Danny pushed through, and I went to meet them, tucking my phone into the inner pocket of my windbreaker.

Anne gave me a hug, and I slapped Danny on the back.¬† Danny said he was going to get Jane from over at her mother’s, and I nodded.¬† Anne and I hurried back to the house to close all the blinds and make sure Jane’s ‘safe closet’ was in good order.

Human technicians and practitioners, and a couple of the Jinn and Jiniri arrived in short order, before I even had the charcoal lit.

Jamar saw my predicament and grinned.¬† “Don’t worry, Zeke, I missed giving fire to humankind by a few hundred thousand years, but I’ve got this, I think.”¬† The charcoal caught fire, and was immediately ready to cook on.

“Thanks Jamar!”¬† I quickly started tossing burgers and dogs on the grill.

After I had the grill covered with burgers and dogs, but before I had to carefully watch for flare-ups from dripping grease, I spent a moment looking up at the stars.¬† I couldn’t see them well through the smoke and with the outside floodlights on, but they were still there, winking.

I wish there had been a way to save you, Ahmed.

Anne walked up behind me and put her head on my shoulder. “Thinking about him again?”

I flipped a couple burgers that really didn’t need flipping yet.¬† “Yeah.¬† Is it that obvious?”

“When you look off into nowhere with that pain on your face, yes.¬† It’s obvious.¬† At least to me.¬† I’m sure the Jinn and Jiniri notice it too.¬† I bet it’s part of why they like you so much.”¬† She pushed me away from the grill a bit and pulled my head down, staring into my eyes.¬† “Happy thoughts, Zeke.¬† Think about what you and your team did today.”¬† She gave me a kiss on the nose.

Anne then produced a white chef’s hat and apron, which had apparently been tucked behind her back, made me put them on, and went back inside to work with Matty to make sure the non-grilling parts of the party went well.

I put myself on autopilot on the grill, thinking about what we’d managed today, finally.¬† The first step towards not just protecting Earth, but all Earths.¬† The organization I’d built wouldn’t stop alien invasions from other places in our dimension, but the Svartalves said that the number of dimensional layers was finite.¬† That meant, eventually, in a few hundred thousand years or so, we will have ended the possibility of all Earth-based cross-layer dimensional attacks.

I might even see that day.

I still knew almost nothing about magic.

I no longer wanted to know about magic.

Success isn’t magic – it just feels like it.

Prior Chapter

Arc 3, Balance 28

Prior Chapter      Next Chapter

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.”

“But…”

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.

Darkness.  Great.

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?”

“Yes.”

“Are they listening to us?”

“Yes.”

“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?”

“Yes, Zeke.”

“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.”

Prior Chapter      Next Chapter

Arc 3, Balance 27

Prior Chapter      Next Chapter

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.

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Arc 3, Balance 26

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A slender woman with no helmet and wearing what looked to be light leather armor ran across the sand to Thor as Odin slowly walked across the sand towards me and my family.¬† The two ravens perched on the tree-like throne on the opposite side of the circle of sand hopped off the branches, madly beating their wings very briefly before gliding with small adjustments of their wings to land on Odin’s shoulders.¬† The two wolves who had been sitting next to Odin’s throne stood and¬†walked over to meet Odin as he crossed the sand, falling in beside him, one to his left, and the other to his right.

I saw the woman look at Thor and Trainwreck briefly, before she turned and called for assistance while pointing one by one at nearby armored figures at the edge of the sand circle.¬† The ones she pointed at immediately ran across the sand to her and waited for her instruction. Two small floating carts, each being hauled by one of the flying goats began crossing the sand as a dozen people gripped Trainwreck’s armor and limbs to both lift him and support his bleeding, mangled arm.

As the two wolves padded up to Odin, his presence seemed to intensify in some way.  I was not able to look away from him, and everything else became peripheral.  Nor was I able to look at his face.  When I tried, my eyes slid off to look at a raven or a wolf instead.  My family, in my peripheral vision, appeared similarly entranced.

As he grew closer, I saw that Odin was not walking towards me, he was walking towards Coyote.¬† He stopped, a single pace from Coyote, and spoke.¬† “In the days that we both once thought were our greatest days, I would have spoken to Raven.”¬† His mouth quirked slightly.¬† “We share a common symbolism, though it is most of him and only part of me.¬† You have overtaken him, overshadowed him.”

