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 entrée 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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Arc 3, Balance 25

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There was an almost angry mutter from the crowd, which was completely different than what I was expecting.  These guys seemed to like fighting, and being warriors.

Why are they mad?

Heimdallr had stopped watching Coyote so he could stare at Loki, a stare that made me shiver even though I wasn’t being looked at.  Both of Odin’s Ravens, and Odin himself were staring at Loki still.  It really looked like he might launch himself at Loki any second.

Then I glanced at Thor and wished I hadn’t.  Thor was intimidating before.  Big, rough, wearing armor, with those electric blue eyes most of the Norse gods seemed to have.  When I looked at him this time, he appeared ready to explode.  Maybe literally.  His eyes were the source of visible arcs of electricity which traveled across his face, and down his neck to his torso, before crawling over the rest of his body. “Loki!  You DARE use me in one of your manipulative plots?  I will break both your legs and throw you off the bridge!”

People were moving away from Thor, quickly, except for Odin and Loki.

Thor started walking towards Loki, pulling Mjolnir from his belt, and putting his helmet on his head with practiced precision.  Odin interposed himself between the rapidly approaching Thor and Loki, who was examining the fingernails of the hand holding his goblet.  “He has the right, Thor, son, unless you believe yourself to be strongly overmatched in a physical contest with the challenging Einherjar?”

“Of course not.  He cannot match me.  In a purely physical melee, I would pit myself even against you, Father, with near certainty of victory.”  Thor carefully moved to the side so that Odin was not between him and Loki, and launched a gobbet of spit at Loki.

Loki looked bored, but did something, and the spit never hit him, disappearing.

How can I see all this?  I’m watching spit in the air at over a hundred feet.

Maybe Heimdallr is helping us, like Coyote made me faster? 

Heimdallr glanced at me for a moment, almost like I had called his name, and nodded, very briefly.  Still very angry-looking, but the anger was clearly not meant for me.  Then he turned back to watching Odin, Thor, and Loki.

“Father, when I win this contest, no matter how well he fights, Chris Smith is repudiated as a warrior by his own challenge, that in turn leaves Zeke Collins with no warrior to stand for him.  If I lose this contest, all of Asgard might suffer, as confidence in my battle prowess is a great part of why I am as powerful in battle as I am.  I lead the host, from the front, I must be as powerful as I can be.”

“This is true, son.  And yet it doesn’t matter.”

“How can it not matter, father?  Give me fifteen minutes with him.  Loki will retract his challenge to Chris Smith’s warrior status, you will be free to grant a warrior’s boon to Zeke Collins, and I will go lead the host against the Jotunn who are massing even now.”

“Asgard will then be free of law and tradition will hang in tatters.”  Odin spoke, in cold words.  Loki was smiling and Odin was looking at Thor with nearly as much anger as he had directed at Loki before.  “My power is grounded in people’s faith in my wisdom, in the faith that the rules, laws, and tradition that I force others to obey are just.  If I start encouraging lawlessness, I may well become lawless, and in turn we might all become lawless, chaotic.  How well would Asgard fare then?”

Odin stared at Loki.  “Yes, Thor, Loki has made us both angry, but I will sacrifice Chris Smith, I will sacrifice Zeke Collins, I will sacrifice even your strength for a time and lead the hosts myself, if need be, in order to avoid the risk of anarchy taking roost in my being, because Asgard might not survive it.”  Odin paused, and then pointed at his missing eye and Thor flinched back.  “I didn’t give this eye for no reason, and I see much clearer now than ever I did before Zeke Collins’ victory over Ahmed.  Obey me.  Fight your battle with Chris Smith.  One fall.  I recognize your choice is a hard one, but I have no choice.  You will not force your brother to change his mind by torture, and if you insist on trying, I will banish you, which will rob the host of all of your prowess, not just part of it.”

Odin sat in his throne.  “It is not right for a father to have such dark thoughts directed at his son, Loki.  One day, you will cross a line that I cannot ignore.  I can see those days now.  Some of them are very soon, others are thousands of years from now.  You are no longer playing games with a father who is half blinded.  You might be more powerful after Ahmed’s passing, but you were touched less heavily by him than I was.  I will say no more, as I will not take away your free will.  Think on it.”

Loki stared at Odin, bit his lip, and then smiled.  “Yes, Father.”

If anyone ever looked like they were going to have a stroke, at that point, Thor did.  He spun on his heels and walked towards the sand circle.  After he stepped onto the sand, he pointed Mjolnir at Chris Smith, and said “Bide a moment, and we will have our contest.”

Then Thor walked towards us, quickly crossing the sand with long strides, his red braids slapping against his chest and back, staring me in the eyes, and I couldn’t look away.

I’m glad I can’t be scared, or else I think I’d be scared right now.

My family cringed back in the face of Thor’s angry presence, while Coyote merely stared at him.  “My brother and father have earned my ire, you have not, and yet it touches you anyhow.  I apologize for the fear that grips you from my very presence, but I must explain.”

Heimdallr spoke quietly, “Milord, please.” and made a hesitant pushing motion in front of his chest.

Thor stared at Heimdallr for a moment, and then took two steps back.  “Apologies.  I cannot, I will not lose this contest, because Asgard needs my strength.”  He spun in place, and started walking towards the center of the circle of sand.  “Do not consider yourself lost in childhood forever, Zeke Collins, I vow that we will find a way to restore you.  You have given a gift beyond measure to the gods.  Odin is not the only god who might heal you, and Coyote is not the only god unafraid to visit other pantheons.”

Coyote’s voice rang out. “I would be greatly indebted to you, Thor, if you would allow me to accompany you in order to see you acting as a diplomat.  Please, please allow me to accompany you.  Especially if you go visit the Greek or Roman Pantheons.”

Thor stopped, stock still, and turned to face us.  After a moment, he pointed Mjolnir at Coyote.  “Thank you for that bit of humor.  Since you can’t steal the only thing that really matters to me, that isn’t a part of me, I would be happy to have your company.  I’ve heard you’ve started walking a lighter path.”

He turned back towards the huge man waiting in the center of the sand.  “You, Einherjar.  Do you understand that if repudiated, Odin has the choice of releasing you alive into the world, or ending your existence?”

“Yes, Milord, I understand.”

“If you renounce your challenge, I will ask that you be released into the world, and I am confident that Odin will allow this to happen?”  Thor ended the statement that was actually a question while looking at Odin, who nodded.

Thor continued.  “You won’t be as you were, but you will be as you are now.  If you do not renounce your challenge, you may risk showing cowardice when facing me.  You are not now what you were before.”

“Thor, Milord, I like it here.  I think I’ll stay.  Please, if you would though, do me a favor and call me Trainwreck, and ask everyone else to do the same.  I’ll understand if your esteemed father and my ex-patron choose to call me differently.”

“You think you’ll stay.”  Thor paused.  “As easily as that, and with confidence too.  I see fear in you, but you leash it.  Yes.  I will call you Trainwreck, the name you used on Earth.  The name you will use there again, I hope.  Whatever happens here, don’t let your fear control you, and I’m sure you will return to this place, later, and I’ll damn well sponsor you.”

“Thank you, Milord.  Besides, I promised I’d teach a few of the other Einherjar how to cook mangos on the barbie.”  His voice grew even deeper, angry.  “My sponsor branded my eyelids and drilled a hole in my head while he held me immobile with magic.  I wish it were him facing me now, but I don’t back down from a fight, not even a fight I’ll probably lose.  My life on Earth was a fight I was slowly losing for years because of Jaxr within me.  I know what fear is.  I defeated it years ago.  Are you ready to start yet?”

Thor laughed.  “Definitely.  You’re coming back.  And I’ll be first in line to try these ‘mangos on the barbie’ of yours.  Gird yourself… Trainwreck.”  Thor turned to face Odin.  “Father, would you please have one of your ravens speak when the fight should start?”

“Caw.” A raven screamed immediately.

Thor threw himself forward as Trainwreck’s huge wrench passed through where his torso had just been.  “I’ll take that as a ‘yes’, Father.”

Odin said nothing, but I could see a small grin on his face.

The crowd did not like this fight.  There was a lot of unhappy muttering.

Thor quickly picked himself off of hands and knees, turning to face Trainwreck, who was striding forward, swinging again, this time towards Thor’s legs.  “I won’t hold my father’s prank against you, Trainwreck.”

Thor easily leapt over the incoming blow at his legs, jumping at least five or six feet straight up with no apparent effort.  “I know you’re faster than that.  I have seen you practice.  Don’t think to fool me that way.”

Trainwreck shrugged, saying nothing, and gripped his wrench two-handed, moving closer to Thor, who simply ducked and dodged Trainwreck effortlessly.

“Good, good balance, good form.  It’s hard to tell if it’s your best form, since I’ve never seen anyone better than you that’s anywhere near your size, but whoever’s been teaching you has done an excellent job.  Name them.  I will know who trained you so well.”

Trainwreck said nothing for a moment, but then spoke a single word. “Tyr”

“You don’t speak when you fight?”

Trainwreck shook his head slightly, and struck again, faster than before.

Thor barely dodged, and exclaimed “Excellent blow!  I’ll speak for us both then.”

Loki’s voice broke in.  “Stop playing with the troll, brother, and end it.  You have a battle to attend to, and the more time you waste here, the longer it will take for you to engage the Jotunn.”

“Loki, shut up.”  Thor’s body coruscated with lightning again.

