Category: Reject Hero Storyline

Arc 3, Balance 22

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There were several minutes of hugs from people I didn’t know, but who felt right.  Anne hugged me for about thirty seconds, and then backed up, wiping her tears before asking me if I wanted something to drink.  I could smell hot cocoa, and coffee, so I asked for both in the same cup.  Mom would never let me drink much coffee, but Pops would occasionally pour a little in my cocoa when we thought Mom wasn’t looking.  Coffee and cocoa together were great!

The older lady and the young man both hugged me at the same time, and I wrapped an arm around each.  I couldn’t say anything, I didn’t know what to say.  I was pretty sure the young man must be my son, and the older woman was almost certainly my mother, but I didn’t know them.  It felt right, but I just couldn’t speak.  The young man was calm and collected, but crying.

The older woman was sniffling heavily and using a handkerchief.  After a hug, she took both her hands and cupped my face.  “You don’t remember any of us, Zeke?”

“Anne still looks like Anne, but I don’t look at the rest of you and make a connection.”  The older woman looked a little hurt.  I lifted my right hand against her left where it was against my cheek.  “I can tell this is family though, even if faces and names don’t match up like they should.  It feels right.”  I grinned and dragged the young man in for another hug, and folded the older woman in as well.

The big older man got up and walked around the table to give me a hug that felt like it might break some ribs.  He didn’t cry or sound broken up, but said “You’re not supposed to go first, son.” Looking at me, he backed up, and with a speed I wouldn’t have guessed, but shouldn’t have surprised me after how he’d saved his coffee earlier, he reached up and tousled my hair.

I ducked my knees and covered my head with my right hand.  “Stop that, Pops.”

The hand was already gone though, and the old man just nodded, said “That’s Zeke” and went back to his seat, and tore off a few more paper towels, beginning to clean pools of leftover spillage on the table.  He tossed the towel roll to the young man, who was caught off guard and bobbled it a couple times before getting it under control.  “Make yourself useful, Danny.  Let’s clean up so your father can sit down with us and have a drink while we wait for our guide.”

After a couple minutes, the table and floor were cleaned, the cups refilled.  I had a cup of cocoa with a bit of coffee, and I was starting to tell stories about the cool stuff Coyote and I had done.

Oh, I forgot.

“Sir…”  I paused, looking at the younger and older men at the table.  “Coyote, Sir, are you still here.”

Coyote poked his head around the corner from the foyer, looking into the dining room. “Yes, Zeke, I’m still here.

“I’m awful sorry, Sir, but I didn’t introduce you earlier in all the excitement.  Coyote, meet Anne, my wife, Danny, my son, Edward, my father, and Colleen, my mother.”

I hope I remembered Mom and Pops’ names right.

“I think that’s understandable, Zeke, thank you for the introduction.”  Coyote gave a very short bow to the entire room of us.

Anne looked very nervous.  “Would you like a drink, Coyote?  We have water, cocoa, coffee, beer, and I think Zeke still has a bottle of good whiskey in one of the top cabinets to make coffee with on days when he had to work outside in the cold.”

“I don’t need anything, but I wouldn’t turn down a glass of water to honor the hostess, Mrs. Collins.”

Danny asked quietly.  “Coyote, do we need to invite you in, to make it more comfortable for you?”

“Hmm, no.  The threshold here barely exists.  It is of no concern to me, but thank you for your thoughtfulness, Danny.”

“You’re the one who found my boy?”  The older man, Pops, spoke, carefully.

“No, Elder Collins, I did not find your boy.  A Valkyrie named Hildr found where he had been hidden.  After she found where he was, I forced an entry to allow us to retrieve him.”

“Teamwork then.  Thank you, and please thank Hildr as well.”  Pops nodded his head, slowly

“If you wish to thank us, all you need to do is turn your thoughts to us every now and then, remember our names, and what we have done for you.”

The older woman looked a little uncomfortable, and Coyote looked towards her.  “It need not be a prayer, Madam Collins, just a thank you.  You can even pray to another, on my behalf, if you like.”

Anne had retrieved a glass, poured water over a few pieces of ice, and then brought it to Coyote, hesitantly handing it to him.  She was clearly in distress as she approached him.

“Anne, he’s not going to hurt you.  He’s one of the good guys now.”

Coyote reached out with his left hand, long before he could possibly take the glass from Anne directly.  Anne’s face got a funny look for a second, and then she let go of the glass.  The glass immediately floated away from her, crossing the gap between them, until Coyote pulled it out of the air and carefully took a drink.  It was pretty cool to watch him drink from a glass.  He didn’t spill any of it.  He stuck his tongue way out, rolled it into a ‘u’ shape, and then poured the water onto his tongue, letting the water roll down his tongue like it was a roof gutter. “Thank you for the hospitality.  Don’t worry, Mrs. Collins, despite the teeth, I rarely bite, and have no plans to do so today.”

Anne stuttered a little.  “Coy. Coy. Coyote, Ali and Mat. Matty were scary sometimes.  I’m so. so. sorry, but you frighten me even mo. more, even though you helped save my husband.  Please do not take off. offense.”

I reached out and took Anne’s hand as she slowly backed away from Coyote.  She gripped my hand hard enough to hurt as she carefully sat down.

Coyote tilted his head a little bit.  “If it makes you feel any better about me, Mrs. Collins, your little temple dog there would be yipping its head off if I intended harm to you, your husband, or your son.  It might even have the bravery to attack me.  Temple dogs tend to be a wee bit aggressive, bordering on insane, if their charges are threatened.”