Coyote nodded.¬† “For now, yes.¬† I hold no joy in supplanting his power and influence, and if he desires it back sufficiently, he will surely challenge me for it in time.¬† Our hierarchy is far more fluid than the Norse ways.¬† It is a little strange for me to find myself in a position as a benevolent deity, as no Native American deity has ever really been exclusively benevolent.¬† We were always capricious, changing, with many disparate cultures.¬† I worry for my brothers and sisters that I may turn some of them slightly more towards darkness as a balance to my benevolence.”

Odin merely stood, motionless, for a moment before responding.¬† “Without darkness, we cannot recognize light.”¬† He turned his head, clearly looking towards Loki, and then back at Coyote.¬† “We are defined by mortals, but you found a way to use mortal ways to shape their definition of yourself.¬† I cannot see any of the Norse gods doing the same.¬† As you say, your pantheon was always more fluid, unpredictable.¬† So many smaller human cultures with so many different views, less defined.”

Both Coyote and Odin turned to look as Thor cursed and batted hands away from him, forcing himself to stand after many hands finally removed Trainwreck off his legs and left arm.¬† The woman in leather calmly walked over to him, slapped him on the cheek hard enough to turn his head abruptly, and then began speaking rapidly, holding a finger under his nose.¬† I heard something about “Pig headed” and “Tell Sif”.¬† After a few seconds, Thor nodded, hung Mjolnir on his belt, shrugged, and then slowly walked over to one of the carts.¬† Two armored figures just happened to walk over and stand next to the back of the cart, pretending that they didn’t see Thor at all, and as he approached, they leaned against the tailgate of the cart, pushing it lower.

Thor turned and sat on the tailgate of the cart, without having to hop up, and then slapped good-naturedly at the arms of the two who had held the cart down for him, grimacing a bit.  They backed away, nodding as Thor leaned back into the bed of the cart with a loud groan.

Trainwreck was carefully being helped to his feet by at least ten people. Once he was standing, the woman in leather simply pointed at the other cart, and Trainwreck walked over to it, cradling his injured arm.¬† He stood next to the cart’s tailgate, and clearly didn’t trust the cart to hold his weight.¬† The woman in leather simply slapped the tailgate, and Trainwreck nodded reluctantly.¬† He turned around, and, while carefully holding his injured left arm with his right hand, backed up to the tailgate until he touched it with the backs of his knees before slowly sitting.¬† The cart sank down and nearly touched the sand.¬† He said something to the people around him, and several helpers grabbed his legs as he extended them, holding them down as he slowly let his torso down into the cart, going from a seated position to a lying one.¬† The front of the cart sank, and the tailgate raised.¬† The goat made a complaining noise as the cart creaked loudly.

Both Thor and Trainwreck were laying on heavy blankets and men pulled those blankets, pulling the two occupants fully onto their respective carts.

Trainwreck said something I couldn’t understand due to the deepness of his voice, and two of the assistants looked to Eir, who nodded.¬† The two then ran to collect Trainwreck’s wrench from the sand.¬† Between them they carried the weapon with only a little difficulty, but Trainwreck casually plucked it from their grasp with his right hand as they held it next to the bed of the cart.¬† After a moment, I heard the weapon clunk into the bed of the cart.

Though he lay on his back, Thor’s voice rose, loud enough to be heard by all around us.¬† “Continue the preparations!¬† We have been delayed enough.¬† Eir will have Trainwreck and me ready to fight before you have your warriors ready if you do not hurry!¬† Now, Eir, mend the two of us that we might battle, as these carts travel to the Jotunheim staging point.”

The circle of armored figures around the sand seemed to explode at that statement, almost everyone running away at a fast jog, except Odin, Loki, Eir, the two cart drivers, the warriors Eir had asked to help her, and everyone who had come with me, including the Raven Guard and Heimdallr.¬† She dismissed all but one of her assistants after questioning them, and pointed the last of them at Trainwreck’s cart.¬† The warrior leaned in, over the low side of the cart, and a few seconds later stood up straight, and ran off while carrying the red and black twisted pieces of Trainwreck’s arm armor.

Eir issued a command and both carts began to move.¬† As they began to move, she walked over to Trainwreck’s cart, reaching in and doing something I could not see.¬† As the carts moved farther away, she could be seen moving back and forth, from cart to cart.