Trainwreck, instead of attacking Thor directly, slashed the end of his wrench into the sand, like he was trying to get a golf ball out of a sand trap, and a heavy spray of sand splashed towards Thor.  It was clear that Thor saw the attack coming but couldn’t dodge, so he threw his left arm up, over his eyes.

Yes!

As soon as Thor’s arm came up, Trainwreck threw his wrench at Thor’s legs, but the sand had apparently not blinded Thor as hoped, and the arm didn’t keep him from seeing the flying giant wrench in time to react to it.  Thor leaped into the air, and Trainwreck, in his fastest movement yet, rushed to try to catch him while he was still in the air.  Thor obviously saw the sequence of attacks coming though, and spun Mjolnir rapidly before making a throwing motion with his right arm.  Trainwreck’s hands passed through the empty space where Thor had been.

“Tyr did not teach you that.”  Thor spoke, but Trainwreck said nothing.  “Enough of this.  Loki is right, as much as it burns my mouth to say so.  Lives may be lost in the time I waste in this fight.”

Trainwreck said nothing, merely moving quickly towards his wrench and picking it back up.

Thor set his shoulders and started walking quickly, straight towards Trainwreck, who aimed a huge blow at him.  I noticed Coyote covering his ears.  As he was continuing to walk up to Trainwreck, Thor held out Mjolnir with his right hand, in the path of Trainwreck’s wrench, and allowed the ten-foot-long several inches thick barrel of the wrench to strike the flat top of Mjolnir’s stone head with all of Trainwreck’s strength behind it.

The sound was catastrophic, briefly, but it didn’t hurt.

I could feel wetness in my ears though, and I couldn’t hear any more.

I could still see though, and as I watched, Thor pulled both arms back towards his ears, allowing Mjolnir’s strap at the base of the pommel to slide down his right arm to his elbow.  Trainwreck didn’t seem to be affected, or maybe he had just been expecting it, but he had charged Thor again.  Thor’s eyes widened, and his arms stopped moving towards his ears, and started to move the other way, to grapple with Trainwreck.

My hearing was restored, and my stomach grumbled madly.  Out of the corner of my eye I saw Coyote’s finger leave my shoulder, and touch Anne, who had been holding her head.  He moved towards Mom and Pops next.  Mom was gripping Pops in a panic, and Pops was hugging Mom.  Blood was running out of Pops’ ears.  Danny seemed calm, there was blood at his ears, but he was holding his stomach.

Trainwreck and Thor met, and it was almost comical.  Trainwreck, despite the fact that he was hugely larger than Thor looked almost like he had run into a brick wall, and Thor was standing, back unbent, casually keeping Trainwreck from getting a grip on him, striking Trainwreck’s hands away with terrific force, mailed gauntlet against mailed gauntlet.  It looked like a fourth grader fighting a professional wrestler, and winning.

“I can see your intent, Trainwreck.  I’m also faster than you, stronger than you, more skilled than you, even without Mjolnir, even if I had no weapon at all, this fight was over before it began.”  Thor paused.  “You cannot wield Mjolnir.  Trying to use him against me is something others have tried, and all have failed, but I can see you’re going to try anyway.”

Time slowed down for me, I looked over at Coyote, who winked at me.  Trainwreck’s left hand, with an open palm, was striking towards Thor’s right elbow, clearly aiming for Mjolnir, where it hung at Thor’s right elbow.  Because Thor had been lifting his arms high to defend against Trainwreck’s much greater height, that put Mjolnir at mid-chest level.  Thor wasn’t even trying to block the blow

He’s desperate.  Everyone knows that only Thor can wield his hammer.

As I watched, Trainwreck’s hand reached Mjolnir’s handle, but he didn’t close his hand, he just kept pushing with his palm.  I watched as Thor’s arm bent back a little bit with the force of Trainwreck’s push against Mjolnir, and Mjolnir also swayed back, towards Thor’s chest.

Thor’s eye’s started to open wide as Trainwreck’s fingers began to close around the head of Mjolnir, his absurdly oversized thumb and forefinger in a ‘u’ around the base of the stone head, and his other fingers starting to wrap around Mjolnir’s stone head like a normal man’s hand around a baseball.  Trainwreck’s entire weight pushing forward, still driving Mjolnir towards Thor, though Thor himself hardly budged.

Coyote apparently turned off the speed-up at that moment, because everything got really fast again.  When Trainwreck’s hand closed on Mjolnir’s head, he and Thor simply disappeared, and a cloud of dust appeared where they had been.  There were also a bunch of cracking noises, two screams of pain, and a huge thump, all of which happened almost instantly.

Thor’s voice came out of the dust.  “Take your hand off Mjolnir.”

“I’m afraid I can’t, milord,” Trainwreck’s voice.  “I appear to have grown a new elbow, and my fingers are trapped.”

“So you have.  Eir should be able to help with the extra elbow.  Oof.  Give me a few seconds, and I’ll help you let go of Mjolnir.  I think.”

As the dust settled, at first, all I could see was a vague lump with an arm sticking straight up, wriggling around while Thor made pained noises, accompanied by “Ow.  Broken ribs.  I hate broken ribs.”

As the dust cleared more, I saw that Thor was laying on his back, and Mjolnir was sitting in the middle of his chest, the handle facing to Thor’s right, still wrapped around Thor’s right arm, but above the elbow now.

Wow!  Thor is on his back, what about Trainwreck?

Trainwreck was face down, laying across Thor’s legs and left arm, and his arm was definitely badly broken.  The left forearm and the armor it contained were severely bent in the middle.  There was blood dripping out of the left elbow and wrist of Trainwreck’s armor.

“Sorry about your ribs, milord.”

“I’ll survive, Trainwreck.”

Odin entered my field of view, walking towards the two fallen fighters as I watched them struggling with very small motions, to get Thor’s right arm free of Mjolnir’s strap, so he could put his hand on Mjolnir’s handle and lift it.

“You two look like you might need a little bit of help.”  He leaned over with his right hand and touched Mjolnir’s handle, his left hand bracing his spear into the sand for balance.

Thor gasped.  “Need might be too strong a word, Father.”

Odin stood back up and scratched his beard with his right hand.  “Oh?  What word would be good, Thor?”

Trainwreck gasped and then started talking in that absurdly deep voice of his.  “Lord Odin, need is a perfectly good sounding word to me.  Mjolnir hit your son pretty hard, he might be having problems with his vocabulary, especially after he created a new word just a short time ago.  I suspect that there is only so much room for words up there, and making up a new one will probably cause problems for hours, if not days.”

Thor chuckled. “Ow.” His arm moved weakly against the strap holding his arm.  “Father, I think Trainwreck is right.  Clearly, need is an appropriate word.”

Odin chuckled and leaned over again, carefully lifting Mjolnir off Thor’s chest, which freed Trainwreck’s hand.  With the trapped, anchoring fingers free to move again, Trainwreck’s arm collapsed onto Thor’s lower chest and both of them hissed loudly, cursing under their breath. Meanwhile, Odin carefully pulled Mjolnir’s strap up and over Thor’s arm, and then set it to the side.  Thor’s right hand unerringly found the handle without his head appearing to move at all.

“Eir will be here shortly, unless you would prefer my healing, either of you?” Odin asked

Thor immediately spoke.  “No, Father, I’ll wait for Eir, please.  Trainwreck, wait for Eir.  Trust me.”

Trainwreck didn’t say anything, and didn’t move.  He was still breathing though, and his chest was moving.

That doesn’t sound good.

Thor is afraid of Odin’s healing, and that’s what I’m here for.

Odin laughed.  “Thor, you find someone who can beat you in a match by trickery, and you already like them well enough that you have them disrespecting you and are trying to teach them to disrespect me.”  He paused.  “Chris Smith, Trainwreck, Thor gives good advice.  You don’t want the healing I offer unless you are desperate.  Wait for Eir.”

Trainwreck’s voice rumbled, a little muffled because his face was facing the ground.  “Yes, Lord Odin.”

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Arc 3, Balance 24

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I was stunned, and stopped walking until Anne tugged on my hand and I started walking again.  “Odin buys stuff for Asgard through the Seer’s Catalog?”

Sigrun “Not anymore Zeke, but he has.  These days, we use the internet.  There’s a warehouse in Sweden that we maintain for purchasing goods.  There’s no internet connection between Midgard and Asgard.”

“The what?  What’s an internet?”

Everyone started laughing, even Mom.

“What’s so funny?” I could feel myself beginning to get a little upset.  “I don’t get it.”

Danny spoke up behind me.  “They’re just making fun of you, Dad.  You don’t remember the internet because it barely existed thirty years ago.  I’m sure Grandma and Pops didn’t have internet then.  Mostly it was universities on the internet back then, and some big companies.”

Dad?!  Oh that’s right.

Danny is my son.

That’s so weird.

Mom had just finished saying something and was holding up a little black and silver box in front of her that looked like a picture frame for a small photo.  I searched my memory for what she had just said and was able to remember.  “Still don’t.  Except for the phone anyway.”

Then it hit me.  Nobody had said how many years it had been.  Maybe I had been afraid of thinking about the numbers.  I hadn’t really tried to figure it out.  “It’s been thirty years?” I tried to wrap my mind around that.  Thirty years.  I was missing more than three quarters of my life.

Gone.  Thirty years.

Anne and my mother pulled their hands out of mine, exclaiming in pain.  I looked down and my fists were clenched tightly.  “I’m sorry Mom and Anne.  I didn’t mean to.”

Mom was rubbing her left hand with her right.  “Son, don’t apologize.  You’re hurting, and us laughing at you isn’t helping.”

Anne reached out her right hand and put it around my left.  “Not much longer, Zeke, and Odin will try to make you the man you used to be, like we agreed.”

“I hope it’s soon.  I feel stupid.”

Pops stopped, and I almost bumped into him as he turned around and planted himself in front of me with a stern expression on his face.  He reached out and a little up, cupping my chin in his right hand, lifting my head up, where I had been looking down at the cobbles.  “Zeke, you ain’t stupid.”  He held my eyes.  “You’ve been hurt.  Trying to be funny is just our way of trying to deal with the pain of seeing you hurt like this.  We’re going to get you help now, so you can get better.”  He paused.  “After Odin gives you your mind back, we can talk to Sigrun about that leg she just stole from you.”

Anne turned to Sigrun.  “Did you make that story up on the fly, or did you change another story to make it fit?”

Sigrun nodded.  “From scratch.  A few thousand years of storytelling and listening to storytellers adds up.  And Hildr likes to test me.”  As she finished her sentence, she made shooing movements with her hands towards us.  “Move.  Odin has some patience for those who are not his subjects, but dawdling will be looked upon as possible disrespect.”

“Sorry I stopped us, Sigrun.”  As he was talking, Pops turned around and started walking again, and the rest of us started walking as well.  Hildr had not stopped walking while we were talking, but was drawing close to the large stone building at the end of the bridge.  We walked a little faster to catch up.

A large man stepped out from the arched tunnel in the center of the bridge.  He was nearly as tall as Hildr, but perhaps a little wider in the shoulders.  As they both stopped, facing one another, they both reached out towards one another with their right arms and each right hand clasped the other’s right forearms with a jangle of metal on metal.

“Hildr, I see you have brought company.  Are they the same as we were told to expect?”  The man was wearing a helm, but his ice blue eyes were radiant as he looked over us as we stopped behind Hildr.

“Yes, Heimdallr, this is Zeke Collins, and his wife, son, and parents.”  Hildr smiled.  “Of course you know Sigrun.”

“Is someone going to introduce the little one?” Heimdallr asked as he faced Anne’s dog.

Anne noticed where Heimdallr was looking, “Oh.  Sorry.  This is Fifi.  Fifi, meet Heimdallr”

Fifi looked at Heimdallr, barked once, and then looked back at Anne.

Hemidallr nodded.  “Fifi, you must stay within a few of your body lengths of your charges while in Asgard.  Do you understand?”

Fifi barked once, and Heimdallr nodded.

Heimdallr turned to his left, towards my right, and looked at Coyote, saying nothing for a moment.  “I’m expected to allow you entry.”

“Do you need a promise from me, or is being invited enough?” Coyote was standing straight, cane held behind him with both hands, looking very dignified in his immaculate white suit.  His tongue was rolling out the left side of his jaw.

“Being invited is enough, of course.” Heimdallr spoke slowly, carefully.  “I would not dare insult a guest of Odin’s, no matter how accomplished a sneak thief they might be.”  He paused.  “In fact, I have been allowed to offer the honor of an escort to this group, in order that Hildr and Sigrun might attend to their other duties.”

Hildr bowed slightly to Heimdallr, and he nodded back to her.  “Thank You, Heimdallr, I could feel our sisters preparing for something, but needed to finish this task first.  Are the Jotunn massing again?”

“They are, of course.  It’s been nine days.”  Heimdallr shook his head.  “They never learn.”

Hildr turned to us.  “Ceremony will certainly be short today.  If the Valkyrie host is forming, Thor will take to the field with the warriors three to lead the einherjar, and Odin will not wish to delay them over-long with speaking and court when there is fighting to be done.  Sigrun and I must go now.  Heimdallr will arrange to escort you quickly to court.”

Heimdallr nodded.  “Transport waits.  We need to go now.  Dallying, especially now in the face of a battle, would invite ire.”  He turned clockwise away from us, waving his left arm over his shoulder in a wide arc as he turned. “Follow.”

We waved and thanked the Valkyries as we began to follow Heimdallr.  Hildr and Sigrun nodded towards us, mounted themselves on Brightarrow and Starshine, and then wheeled both horses the way we came.  The horses rapidly reached a gallop running back along the bridge away from the fortification we stood next to, and both Valkyries disappeared into thin air.

Heimdallr walked us through hundreds of feet of tunnel formed from heavy stone block, making several ninety degree turns.  “There is, unfortunately, no time for sightseeing today.  Still, if you look around yourselves as we travel, you may find things to hold your mind’s attention.”

We emerged beyond the massive stone building into a courtyard, where a vehicle was waiting.  A large, open topped, wooden carriage, with no wheels, being pulled by goats.

They buy saddles from humans through the internet thing, whatever it is, but their cars are pulled by goats?

Oh, and it’s floating in the air, too.

I looked from side-to-side.  I’d already been laughed at once today because I didn’t understand something.  I was relieved to see that the rest of us seemed as confused as me.  Everyone else had stopped, Heimdallr was stopping and turning towards us.  I saw an opportunity to get a little back.

“What?  You’ve never seen a magical, floating, goat-drawn carriage before?  Heimdallr said we should hurry.  C’mon.”  I started walking forward again.

Pops snorted, and started walking again.  The others around me laughed a little nervously, but we all started walking.  Heimdallr said nothing, but I thought I saw a little smile behind his beard in the shadows under his helmet.

The carriage looked like an oversized version of an open-topped passenger horse carriage.  Four rows of padded seating with room for two large people, or three normal people on each row.  At the front of the carriage, still in the passenger compartment, there were two single seats that faced one another, so that the people seated in them would face towards each other, across the center of the carriage.

Why turn the front seats to the side?

Maybe for tour guides, or so parents can watch their kids?

An armored man with no helmet, about Danny’s size, opened a door in the side of the cart, and pulled out a step from under the carriage with the toe of his boot until there was a click.  He put weight on the step, and stepped back, nodding and clearly satisfied as he held the carriage door.

Heimdallr spoke as we drew near the carriage.  “Coyote will ride in front with me, please.”

“Back seat!”

Sitting up near the driver is so boring.

Nobody challenged me, so I hopped up into the carriage and sat in the middle of the back seat.

The four lightly armored men standing at each corner of the carriage, and the one seated up front gave me puzzled looks, but said nothing.

Anne laughed, and stepped into the carriage, sitting down next to me and bumping me with her hip like she always did when we got on the bus.

Wait.

The memory retreated as I chased after it.

Anne nudged me with her elbow. “You OK, Zeke?”

“Another memory, Anne, something about a school bus.  It’s gone again.”  I could hear the frustration in my voice.

Anne raised her right arm and put it over my shoulders, cupping my right shoulder and pulling me against her.  “It’ll be OK soon, Zeke.”

Everyone else got into the carriage.  Fifi had gotten in at some point, and was curled up on Danny’s feet.  Mom and Pops were seated on their own bench.  They could have gotten on the same bench as Danny, but Pops was a pretty big guy, he probably didn’t want to crowd Danny.

Heimdallr and Coyote were facing each other in the two seats up front.  Heimdallr was obviously pretending to not be watching Coyote very carefully, and Coyote was obviously pretending he wasn’t aware of, and enjoying, Heimdallr’s clearly fake lack of concern over his presence.

The step was pushed back under the chassis of the carriage, the door was closed, and then all four armored men next to the carriage stepped up onto little platforms at each corner.  Four posts raised several feet out of the frame, one from each corner, giving each man a firm grip for one of their hands.  They also clipped themselves to the carriage with short lengths of heavy cord.

The driver looked at each of the guards, and they nodded.  He turned to the front and started the goats walking with a little up-and-down motion of the reins that any farmboy knew well.  He slowly guided the goats and carriage onto a marked roadway, stopped in the middle of the road, and then waved towards a man in a little kiosk next to the road.  The man in the gatehouse looked at the driver, and then at Heimdallr.  Heimdallr nodded and raised his right hand in a thumbs-up gesture.  The man in the kiosk started moving his hands rapidly but precisely over the desk in front of him, and speaking either to himself or with people who weren’t in the kiosk with him.

I noticed that the crowds of people on the road were rapidly clearing.  As the road began to clear, I noticed that the cobblestones were changing colors.  Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet.  The colors were cascading down the cobble road, towards a huge building in the far distance.

By the time I realized something really strange was about to happen, Danny spoke quietly.  “Shouldn’t we have seatbelts for what it looks like we are about to do?”  As he spoke, he raised his arms across the length of the top of the bench he was seated on, and clamped his hands onto the surface, at full arm extension.

Coyote shook his head.  “No.  Enjoy the experience.”

Heimdallr chuckled.  “Odin would be rather upset with me if I were to bring you to him in dire need of healing.  There is no danger here.”

How fast can goats run, anyway?

I looked at the goats.  We’d never raised goats, but I’d seen quite a few at State Fairs and a couple of our neighbors had a few that they raised for their own table.  These goats were far larger than any I’d ever seen, about the size of mules.  Then I noticed that, like the carriage, the feet of the goats were not touching the ground.

I leaned back in my seat.  “Anne, Mom, Pops.  I don’t know if you noticed or not, but the goats aren’t touching the ground.”

Danny’s head moved slightly and his grip on the bench-back got visibly tighter.

Anne stared briefly at Heimdallr, who just smiled back, and chuckled, but never turned far enough away from Coyote that he couldn’t see him with both eyes.

Mom and Pops actually relaxed a little, and Mom spoke.  “They want us there in one piece, don’t insult them by being afraid.  It looks like they have done this before… a few times.”