Odin turned back to Coyote.¬† “What you did wasn’t unnoticed.”

Coyote shrugged.¬† “I only offered advice, and I did both ask permission and receive it.¬† Nor do I mind terribly if others know.”¬† He glanced towards Loki, who was simply standing to the left of Odin’s throne, watching Coyote and Odin speak, occasionally raising his golden goblet to his mouth.

Coyote made a small gesture, and there was an angry noise from Loki’s direction.¬† As I looked towards him, I saw Loki wiping his face with a handkerchief.¬† His goblet was missing.

Peripherally, I saw Coyote tucking his long cane under his left arm, so I turned back to him, and saw that he was nonchalantly holding a golden goblet in front of him, cleaning it out slowly and carefully with a handkerchief.  After inspecting the inside of the goblet, Coyote casually tucked it into the inner pocket of his immaculate white jacket.

Odin commented, with a little smile, “I don’t remember giving you permission to take that, Coyote.”

Heimdallr stared menacingly in Coyote’s direction.¬† “I told you the tableware wouldn’t be safe with him around, Lord Odin.”

Coyote raised one hand to his forehead and shook his head.¬† “I just couldn’t resist, and was caught red-handed, oh dreary day.” There was a barely audible thump noise from Loki’s direction, and when I looked, Loki was gone.

When I looked back, Heimdallr was looking at where Loki had been standing, and was smiling.

Coyote looked at me, and then lifted his hand to his forehead, and drew a single claw across from side to side across the entire width of his sloped forehead above his eyes.¬† Blood flowed for a second, staining his fur, and then stopped.¬† The fur stayed red across his forehead. He looked me in the eyes, and said.¬† “Oops.¬† Looks like I lost.¬† It was bound to happen sooner or later, I suppose.”

I don’t get it.

Odin chuckled. “Was that the price Thor required of you?¬† A loss for a loss?”

Coyote nodded.¬† “A sacrifice I was intending to make at a later time in any case, but the symbolism was powerful.”

If Thor and Coyote made some sort of deal, why are they letting us know?

Odin stared at me.¬† “Knowledge is power.¬† It’s also dangerous.¬† You have learned that, though you can’t remember it now.¬† Your family did not hear the conversation you did, they heard simple banalities which will seem appropriate to them.”

Odin turned away and walked towards his throne again, after he was able to take a few steps, I was able to ask.¬† “Lord Odin, won’t Thor be weaker now?¬† He lost.”

Odin didn’t turn around.¬† “A little, but not much. ¬†He lost to trickery, in a friendly match, to a friendly warrior, in front of a mostly sympathetic crowd who was angry at Loki, not at either Thor or Trainwreck.¬† Trainwreck is imposing and is undefeated in his last eleven matches with other Einherjar, since he started training with Tyr.¬† The Einherjar recognize him as a powerful warrior.”¬† Odin never paused as he kept walking.¬† “Don’t think that Thor threw the match though.¬† He told you true, he would not do that.¬† Remember that the gods that were amongst us here, and there were several present besides the ones you know of, can see intent, and Thor is very easy to read, for a god.¬† He merely dragged out the match in order to allow Coyote the opportunity to help Trainwreck find an opportunity to win, with Coyote merely offering ideas, similar to what spectators at any contest of arms might be expected to offer.¬† Rather good ideas, as it turned out.¬† Nobody’s managed to use Mjolnir against Thor in that way before.”¬† A pause.¬† “Nobody is likely to be able to use that same tactic to defeat him again, either.¬† Thor will value the lesson.”

Odin reached his tree-throne, and turned to sit.¬† With a brief fluttering of heavy wings, the ravens hopped off his shoulders into the overhanging branches of the throne.¬† The wolves at Odin’s sides walked to either side of the throne, turned around, and laid down.¬† “Enough of the past.¬† Let us now be concerned with the future.¬† Anne Collins.¬† Are you prepared to accept the offer of a boon for your husband’s benefit, and did you listen carefully to Sigrun, whom I did bid to speak to you frankly about my expectations and the dangers associated with asking for an inappropriate boon?”

Anne cleared her throat and spoke in a small voice.¬† “Yes, to both, Lord Odin.”