Danny’s fingers relaxed, a little.

I looked down the road with the flashing cobbles.  There were what looked like police officers of some sort walking onto the road and helping stragglers get clear.  A few people helped to push a wagon off the last few cobbles.

The man in the kiosk was clearly watching something at a level below what I could see.  I looked at the glass behind him, and in that reflection, I could see what looked to be a huge bank of lights, mostly green, a few red.  As I watched, the last few lights turned green, the man spoke a few words, and pressed a red button.

Along the sides of the road, I could see a translucent border forming, and it grew over the road in an arch, growing together at the apex, sparkling where if joined.

The goats were starting to shift their weight from leg to leg, seeming more eager than anything else.

With an audible snap, followed by a strong hum, the rainbow road shifted from alternating colors across the road, cascading away from us, to solid stripes, starting where we were, and leading off beyond vision, towards the building far away.

All four goats shook their heads, and looked back at the driver, and the driver looked at the man in the kiosk, who gave a thumbs up.

The driver shook his reins once.  The goats started walking.

That was underwhelming.

The driver shook his reins again, and the goats accelerated to a trot.  On the third shake of the reins, the goats started into a canter, and on the fourth, a gallop.  I couldn’t hear their hooves hitting the road, because they weren’t actually touching the road, but I could see their legs moving well enough to see their gaits.

All of this within a few seconds.  We were accelerating rapidly, it reminded me of Pops’ truck, when he let me shift gears for him.  The driver flicked his reins again, and the goats accelerated again.  Another flick, another acceleration.

This is pretty fast.  No wonder they blocked off the road.

I guessed we were probably moving significantly faster than the fastest horse I’d ever ridden.  Maybe even highway speeds.

The driver kept on flicking the reins.  The goats kept accelerating.  Every time they accelerated, it was only a couple seconds, but the acceleration was enough to push us back in our seats a bit.  Every three seconds, there was another two seconds of acceleration.

I lost track after thirty-two accelerations, after I turned to the side to see what we were passing and saw that everything to the sides of us was a blur.  I could make out people, barely, if I looked ahead of us and watched them carefully as they got closer.

I looked at the goats.  I could no longer clearly see them moving, their limbs were too fast, their heads moving too quickly to help counterbalance their running.

Coyote yawned, looking at me.

Weird.  When he was making us fast, nothing was blurry.

I smiled at Coyote.  He was right, this really wasn’t that fast compared to him.

Still, it’s faster than goats should be.

Horses and ankle-biter dogs shouldn’t be able to communicate with people so easily either.

I heard a chime, and the driver started drawing carefully back on the reins.  I could feel the carriage begin to slow, gradually, steadily.

In a few minutes we passed another kiosk like the first.  The carriage drove out of the end of the protected roadway, the kiosk operator hit a button, and the roadway returned to normal.  No more rainbow cobblestones.  No more translucent protective arch over the road.  As I watched, people immediately began moving back into the road again, going about their business.  Children were pointing at us in excitement while being dragged off by patient parents.  The carriage quickly left the road behind, and entered a tunnel in the base of a mountain that had been carved into the likeness of a building.  Or perhaps it was a building that had been constructed to look like a mountain.  I wasn’t quite sure which.

We passed several sets of immense stone and metal doors, each set of doors was watched by heavily armed and armored men.  It didn’t take long for me to realize that each door was almost immediately after a sharp turn in the tunnel.  There was a reason for that, I knew, but I couldn’t remember it.  On the far sides of each set of doors, there were smaller doors leading into the rock.  On the near sides of the doors, there were lots of holes in the walls and ceilings.  Arrowports and murderholes.

Finally, we reached a large open room, hundreds of feet across, with many carriages like ours lined up along the walls in front of windows and roods carved into the rock.  Inside the windows, I could see quite a few men and a few women dressed like our guards and drivers.  Many of them looked our way as our carriage stopped, and then, after a moment’s looking, they turned away.  The door in the side of our carriage was opened, the step pulled out.  The footman who had opened the door and pulled out the steps stood by the door and held out a hand for Mom as she stepped down, which she took advantage of, thanking him as she stepped down.  After Mom had both feet on the ground, the same hand was returned to a ready position to help the next person.  Pops just looked at the outstretched hand as he stepped out of the carriage.  The footman didn’t seem annoyed by the fact that Pops didn’t take advantage of the offered help.

Danny got out next, with Fifi circling around his feet, looking at everything, sniffing and turning her head from side to side rapidly.

Anne and I followed, with Coyote behind us, and Heimdallr last exiting the carriage.  A dozen men in heavy armor and laden with weapons arrived at a fast march, coming to a halt with a crash of metal on metal.  They stood ready in a line, a few feet from us.  They each had a white tunic over their armor with an emblem of two raven heads, facing away from one another.  They said nothing.

As he stepped down, Heimdallr cleared his throat to get our attention.  “The ceremony will take place in the outer courtyard, since the Einherjar and Valkyries prepare for battle.  It will be short.  Coyote, walk beside me, if you would.  The rest of you, follow me.”  He turned to the armored man at the rightmost end of the line facing us.  “Raven Guard, standard escort, please.”

Heimdallr started walking at a sedate pace, and Coyote joined him.  They started speaking to one another, but I could not hear the words.  The armored men formed up, six to a side of us, as we walked in a disorganized group behind Heimdallr.  As we continued walking, the family was silent.  The place was immense.  It was hard for me to imagine talking here.  I felt lost.

As we walked away into another tunnel, I glanced over my shoulder and saw our carriage driving away towards the walls where the other carriages like it were parked.  After about a hundred feet, there was a right turn in the tunnel, and as we advanced, I started to see the most detailed door yet.  This door was copper, with molded images of four men in armor, each with a long spear at the ready.  The engravings of men appeared to be walking out of the doors towards us.  Their spears extended several feet out of the door in our direction as we approached.  Their expressions were immobile, yet watchful.  Unlike the rest of the doors we had passed, these doors were closed.

Heimdallr walked between the spears of the two middle men, and slammed his fist into a flat spot on the right side of the door, hard.  The crash of metal sounded almost like a detonation.  “In the name of Odin and in respect for his guests, open the copper gate!”

After a few seconds, mechanical noises could be heard.  Heavy grinding.  Puffs of dust appeared around the edges of the doors, and after about ten seconds, the huge slabs of copper started to move ponderously, smoothly.  As they separated, I could see that they were at least two feet thick, and extended into the wall at least two or three feet beyond what had been visible when the door was closed.

Probably to protect the hinges.

After thirty seconds, the doors impacted the walls of the passage with a thump that I felt in my bones, through the floor.  The copper soldiers who had been at the ready, with spears facing us, were now at attention, their spears pointed upwards.  I had never seen them move.  They didn’t appear to have any joints.

As we started walking forward again, I tripped over something.  A metal ring, set into a wooden block that had been inserted into a hole in the ground.  There were other wooden blocks with rings like it, all of them set in a line right behind where the copper door had been while it was closed.  I looked up, and it became clear why the blocks were there.  A massive portcullis was suspended in the air above us.  When the copper door was closed, the wooden plugs would be removed, and the portcullis dropped into place behind the door.  The bottom of the portcullis would insert into the stone itself.

I would love to see how they move all this stuff!

Danny was also looking up at the portcullis.  I looked at him and, without saying anything out loud, simply mouthed the word “Wow!”  He looked at me strangely for a second before he smiled and nodded.

Anne, Pops, and Mom were all staring at something else.  Beyond Coyote and Heimdallr, there was yet another huge open area, well lit, with hundreds of people arrayed around a circular indentation in the smooth stone floor, filled with sand.

Where is the light coming from?

I didn’t see any light sources, and shook my head.

Heimdallr stopped at the edge of the circle of sand, and turned halfway around, towards Coyote, so he could see us, whispering under his breath.  “Form a line, with the injured Mr. Collins at the far end to my right, and his wife by his side.  The rest of the family may be in any order.” He shook his right hand, slightly, for emphasis.  “Coyote and Fifi to the far side on my left.”  His left hand twitched slightly.

We obeyed his command, and I saw what Heimdallr’s body had blocked me from seeing before.  On the opposite side of the circle from us were three figures, one seated, two standing.  Despite being nearly a hundred feet from them across the circle of sand, I could see them all clearly.

The one in the center was seated upon a wooden seat carved to look like a tree.  He was a large, heavily-built man, with a long, thick, salt and pepper beard.  His face was deeply lined, and he wore no patch to cover the eye socket that was missing an eye.  As my eye caught on that feature of his face I was drawn to the darkness there for a moment.  It took me a moment to look away, shivering as I averted my gaze.  I carefully avoided looking at his face again.  He held a spear in his right hand, the butt of the spear wedged against his chair and the floor, angled away from him slightly.  His left hand was alternately scratching the heads of two dogs to the left side of his chair.

Wolves.

I knew they were wolves, even though I didn’t know how I knew.

Motion above Odin’s head caught my attention, and I saw two large black crows above his head, sitting on a couple of the larger branches of the tree-throne that were above Odin’s head.

Ravens.  Not crows.

Odin simply stared at us as we lined up as Heimdallr had told us, saying nothing.