“I grant you a boon then, Anne Collins, to use on your husband’s behalf, in exchange for helping to bring a new warrior to Asgard, helping to cement his reputation as a warrior, and offering closure to his family.”

Anne squeezed my hand hard, I heard my knuckles pop and felt them grind together a bit.¬† “Lord Odin, on my husband’s behalf I ask for the full restoration of his body, mind, and soul.”

Odin nodded his head.¬† “Very well then.¬† However, I will need your husband to come to me and stand before my throne to receive the boon.¬† If I were to gift him where he stands, he would render all of you, his family, to attack him as he is restored.¬† I do not believe this is what you wish him to experience as his first memories after recovery.”

Her husband?¬† Oh, that’s me.

I stepped out onto the sand, walking directly across towards Odin’s throne, nearly a hundred feet away.¬† I could hear Coyote and Heimdallr asking my family to step back to a safer distance, and mumblings of agreement from them as they agreed.

Odin looked at me as I walked up.¬† “It all seems like some sort of soap opera to you, doesn’t it, Zeke Collins?¬† The gods playing our little mental games with each other, and with you.¬† Mortals being made into pawns.¬† We seem like a dysfunctional family, and yet, we’re supposed to be more than human.”

Lying to Odin seems like a bad idea.

“I don’t understand it, Lord Odin.¬† Not now.”

Odin smiled, and said nothing.

I stopped two paces from the throne, standing before him.¬† “Should I kneel, Lord Odin?”

“Not in a private audience.¬† Not for a boon.”¬† Odin paused.¬† “However, I will ask that you lay on your back on the sand, as you will not be able to remain standing, kneeling, or even seated during the healing.”

The healing that Thor wanted to avoid.

Odin’s face grew solemn.¬† “Yes, Zeke Collins, your caution is appropriate.¬† This healing will be unpleasant, but in your case, I will say that staying unhealed would be more painful.”

I sat on the sand and then let myself down until I was prone on my back.  I wriggled around a bit, forming the sand to fit me.  After I had a comfortable nest of sand, before I even realized what I was doing, I found myself swinging my legs and arms to create a distinctive shape in the sand.

When I looked at Odin, I swore there was the last trace of a smile on his face, before his features grew a little sad.¬† “I apologize to the child in you, Zeke.”

Odin held out his hands in front of him, above the level of his shoulders, and his ravens hopped down out of the branches of the tree-throne onto his hands.¬† When they were perched, Odin drew them close to his face.¬† “Huginn and Muninn, I have granted a boon to this man’s wife on his behalf, and she has requested the full restoration of his body, mind, and soul.¬† Most of the damage is to the mind, your realm.¬† His soul appears undamaged.¬† Repairing his mind will allow him to attend to the perfect healing of his body.¬† This task falls to you.¬† Fly!”

With the command to ‘Fly!’ Odin raised his hands rapidly, and both ravens spread their wings, flapping rapidly with loud rustling, shrieking “CAW” at a volume that seemed difficult to believe, coming from forms so small.¬† As their wings caught the air, they appeared to be flying towards me, but they were not growing larger.

I can’t move.

The ravens’ wings were moving as if they were flying, and they were facing me, but they still seemed to be the same size.

Something is wrong.

I tried to blink but I couldn’t.¬† The ravens had pulled in their wings and seemed to be diving like hawks, straight at me, but they now seemed to be getting smaller.

There was a pain in each eye, and the ravens were gone.

A great claw with talons as large as a backhoe boom descended and ripped Odin, his throne, and his wolves away.  I heard another colossal impact behind me, and saw my family, Coyote, Heimdallr, and the Raven Guard similarly ripped away by another massive claw.

No!  Mom, Pops!  Anne!  Danny!

I stood up off the sand, and started running after the monstrous raven that was carrying Odin and his throne in one claw, and my family in the other.  As I ran, I heard more turmoil behind me, stone tearing and falling.  The Earth itself shuddered, and I saw a second huge raven using both claws to cut into the rock, tearing great rents in it, until it broke loose the circle of sand, and carried it away, leaving only darkness where there was once stone and sand.

Odin’s ravens have gone mad and attacked him and my family, I have to go get Thor!

I panicked, and ran in the direction that Thor and Trainwreck had been taken.  A moment later, I found myself at the copper gates, but they were closed.  The portcullis was down, its bottom ends embedded in stone.