To his right side, there was an armored figure, a heavily-built man of a size with Odin, but his beard was bright red, his hair long, nearly to his waist.  Both his beard and head hair were braided, a single thick braid for each.  The face was nearly obscured by the beard, which climbed far up his cheeks.  What little was visible of his face was ruddy, with heavy freckling, the skin of a fair skinned person who spent far too much time in the sun.  He suffered from a serious unibrow, and his brow hair was almost comical in its thickness.  His eyes were that bright, bright blue that so many Asgardians seemed to possess, and in his face, the bright eyes were contrasted heavily, making them even more striking.  His armor appeared to be much the same that Hildr and Sigrun had worn – silver and with a visible texture like fish scales.  He held his helm trapped between his left arm and his body.  Like the helms of the Valkyries, his helm had wings.  To his side, hanging by a strap from the base of its pommel, was a stone hammer with an absurdly oversized head.  His right hand lay on his belt, next to the handle of the hammer.  I’d seen pictures of real warhammers, and they looked more like big roofing hammers with extremely long handles.  The man simply stood with his feet shoulder width apart, looking at us.

Thor.  Thor and Mjolnir.  Not a warhammer.

I knew that was Thor!

Someone was telling me things into my head, and I couldn’t tell who.  The ravens cackled and shook their wings briefly.

I saw movement to Odin’s right, and shifted my interest there.

Another man, tall, and muscular, but with the build of a runner.  The movement I had seen was him gesturing towards a Valkyrie that was walking behind him.  Jet-black hair was all pulled back to come together behind his head, where the bound-together hair fell to collar length.  His thin, distinct brows, were also jet-black and he was clean shaven.  Bright blue eyes contrasted against porcelain-white skin.  He looked extremely bored, carrying a golden goblet in one hand, and a staff in the other.  The staff was black, black to the point that it drank light, and dripped darkness from a short curved blade at the end above the left hand that held it.  Despite his bored appearance, simply looking at him gave me the impression that he was watching everything.  When our eyes met, he stared at me.

Not polite to stare.

I dropped my eyes, feeling somehow dirty after meeting his gaze, shivered, dry-washed my hands, and then wiped them against my pants legs.  I looked up to see the Valkyrie walking away, and the man drinking from his refilled goblet, looking towards my family and me.

Loki.  Careful.

I was getting irritated.

Who is that in my head?  That’s not polite.

Only what you need to know.  Court knowledge.

Who decides what I need to know?

The ravens both cawed at the same time and ruffled their feathers.

We do.  Odin cannot command us, yet we are his tools.  Silence now, it begins.

Odin ruffled the fur of the wolves with his hand one more time before gathering himself and standing, proving himself to be of a size with Thor, but a bit narrower across the shoulders, and a bit wider at the waist.  He moved slowly, but with no sign of pain, just measured, careful movement.

After standing upright and looking slowly around the entirety of the gathered crowd around the circle of sand, Odin began speaking.  “Today, we have uncommon guests, uncommon for Asgard in any case.  A man and his family, both his elders and his offspring, with wife accompanying.  In addition to family, he also has beside him a temple guardian and a member of another pantheon with a measure of interest in the man’s future.”

Odin looked at me.  “This man did a favor for Asgard once, and I had him marked.  He does not recall that favor though.  His mind was damaged.  Damaged by the same being that he killed in a battle only a few days ago for us, but more than two months ago for him.  Damaged by the rigors and sacrifices of a terrible cost for survival.”

Odin turned to his right, took a couple short steps, and then continued. “I knew that he would need a boon in the future, but did not know why.  One of many such gaps in my knowledge.  Frustrating holes.  All of us who are gods or major magical beings of other sorts have experienced such strange gaps and holes.  The gods who were once human tell us that the feeling, for them at least, was much like a missing tooth that a mortal might experience.  It’s a hole.  It’s strange.  It’s irritating.  You know there’s supposed to be something there, and your thoughts keep coming back to it.”  Odin paused.  “We now know that this wasn’t some form of dementia, no analog to mortal madness.  An ancient being, older than man, older than non-magical life on Earth, older than the very moon itself, that being interfered with us as we were formed, or before we were gods.  Some of you might know of him as the Jinn named Ahmed.”

Loki spit onto the sand, and that spot in the sand smoked.

Odin stared at Loki.  “Indeed.  While the emotions might not be the same, my son and I are both highly upset.  Ahmed controlled us.  He controlled the gods.  All the gods.”

There was a murmur of disbelief.

Odin raised his right hand with the spear.  The murmurs went silent.  “Not a full control.  Ahmed could not tell me to send Thor and the host to attack Zeus.  He couldn’t even tell me to raise my left hand, if I didn’t wish it.  He could, however, control my emotions, what I remembered, what I forgot.  This allowed him to have a large degree of control over my actions, even if he could not tell me directly what to do.  And it wasn’t just me, it was all the gods, all the powerful magical beings.  If he had wanted me to send a host to attack Zeus, he could have made it happen, over time, by interfering with my mind, and the mind of Zeus, driving us together into conflict.”

Odin turned around, and took four paces, stopping a couple paces beyond the other side of his throne.  “This man ended Ahmed’s interference, killing him.  That battle cost Zeke Collins his life.  Not his heartbeat, or breathing, but his memory.  That which makes us all what we are.  He gave up his life, and we, not just the Asgardian gods, but all gods and powerful magical beings, gained dramatically from his sacrifice.”  Odin paused.  “But I cannot simply give his life back to him, it must be asked for.  A boon, as you all know, must be given, and then defined.  Allowing one with mental damage to define a boon has potential for mayhem.”

Odin turned back and walked a couple paces, standing once again in front of his throne, turning to face the circle of sand.  “It is fortunate that his wife, Anne Collins, has the legal right in Midgard to act in his stead.  Since they are both mortals, the symbolic rights of these mortal agreements are binding even here, so I can offer a warrior’s boon to Anne Collins, which she might use on Zeke Collins’ behalf.”

There was some small measure of clapping and muttering that sounded like people were pleased.  Suddenly, there was a loud crack of metal on stone.

“Father, I object.”  Loki stepped forward a step, closer to the sand circle.

Odin turned to his left slightly and looked at Loki.  Both ravens, I noticed, also fluttered, and then stared at Loki, motionless.  “Explain your objection.”

“Father, you said you are offering a warrior’s boon, and yet, he is not a warrior.”  Loki looked at me, and I could not match that stare.  I looked down.  There was muttering around the circle of sand.  “His mind is damaged, he cannot prove his worth, but perhaps we can find a warrior who will stand for him?”

Loki smiled, almost happily.  “Eldest Collins.  Are you a warrior?  Speak truthfully.  A lie could become extremely costly to your entire family here.”

Pops’ fists clenched and his neck muscles bulged.  “No, I am not a warrior.”

Loki smiled and nodded slightly, his visage dripping false sincerity.  “Thank you Eldest Collins.”  After a moment, he continued, waving his staff at the rest of us.  Do any other relatives of Zeke Collins claim to be warriors?”

“I will be a warrior for my father.”  Danny spoke, softly.

Pops hissed, turning to face Danny, and Anne grabbed Danny’s arm.

Several persons started smacking their weapons against shields, and there was a cheer, which grew in loudness.  Danny looked a little frightened, but straightened his shoulders.

Loki allowed the cheering and banging of weapons on shields to continue for a few moments before lifting his staff and tapping it on the ground.  There was a crack of metal on stone.  “Silence, as a prince of this realm, I demand it.”

The cheers and clattering rapidly ended, followed by some resentful muttering, which itself was quickly replaced by silence.  “Youngest Collins, you are brave.  Foolishly brave.  You offer to become a warrior, yet you did not say you claimed to be one.  You spoke no lie, I can see that.”  Loki’s face became a caricature of sorrow.  “The sad truth is that truth itself is often not enough.  You are not a warrior now.  You cannot vouch for your father.”

Fifi barked, twice.  Loki looked irritated.  “No, temple dogs don’t count.”

After turning very slightly to her left, towards Odin, Fifi barked again, several times.  Odin spoke next.  “You are a guardian, not a warrior, potent little one.  The difference may be small, but it is there.  Much of your behavior is forced upon you by your nature, you have less free will than a warrior.  You have no fear to master.”

Anne spoke under her breath.  “Don’t argue, Fifi.  He said no.”  I could see Anne looking at Coyote.

A moment later, Loki began speaking again.  “The only member of their party remaining is a god like ourselves, Father, not a warrior at all.  A god of thievery and trickery.  Even our own Heimdallr doesn’t trust him as an invited guest.”  Loki raised both arms, his staff in one hand, his golden goblet in the other, shrugging with outstretched hands as well as he could with his hands occupied.  “Zeke Collins doesn’t qualify for a warrior’s boon after all.”

Loki gave a shallow bow to Odin and stepped back and turned to take a couple steps back to his place at the left of Odin’s throne.  When he reached that place, he turned to face the sand.  Nearly motionless except for his right hand and arm, his bright blue eyes sparkled behind the golden goblet as he lifted it to smiling lips.

Am I going to stay like this forever?

I wasn’t able to think straight.  I was angry, worried, and starting to shake.

Odin spoke.  “There are no warriors within your party who will vouch for you, Zeke Collins.”  He paused, looking at Loki, who flinched slightly.  “This is unfortunate, and yet not entirely unforeseen.”

Odin lifted his spear and then gently tapped it against the ground.  The Earth rumbled, faintly at the gentle touch of wood.  “Are there any warriors here who would vouch for Mr. Collins?”

A voice so deep that it took a moment for me to realize it was a voice spoke.  “I will vouch for him.  I have fought beside him.  I died a good death in battle next to him.”  A lot of people started moving to let someone pass them, but they didn’t block our view of the man walking towards the circle of sand.  “Odin, Zeke Collins is a warrior.  I, Chris Smith, say it is so, on my name and my honor.”