Thor didn’t go this way!

There was nobody near that I could see.¬† I yelled at the top of my lungs.¬† “Help, please.¬† Odin’s ravens have gone mad!¬† They took my family!”

Nobody answered.

Moments after the first echo of my scream for help came back to my ears, there was a terrible “CAW” of tremendous volume, and a great beak broke through the rock in the ceiling, gripped the copper gate and its portcullis, and effortlessly ripped them both from their moorings.¬† I watched the raven fly away with the gate and portcullis in its beak, bits and pieces of huge machinery that had been hidden within the walls were visibly hanging from the ends of the gates.

I ran through the gap where the copper gate had been, into the room where the goat drawn cart had let us out, looking for all the footmen and drivers, they had all had swords!

I found the other raven ahead of me, already sweeping all the carts, footmen, and drivers together into a pile with its wings.

I’ve never seen a bird sweep with its wings like that.

The raven looked at me and screamed “CAW” as it sank its talons into the stone on either side of the pile of carts, goats, and people.¬† The huge bird¬†heaved itself into the air, ripping a chunk of rock out of the ground that was the size of a football field, carrying away the pile of carts, goats, and people like a server’s entr√©e platter.

Nobody’s even trying to fight them.¬† Nobody else can move.

As I stood, dumbfounded, I felt more hideously powerful tremors, and talons the size of battleships appeared through the walls of the cavern.¬† A moment later, the entire top of the mountain was wrenched off and carried away by¬†a raven so large that I couldn’t even begin to comprehend its size.

What’s happening?

How do I stop this?

What do I do?

A thunderous “CAW” came from behind me.¬† Despite their size, the ravens made no noise when they flew.¬† As I turned, the building-sized raven behind me cocked its head slightly.¬† It looked just like the head movement of a hen preparing to catch a grasshopper.

I ran, as fast as I could, finding myself, somehow, a few moments later, at the bridge gatehouse with Hildr, Sigrun, Brightarrow and Starshine, next to the rainbow road.

“Hildr, Sigrun, Help, please!¬† I’m being chased by giant ravens!”

“Nooooo!” was all I could manage to scream as a monstrous shadow blocked the light, and two massive claws came out of nowhere, one scooped up the kiosk at the end of the rainbow road, and the other closed over Hildr, Sigrun, and their mounts.¬† The raven flew off, screaming its cry of “CAW!”

A moment later the other raven appeared, this one was so massive it was able to grab the bridge in one claw, and the rainbow road in the other.  A beak the size of a skyscraper speared into the ground next to me, and I fell into nothingness as I watched the stupendous-sized raven carry off a stone bridge that I remembered must be a mile long, and a road that must have been fifty miles long.

A moment later, I found myself in a room, with Cupcake and Octagon, eating a cheeseburger.  One raven smashed through the side of the building and grabbed my cheeseburger, and another, much larger one grabbed Cupcake and Octagon, and took them away as well.

A raven carried away the Grand Canyon, and another carried away a thousand miles of highway.

I watched an entire lake get ripped out of the ground, and then a black and white house with a red barn, where I had met… someone.

A great metropolis, carried away.

A vast landscape of ferns, ripped away by raven claws.

There was nothing left.¬† The ravens had taken it all.¬† And yet I couldn’t remember what they had taken, just that it was gone.¬† And yet, there were stars.¬† Tiny pinpricks of light, and they called to me.¬† I reached out to one and took it into my hand.¬† When I looked at it closely, I saw a woman giving birth.¬† “CAW!” a raven swooped past me, ripping the pinprick of light out of my hand.¬† I punched at the raven as it passed, to no effect, it was too fast, already out of reach before I realized it was attacking.

I can at least save some of these stars from the ravens, I hope!

I grabbed another star, and held it, closely guarded, within both of my hands, fingers interlocked.¬† I held the double-fist up to my eye and gapped the thumbs apart, slightly to look at the shiny star I had collected.¬† A marriage.¬† A beautiful woman whose name I couldn’t remember, and a man that looked a lot like someone I thought I should know, but somehow I felt they were taller and thinner than the one they looked like, whoever that was.¬† I stared at the image for a while, cupped protectively between my hands.¬† All of a sudden my head was being buffeted painfully by wings.¬† I raised my hands to protect my head and a raven streaked by and grabbed the star I had tried to save, carrying it away.