The man who was speaking made everyone else near him look like a child, standing head and shoulders above almost everyone else.  Even the occasional person he passed that was shoulder-high to him looked small in comparison.  He would have been huge without armor, but while wearing armor, he was almost comical in size.  He dwarfed even Thor and Odin.  His jet black armor with red highlights, so different from what others wore, didn’t appear to be mechanized in any way, but he moved smoothly and easily in it.  As he stepped up next to the circle of sand, I saw that what I at first thought was a staff was actually a ten foot long box-ended wrench.

With no expression, Odin turned to Loki.  “Your own chosen warrior stands for Zeke Collins, my son.  What say you now?”

Loki stared at the huge warrior, Chris Smith.  “Perhaps I was wrong.”

Odin nodded.  “Very well then.  Mrs. Collins, ”

“Wait Father, you misunderstood.”  Loki inclined his head slightly, at an angle before raising his head again.  “It has been three thousand years since I sponsored a warrior.  Perhaps I chose poorly.  I am not faultless, as I am sure you are aware.”

A loud, angry voice broke in.  “Indeed, brother, in your name, today, I invent a new word, faultful.  Thank you for enriching our vocabulary.”

With a half turn, and a twisted neck, Odin faced Thor.  “You will hold your tongue, Thor, though I will admit to being enamored of your new word.”

There was no expression on Loki’s face as Odin turned back to him.  “Loki, are you saying that you retract your support of this Einherjar, Chris Smith, who was selected by your own hand?”

“I do.  I’m not sure what I was thinking, father.”

The warrior, Chris Smith, spoke.  I had to concentrate again to hear his words properly.  “Loki, I’ve wanted to do this since we first met, but you were my patron, and I was told to keep my mouth shut by those who befriended me.  But now you abandon me.  You say I am no warrior.  I will prove myself to be a warrior.  Against you.  Here.  Now.  Face me in melee, with no channeled magic.  I challenge you for my warrior status.  If you won’t give it to me, I’ll take it from you.”  The huge man stepped out onto the sand, walking towards the center of the sand.

Anne whispered.  “Is that Trainwreck?  He looks different, if it is him.  Maybe even bigger than his human body before.”

I didn’t know, though I could feel memories clawing at the darkness in my mind, trying to find a way out.  “I don’t know, but I can feel memories stirring.  I knew him, I’m sure.”

Loki was smiling, and it appeared as if he was truly happy, which bothered me.  “A duel with a troll.  I think not.  That ridiculous solid steel wrench you use as a staff is four feet longer than my staff, and you outweigh me by nearly half a ton, even without your armor.  I happen to know that Jaxr left your spirit and body in fine repair, and far stronger than a mortal’s could ever be, even if you can no longer transform into a steam and iron golem as before.  I have watched you fight in practice, I have watched you learn.  For me to fight you would be foolish and embarrassing.”

“Do you acknowledge him as a warrior then, Loki?” Odin questioned. The ravens above him were agitated.

“Of course not, father, I wouldn’t reverse a considered opinion that easily.  It’s taken me months to determine that I made a mistake.  Chris Smith is no warrior, but he is a monstrous brute and can certainly defeat me in a simple battle of arms, as he stipulated.”

Odin looked at Loki and there was definitely anger there.  “I am rapidly growing tired of your games, Loki.  Choose your path.  State your intent.”

Loki laughed happily, clearly amused and eager as a child at Christmas.  “As the challenged, I name the contest.  A single fall.  Whichever fighter’s back touches the sand first, loses.”

There was a muttering in the crowd, and Odin stared at Loki.  The Ravens also stared.  All three looked very predatory, like they were prepared to attack Loki at any moment.  Loki smiled a lopsided grin, smirking as he stared right back at Odin.  “I call upon the ties of family for a champion.  Thor will fight in my stead.”

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Arc 3, Balance 23

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Anne and I were the last ones back to the kitchen.

Hildr nodded and waved for us to follow her, speaking in that resonating voice of hers. “We go.  The initial moments of the journey as we pass through the portal will be short, but disorienting, and then there will be a few minutes of walking.”  She peered closely at us, one after the other.  “You should not grow ill as you pass through the portal, but if you do, it will be minor and pass in a few moments.”

We followed Hildr and Sigrun out the front door, and they each picked up the reins of a white horse that had been ground tied in front of the house.  Hildr put her helmet back on, and picked up her mount’s reins with her left hand.  Immediately after she picked up the reins, she made a little whistle noise and her horse moved so it was standing directly behind her, facing her.  Sigrun had not been wearing her helmet before, and left it at her belt, walking over and rubbing her horse’s mane briefly before picking its reins off the ground and tying them loosely around the pommel of its saddle.  She also made the same brief whistle.

That’s a western saddle.

I tried, but I couldn’t stop from asking.  “Did the vikings invent the western saddle?  Why didn’t they call it the northern saddle?”

Pops groaned.  Anne gripped my hand a little tighter and looked at me.

“Sorry.”

“Hmmm?” Sigrun turned to me, and her horse also moved so it was directly behind her, like Hildr’s, but Sigrun’s horse was maintaining the position without reins.

Very well-trained horses, both of them.

Hildr chuckled.  “This one’s yours, sister.  Why don’t you spin a tale while we make the trip, to help the time pass faster across the bridge?”  As she spoke, she loosened the mouth of a pouch tied to the right side of her belt, reached into the pouch with her right hand, and pulled out a small cloth-wrapped object, which she began to carefully unwrap.

“By the time Hildr has the portal created, I’ll have the story ready, Zeke.  I have to make sure I remember all the details right, OK?”  She dropped her voice down a little.  “It’s an old story, and I don’t want to misremember it.”

How could it not be OK?  They’re Valkyries, I can’t make them do anything.

“Thank you Ma’am.”

Sigrun nodded at me, and then looked away, chewing her lip a little, clearly trying to remember all the details of the story.

This should be cool!

Hildr had draped her horse’s reins over her left arm as she finished unwrapping the package from her pouch.  Under the outer wrapping was an inner cloth container, a cloth with two pockets and a long flap that wrapped around the two pockets several times, and was tied with a string.  Inside the pockets were two little silver objects, mostly obscured by the pockets that held them, the gleaming tips not giving much of a clue to their function.  Moving slowly and carefully, Hildr tucked the strings of the inner container and one corner of the outer wrapping into the left side of her belt, carefully, before withdrawing a tiny hand-bell and mallet from the two pockets.  After withdrawing the bell and mallet, she allowed the now empty container to fall and flap against her left thigh.  Hildr immediately, carefully, raised the bell and tapped it once.  A bright, piercing tone resonated through the air after a moment, she said a single word. “Opnask!”

Immediately, the ringing sound ended, and a large oval hole popped into existence.  There were cobblestones and nearby stonework forming a wall visible where the grass of the yard and the trees at the end of the clearing around the house and barn had been visible before.  A cold breeze heavy with the scent of salt blew out of the hole in the air.

That’s cool!

Hildr carefully, but quickly, replaced the bell and mallet in their pockets, rolled and tied the container, and then rolled the cloth container itself in the outer cloth covering and restored it to the pouch she had removed it from to begin with.

None of the family had moved, all of us were staring in fascination at the hole in the air.  Coyote looked bored.

Anne muttered to herself, barely audible.  “I’ve never seen teleportation like this.”

Hildr turned to us.  “Mrs Collins, we Valkyries do not need devices to travel between Asgard and Midgard, either by ourselves or when guiding the dead, but when guiding living Midgardians, we need a tool or device to travel a different way.  I was provided with such a device by my liege, in order to bring you to Asgard.”  She paused a brief moment, and then continued.  “I will lead.  After I enter, and beckon for you to follow, you should pass through the portal, one at a time, please.  Sigrun will follow last.”

We all murmured our agreement; Hildr turned, stretched her arms over her head and behind her back, briefly, and then walked through the portal, leading her horse behind her.  After stepping through, she turned a full circle, slowly, before gesturing for us to follow.  I wanted to go next, but Pops put his hand on my chest, and walked forward.  Mom was frightened, I could tell, looking from side to side, wide-eyed, but she quickly stepped in my way, and then followed Pops, grabbing onto his arm when she reached him on the other side.

Anne poked me in the back and whispered in my ear.  “Go give your mother a kiss on the cheek and hold her hand.  She’s scared.  We’re all scared, but…  Nevermind.”  She kissed me on the cheek.  “Go to your mother.”

I’m not scared.  But Coyote said I was a little broken so I couldn’t be scared.

As I walked through the portal and up to Mom, I saw that Coyote was already on the other side, sniffing the air.  I leaned down and kissed Mom on the cheek, and then held out my right hand to her.  She grabbed my right hand with her left hand while her right hand was holding onto Pops’ left arm tight enough that there was white skin outlining where her fingers gripped his forearm.

As I turned back, I could see Anne and Danny obviously arguing, until Anne finally ended it by walking stiff-legged through the portal, clearly angry.  Danny hopped through a second later, smiling.  Sigrun followed moments later with her horse close behind her.

Anne poked me in the side.  “He’s definitely yours.”

What?

Anne looked at my face, and smiled sadly.  “Don’t worry about it, Zeke, Danny reminds me a lot of you, is all.”

I looked over at Danny.  He was clearly a strong man, and he was watching around us.  I felt a little safer when I noticed how he was watching everything, a lot like Pops seemed to be doing.  “Good.  I feel safer with Danny here.  When my mind is right again, I’ll help you feel safer too.”

Anne took my left hand, and squeezed.  I felt my knuckles grind together a bit but it didn’t hurt.

After her horse had cleared the portal, Sigrun tapped her staff on the ground and said a word that I didn’t hear over the breeze.  The portal rapidly shrank, collapsing into a pinpoint of light.  The remaining pinpoint jerked back and forth a couple times, before it flew in a circle around all of us then started to spiral rapidly inwards towards Hildr.  When it got very close to Hildr, it swooped into the top of the pouch she had put the bell in.

“Cool!” I said, but not too loudly.

“Magic can be beautiful, Zeke.” Sigrun commented.  “We’re ready to go now.  Hildr will lead, I will follow.  Coyote will do whatever he feels like, I’m sure, but he will need to stay with us when we approach the gatehouse.”

I turned to face where Sigrun was facing, and Coyote was there, staring off the side of the bridge.  There didn’t appear to be anything there for him to look at, except for stars, from what I could see.  I looked away.  The walls of the bridge were high enough that we couldn’t see below the bridge without getting close to the walls.

Hildr whistled a short pattern, and her horse stopped standing behind her, and moved a couple paces to her right, keeping a taut but not tight rein.  Hildr reached into another pouch and pulled out what looked like a round peppermint hard candy.  It made loud crinkly cellophane noises as she unwrapped it before tossing it in a slow toss towards her horse.  “Good girl, Brightarrow.”  The horse caught the candy in its mouth, and made clearly happy noises.  I heard a few clicking noises, and realized Hildr’s horse hadn’t swallowed or chewed the candy – it was holding it in its mouth like a human might, sucking on it.

Brightarrow is apparently a smart horse.

Sigrun’s horse made a snuffling noise, and I turned around to face that direction in time to see Sigrun start to smile.  “Oh, don’t you start with me, Starshine.”

Starshine whinnied, a short little noise, with a clear note of something close to begging at the end.

Sigrun smiled.  “Yes, you’ve been a good girl too, I suppose.  I hope I haven’t run out of peppermints. Let me check.”

Starshine snorted and her eyes got noticeably larger, she was clearly alarmed.

Definitely really smart horses.

Sigrun snaked her hand into one of the several pouches at her belt.  As soon as I heard the first crinkling noise coming from Sigrun’s pouch, Starshine apparently heard it too; she blew out a heavy breath, clearly relieved.

A couple seconds later, Sigrun unwrapped the candy, adjusting it carefully in her hand a second before tossing it over her head.  Starshine tracked the candy like a hawk, cleanly grabbing it out of the air without any of her hooves leaving the ground.

Pops spoke, wonderingly.  “That’s a pair of powerful smart mares you have.”  Both of the horses blew through their lips, and as I looked from one to the other, they were both nodding.

Mom seemed to come out of her shell a little bit.  “They’re beautiful too.”  I looked back and forth between the mares, and they both held their tails high and pranced a little at the praise.

“They have almost perfect conformation for eventing, too, but they are a little heavy.” Mom continued.

Both horses went from happy prancing to a stiff legged stance, giving Mom a flat look, staring at her.  Mom was watching the two horses as they changed behavior, and grinned as she turned her head back and forth between them.  “Girls, that’s not an insult.  I see who rides you, and even without the armor they wear, you would need to be heavier than a normal eventing horse to carry them around.  You’re big and beautiful, both of you, maybe the most beautiful two horses I’ve ever met.”

Both horses looked at Mom carefully a couple seconds, clearly weighing her words.  Starshine nodded first, and after a few seconds, Brightarrow nodded as well.  After they had both nodded, they both tapped their hooves lightly on the cobbles in unison a couple times before ducking their head low towards Mom.

Anne laughed.  “So smart.  I bet your foals are into everything, and painfully cute.”

Both horses nodded, strongly.

Hildr cleared her throat.  “If we allow this to continue, Sigrun, we’ll never hear the end of it.  From either of them.  Are you ready to tell Zeke about how the Asgardians got western style saddles while we walk?”

Sigrun nodded, with a smile.  “I am, Hildr, after we get moving, I’ll start.”

We started walking along the bridge towards several flags I could see flying above a structure crossing the bridge from side to side.  Hildr walked ahead, Brightarrow far to her right, so we wouldn’t be walking through whatever she might leave in her wake.  Pops carefully lifted Mom’s hand off his arm and made a little hand gesture at Danny, pointing behind me.  Danny nodded, and fell back behind me.

Pops then turned to me.  “You walk between your mother and Anne, OK, Zeke?  Keep them safe.”

“Yes, sir.”

Anne and Mom both squeezed my hands.  It felt good.

I saw Coyote to my right, beyond Mom, apparently staring off into nothing again.  To my left, I saw a little black and white dog with so much hair that it appeared to be floating along the ground.  It wandered up to Anne, and bumped against her leg.

Anne leaned down.  “Hello Fifi, good girl.  I want you to stay close to me here, OK?  It looks like a big place.”

Fifi wagged her tail, yipped once, and then walked a few feet off to Anne’s left where she continued to keep pace with us.

Pops commented, quietly.  “Looks more like a tumbleweed than a dog, but she’s smart.  Lots of smart animals today.”

Fifi clearly heard, and growled very briefly.  After the grief grown, she sniffed the air and tossed her head.

I realized Danny hadn’t said anything recently, and turned partway around to look at him.  He looked worried, and was scanning left and right as we walked, turning his torso back and forth enough for his peripheral vision to let him look directly behind himself.  Sigrun was smiling as she watched him.

After we were walking a few seconds, Sigrun started talking.  “Zeke, one of our sister Valkyries, Svipul, is the sort of person who is always looking for a better way to do things.  For thousands of years, Valkyries rode bareback, and if you’ve ever done that for a long time, you know it’s pretty hard on the rider and the horse.”

I nodded.  “I’ve ridden bareback, it’s uncomfortable compared to a good saddle.”

“One day, Svipul approached our liege, Odin, and asked him on bended knee if it would be acceptable if she went to Midgard.” Sigrun continued.  “She asked to go without all of her regalia, dressed as a commoner, to see if mortals had a better way to sit a horse.”  Sigrun stopped talking, and I turned around to look at her.  She was biting her lip a little, but as I looked back at her, she started talking again.  “We Valkyrie rarely ever spend time amongst mortals.  Even in recent centuries when there were few new warriors of the Norse faith to bring to Valhalla, there were skirmishes and battles aplenty in other realms besides Midgard.  It is also our duty to serve mead to warriors at feasts, and judge contests of strength, endurance, wit, and skill, all of which are common events in Asgard.”

“So did Odin let her go?” I asked, quickly, looking around to see Sigrun’s face.

I hope so.  Butt blisters are no fun, and bareback riding can hurt the backs of horses.

“Not immediately,” Sigrun answered, smiling.  “Odin asked her why she had brought this request to him, and she answered truthfully that many of us had heard comments from new arrivals wondering why we rode bareback.  Some of those new arrivals had mentioned things called saddles, which sounded truly useful.  Some of them had been able to draw crude pictures, and even help us make a couple very simple saddles out of leather straps and blankets.  Those saddles did help immensely, both for rider and horse.  Every saddle we made though, the mortals would tell us were far inferior to a properly made riding saddle.”

“Odin bade Svipul to show him some of the saddles we Valkyrie had fashioned, and he was pleased with them, and asked why they were not enough.  Svipul said that they were, indeed, enough, but pointed out that bareback was enough for thousands of years, and the saddles we had at that point were so much better.  She begged to allow some of the mortals who were experienced riders and knew saddles to tell tales to Odin about what they could do in a saddle.”

“Did Odin talk to cowboys?”

“Indeed he did, Zeke.  Some of the Norse ways were still around in the American West, but he talked to a lot more cavalrymen from the European wars in the last few hundred years.  None of them, however, knew how to make saddles.  It was apparently a very secretive art, and good saddles were very complex.”

“So, he let her go, you said, right?”  It was so annoying having someone behind me telling a story as we walked.  I wanted to sit down at a table or in a couple chairs with her and listen like I did with Pawpaw.

I looked at Pops’ grey hair and was afraid to ask, but I needed to know.  “Pops, is Pawpaw still alive?”

Pops’ fists tightened a little and his shoulders hunched.  “No, Zeke. I’m sorry.  He passed when you were not much older than you seem to think you are now.  I was the youngest of all my brothers and sisters, remember?  He never knew exactly how old he was, but he would have been well over a hundred and ten years old, at least, if he were alive today.”

“I’m sorry Pops.”

“Don’t be sorry, Zeke, he loved us, he lived a good long life, and when the end came, it was quick for him.”  Pops raised his head and took a deep breath, and let it out slowly.

I wish I remembered Pawpaw better.

For a few seconds I walked in silence, thinking, and then I remembered Sigrun had been telling a story.  “I’m sorry, Sigrun, I interrupted your story.”

“That’s perfectly fine, Zeke.  Memories of our elders who have passed are precious.  I can see you loved your grandfather.”  Sigrun stopped talking.

“Please continue your story, Sigrun.  Pawpaw never liked telling half a story.”

I heard Pops chuckle.  “You remember that much right, Zeke.”

Sigrun started speaking again.  “You asked if Odin let Svipul enter the world in mortal guise, and he did, but he required that she must not come back with half a solution.  She would not be allowed to return to Asgard until she not only found a better way to ride a horse, but also found a way to provide for all of Asgard, so that all Asgardians might ride more comfortably.”