I started trying to set traps for the ravens.  I would grab for a star, and a raven would try to beat me to it, and I would sacrifice the star to strike the raven.  Occasionally I managed to hit them, but never to any effect.  The ravens grew faster.

A young child, maybe eight, with red hair, Ali, I remembered that name!  Stolen by a raven.

A company, Exactitude, stolen.

A young woman in armor, Miss Perfect, Stolen.

An invasion of human-sized bugs.  Ripped away.

Space elves.  Gone

Blindside and Mindblade.  Mirage and Fiction.  Grabbed away by talons.

A tall middle-eastern man, old but in good shape, with a heavy jaw and¬†a cane he really didn’t need.¬† Ahmed. Snatched out of my hands.

A small dinosaur, laying on the ground.  Ahmed.  Pulled away

A voice on the phone, threatening my family.¬† Gorgon.¬† I didn’t even try to keep the ravens from taking that star.

Invisible beings that fixed my armor.  Valsom and the Svartalves.  No longer mine.

Me as a giant, pitch black man-shaped sponge that made everyone hate me.  A black beak ripped it away.

There were no more stars.  I stood in featureless blackness.  I could vaguely remember that there used to be something else, but there was only blackness.

There was a fantastic tearing noise, and even the darkness was stolen away, two black shapes dragging the darkness away behind them in long streamers, easily visible against the whiteness, the nothing.

In the far distance, I saw the two dark shapes stop at a dark speck, and I willed myself to move towards them.  They appeared to be weaving strips of darkness and sparkles of light into a concave object, rounded at the bottom.  There were many other things woven into the construction. I recognized none of it, but it was something in the nothingness, and I could not resist approaching.

They apparently finished their weaving, and one of them turned to me.  Before I even realized that I might be in danger, I was grabbed and swallowed.

Is this the end?

The end of what?

Too small in here.

Cramped.  Dark.

I tried to stretch, no room.

My knees were against my chest, my head bowed forward, slightly between my knees, my arms were crossed, and my hands and forearms trapped against my chest.

No leverage.

I pushed my right elbow out and rubbed it against the surface there.  Smooth.  I drew my elbow back a couple inches, and slapped it against the wall, harder.  I heard something crack.  I felt with my left elbow as well, another smooth surface.  I started slamming my right and left elbows against the walls of my prison, being rewarded by cracking noises.

The going was slow, but eventually, there was light, as part of my prison fell away beneath my left elbow.

Let me out!

I began slamming my heels against the prison as well as I could, and the back of my head.  More cracking noises, more bits of light from my left.  A little discomfort, the light was bright.  Some light started coming from the right as well, and I could see bits of light from where the prison was cracking.

I went just a little mad at that point, slamming my elbows and feet and the back of my head against my prison harder than before, and all of a sudden, my elbows both broke through.  I was then able to free my arms from against my chest and use my fists and forearms effectively, quickly breaking larger and larger holes in my prison, and eventually, with a scream, I smashed both my feet and head against the prison, while pushing my arms straight away from my chest.

The wall in front of my knees and chest broke through, and the top and bottom of the prison broke away.  I was blinded by the sudden, full light.  As my eyes cleared, and shapes started to form, I saw that I was laying under a tree, and in the tree were two ravens, staring at me.

I tried to scramble madly away from my attackers on my back, but there was a calm voice.¬† “Zeke Collins, it is over.”

“CAW” the two ravens shrieked in unison, staring down at me, hopping from leg to leg.

I cringed away from the sound of the destroyers with a spray of sand, moving a small distance before raising my hands to protect myself, and the voice spoke again.¬† “Huginn, Muninn, please go check on Thor’s healing and the preparations for the defense of the realm.”

The ravens ducked their heads, sounding like they were laughing for a moment, before taking off with a loud flapping of wings.

That same calm voice spoke again.¬† “It is normal to experience a fear of ravens, crows, and other large, dark-colored birds for a time after Huginn and Muninn heal a mind.¬† The fear is sometimes permanent.”¬† He paused a moment.¬† “They know nothing of gentleness.”

I looked around and saw who was speaking to me, but barely registered what the large, seated man with the salt and pepper beard and one eye was saying.  The hands I held in the air were pitch black.

The memories flooded in, stunning me.

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