“How long did it take her to learn to make saddles?”  I asked, turning around to look at Sigrun so I could see her face.  Anne and Mom were watching me, smiling.

Every time I looked around to look at Sigrun, Danny turned his head away from me, watching around us, like he was avoiding looking at me when I looked at him.

Is Danny mad at me?

Sigrun shook her head and smiled.  “She never did, Zeke.  She was a woman, many years ago, and it was very hard for a woman to learn a trade, even if she was a head taller and a lot stronger than almost any man.  She learned to make some of the parts, but the masters were all men, and the apprentices were all boys.  Svipul, like all of us Valkyries, is a very full-figured woman.  There is no way any of us could possibly pretend to be a boy or man.”

“You can say that again.” Danny muttered.

“Danny!” Anne let go of my hand and turned to Danny.  “You apologize right now.”

Hildr laughed “Mrs. Collins, there’s no need for Danny to apologize.  Sigrun and I have lived thousands of years around men of the Norse faith, and the gods they worship.  There are very few human women built like us.  We know a real compliment when we hear one, and aren’t offended when we hear them.  We are what mortals make us, and if Danny likes what he sees, well, that means he’s just affirming what many men before him have liked when they saw it.  We wouldn’t look like this if we hadn’t been attractive to millions of men over the centuries.”

Danny spoke up in a small voice.  “Sorry, Mom.  Hildr and Sigrun are pretty amazing though.  Not that tempting, because I’m taken, but bigger than life in a way that’s really hard to not appreciate.”

Pops spoke from ahead of me, humor in his voice.  “Danny.  You’re just digging a deeper hole.  Stop while you are ahead.  Trust your elder.”

Mom reached forward and slapped Pops on the right shoulder with her right hand, but said nothing.

Hildr and Sigrun howled in laughter, in unison, their voices seeming to blend in a strange way.

Anne turned a bit red, and grabbed my hand.  “Men!” Fifi barked once, ran in, around Anne’s feet, and then back out to Anne’s left.  Coyote was walking to our right still, his head turned to watch us and his tongue hanging out the side of his mouth.

I don’t get any of this.

I looked ahead, we were close enough to the building that sat on the end of the bridge that I could see individual stones, and people moving around in front of it.  “Uh, Sigrun, do we have time for the rest of the story?”

“Sure, Zeke.”  Sigrun cleared her throat.  “Svipul tried and tried to learn how to make saddles, so she could fulfil Odin’s requirement of not only having a better way, but being able to provide the better way for all of Asgard as well, but she could not find a teacher.  She began to grow old, after spending decades on Midgard.  She grew desperate one day, and went to a man who had lost an arm in a war, a man who had once been a maker of saddles.  The man was a drunk, unwashed, and homeless.  She gave him a room, a bath, and kept him from drink for a time, giving him enough that he would not grow mad from the lack of drink, but little enough that he was able to converse.”

“Did he teach her to make saddles?”

He must have!

“No, the man would not teach her.  She had a workshop, the tools, all the leather he might possibly need, all the metal pieces and cloth, but all he wanted was drink.  Whenever she did manage to get him to enter the workshop, he would leave soon after, the mental pain from the loss of his arm driving him harder towards drink as he remembered the work he once did.  She grew desperate and actually told him, when he seemed most lucid, what her mission was – that she was commanded by Odin to learn about saddles and be able to provide saddles for the needs of the riders of Asgard.”

“What did he say?”  I couldn’t help but ask.  I tried to stop walking and turn around to face Sigrun fully, but Mom and Anne kept me walking, so I was only able to turn and keep her in my sight that way.

Sigrun smiled.  “The man still refused to teach her, but he offered to give her an answer that would solve her problem; he only asked two things of her in return.  First, a bottle of wine, and second for her to leave him alone.  At first, Svipul thought the man was being insulting, and she nearly threw him out onto the street, but then she realized that if she gave him the wine and a promise of privacy, and he did not live up to his end of the bargain, she could still throw him out on the street after giving him the bottle, and then leave him alone, and the cost to her would be only a little cheap wine.  She decided that even a small chance that the man was being truthful was worth a cheap bottle of wine, and after so long trying to get the man to teach her, the idea of giving him a quick, powerful kick in the ass as she threw him out had a mighty attraction.”

“Didn’t you say Svipul had gotten old?  Wasn’t she afraid he might hurt her?”

She was a woman, an old woman.

She might not be able to beat the man.

Sigrun chuckled.  “Danny, you’re a young man, and strong.  If you, for some reason, had to fight your grandfather, what would happen?”

Danny didn’t even hesitate “I’d be lying on the ground trying to figure out what truck hit me.  Pops couldn’t catch me if I ran, but if I tried to fight him, it would be a bad day for me.”

Pops didn’t turn around, still looking ahead as he chuckled.  “We could fix that if you came to the farm for a few months, Danny.  You’d lose that runner’s build though, and that smooth skin on your hands.”

“Ah, thanks for the offer, Pops, but I’m engaged, going to college, and trying to learn how to run a company, all at once.”

Pops raised his hands into the air, tilting his head back and looking up at the sky in mock exasperation.  “Don’t say I never tried to give you anything, Danny.”

“Thank you for the offer of blisters, splinters, sunburn, lower back pain, and extra muscle mass, Pops, but I’ll pass this year.”

Anne was looking back and forth from Pops to Danny and clearly barely able to avoid laughing.  Mom was staring at Pops’ back, clearly annoyed at him, but when she looked back at Danny, she grinned too.

Hildr had turned to watch out of the corner of her eye as she continued leading us, and Sigrun had stopped walking for a moment and guffawed, bending at the waist and slapping her left knee.

After pounding her knee twice, Sigrun stood and took several long strides to catch up with us, and continued her story.  “As you can see, Zeke, being old isn’t always being weak.  You knew this but didn’t really think about it.  Sure, for mortals, living long enough will eventually make one old enough to be weak, but Svipul was like your father.  Growing old, but still young enough to be strong.  She had no fear of a one-armed man who had been eating poorly for years because he was homeless.”

“So did she buy him the bottle?”

“She did, and after she brought him the bottle, he went out to the outhouse and brought back something he found there, and handed it to her as the solution to her problem.”

“What?  Wait, I don’t get it.”

The outhouse!  But that’s where…

“Sigrun, are you sure about that part of the story?  We had an outhouse in the North pasture because it was so far from the house.  I know what’s in an outhouse, and it’s not saddles.”

Pops was shaking so hard, I thought he was going to collapse.  “See, even my Pops thinks that’s funny, Sigrun.”  Pops started shaking harder, and Mom started to shake too.

They both think it’s so funny.

“Ah, but it’s true, young man.  Svipul looked at what the one-armed man gave her and it was the answer Asgard needed.  Svipul knew enough about saddles to help the Asgardians learn to understand them in time, and the outhouse gift would help to provide saddles to all of Asgard.”

That can’t be right.

“But…” I started to try to talk.

Sigrun kept talking over me and I stopped talking.

She’s older than me.  I have to let her speak first.

Sigrun looked me in the eyes and smiled as I twisting at the waist to look back at her.  “Svipul made an offering to Odin to gain his attention and beseeched him to allow her back into Asgard, as she now had the knowledge and the means to supply Asgard with saddles.  Odin looked down upon her from on high in Asgard, and asked her if she were certain.  He could see she was aging, and he wanted to be sure she hadn’t succumbed to a moment of weakness under the burden of mortal age.  He warned her that if she did not meet the terms of their agreement she would be returned back to the mortal world to age and never allowed to return to Asgard.”

“What do you think happened then, Zeke?”

“I bet she had to think real hard.  Did she know enough about building saddles to fake it?  That’s got to be it.  She fooled Odin into letting her come back, and learned to make lots of saddles.”

“No, Zeke, Svipul told Odin that she had exactly what Odin required of her, and Odin sent me to pick her up, like we did with you today.  As we walked over the bridge, I tried to make Svipul tell me what she had found, even as she grew younger and stronger with every step.  She wouldn’t tell me, her own sister-in-arms!  Odin wanted to speak to Svipul immediately, and verify her claim, and I was fearful for my sister, because she would not prove to me that she had done as Odin asked.  All she would offer me as a hint was that Odin would laugh when he saw it.”

“Did he laugh?  Did he laugh all terrible-like and strike her down with lightning?”

Hildr broke in, with a serious tone.  “That’s Zeus, Zeke, not Odin.”

“Oh, Sorry.  Did he laugh and then send her back to Midgard to die of old age?”

I can’t see how she’s going to get away with this!

“Well, we went to Odin immediately, because you don’t ever make Odin wait when he says ‘immediately’.  Svipul kneeled on the last step before the base of Odin’s throne, and out of a bag, she pulled what the one-armed man had brought her from the outhouse.  She held it in her hands outstretched, with her head down, as an offering to Odin.  Odin leaned forward slowly, peering intently at the gift, and then carefully reached out to take what was in her hands.”

“Ewww.  Gross.”

Off to my right I heard someone stumble and Coyote’s voice, quietly said “Ow, my toe.”

I had twisted at the hips again to look at Sigrun; she was smiling a big smile, but looked like she was holding her breath.  “Are you OK, Mrs. Sigrun?”

She coughed twice and cleared her throat.  “Yes, Zeke, I’m fine.”  She coughed again.  “As Odin slowly lifted up what was in Svipul’s hands, a great smile grew on his face, and I was able to see what he held.”  Sigrun paused just a moment and then continued.  “A Seer’s Catalog”

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