A black and white throw rug in the corner of the room, which I had looked past several times and not even realized it was a dog, moved, barked once, and then sniffed in disdain before settling back down to watch us all.

Coyote’s tongue rolled out the side of his mouth, as he glanced at the little furball, clearly amused.  After a moment, he looked back towards the table, turning his head from side to side, looking at Anne and Danny.  “That doesn’t even count the wards that Ali designed for you.  That’s a pretty clever design to work on non-practitioners.  I’ll have to compliment him.  If I had come intending harm, those wards would have been causing you extreme pain.”

Anne and Danny both nodded slowly, and seemed to relax a little.  Anne was still watching him closely.

Coyote’s ears both swiveled towards the front of the house, and he took a deep breath through his nose.  “Ah, it begins.  We have company.  Hildr and Sigrun.  It might seem terribly mundane, but I would suggest you all take a little time in the restroom.  Asgardians will sometimes do ceremony in minutes, so they can all rush off and turn up a few horns of mead in a feast hall, but sometimes, for reasons I’ve never understood, those same ceremonies take hours, even days.  In the longer ceremonies, if anyone leaves, the ceremony stops, and everyone who feels any need to eat, drink, or take care of other minor issues will go and do those things.  The ceremony starts again when everyone is ready.  Asgardians do not like to be shown up by Midgardians though, so if you all can remain in the ceremony for an extended time, none of the Asgardians will leave.  If any of you have to leave for any reason, you should all go as a group, do anything you need to do, and return as a group.”

The front door opened, and a powerful woman’s voice sounded out.  “Please tell me this is not the family home of the man we rescued, Coyote.  There’s practically no threshold, and if the family bonds are as weak as the threshold, Odin will see the reason for it.”

Coyote shook his head.  “Hildr, brash one, this home is no longer where the family resides, it is only a meeting place, at least for now.  Come, see the family and judge for yourself, Odin will find no fault with the strongest ties that bind blood.”

Another female voice spoke, in a whisper, but still clearly audible, “I told you that the wife and son lived elsewhere, for their safety.”

Are they acting or something?

Gods should be able to talk to one another without me hearing, right?

Anne’s forehead crinkled a little and she was clearly thinking.

“You two can stop playing games, Mr. & Mrs. Collins have already seen through it.”

A very large woman appeared in the foyer beyond Coyote, and an only slightly smaller woman stepped up closely beside her.  Both of them were fair skinned, wide of shoulder, heavy of breast, wide of hip, with long braided hair that seemed to be in a cloth sheathe of some sort.  The taller one was very tall; the wings on her helmet occasionally scraped the ceiling, which was clearly irritating her.  She removed her helmet and carried it in the crook of her left arm, exposing a somewhat plain face with a nose that had obviously been broken at least once, brilliant blue eyes that never stopped moving, and platinum blonde hair.  Her right hand never strayed long away from the sword at her right hip.  Her armor was full-body, and appeared to be made of little scales, making it appear like silver fish skin.  Between her weight and the weight of the armor she wore, the floorboards complained loudly.

The other woman looked like the first woman’s twin, except a full head shorter and proportionately smaller in every way.  There were other differences.  The second woman had golden blonde hair, not platinum blonde, and her nose hadn’t been broken.  Her armor was the same, but instead of a sword, her belt carried a strap connected to her helmet that hung there.  She carried a wrist-thick quarterstaff, shod with metal of some sort.  As she stopped moving next to the first woman, she tapped her staff on the ground, carefully.

The little temple dog trotted to where it could see the two newcomers, sniffed the air, huffed a couple times, and then curled up next to the pantry door, where it could again see everyone in the dining room as well as the two women in the foyer.

The larger woman, Hildr, began to speak.  “I suppose we’ll get right down to business then.  Coyote is right.  Relieve yourselves.  Take a few minutes.  If you have need of medications, bring them.  Eir would be more than happy to treat any ailments, but if you collapse in the ceremony, it might be taken as a bad omen.  If you require a seat, do not hesitate to ask for one.  Again, collapsing during ceremony is not a good idea.  Other than that, treat it as a semiformal event.  I have been told that in light of the circumstances of one of our guests, formality will be relaxed.”  She smiled, and clapped her gauntleted hands lightly, creating a loud jangling metallic sound.  “Step to it.”

We all got up.  I didn’t know this house at all, so I followed Anne.  As I left the room, I heard the smaller woman, Sigrun’s voice.  “Coyote, you mean to tell me you really don’t know why Odin’s ceremonies vary so much in length?”

Coyote’s voice answered.  “No, I don’t.  About the only Asgardians I know well are Loki, because we’ve been at odds from time to time, and Heimdallr, because we find it challenging to practice our abilities against each other.  Everyone has been to a few Asgardian ceremonies, of course, but even so, all of the rest of you are either unknowns to me, or barely known.  Is this something you want everyone to hear?”

“Now that we aren’t forced to remain aloof and strongly discouraged from interacting with humans by subversion that we never knew existed, there is no harm in giving up a few details here and there about ourselves.  You have certainly embraced this ‘information age’ of humans quite readily.  Many of us are watching you, and I know you know it.  Few of us will want to be quite so… hands on, but we still watch and learn.”

Coyote’s voice was the next one I heard.  “OK, I’m hooked.  Why are Odin’s ceremonies so long sometimes, and so short at others?”

Sigrun spoke again, I could feel the smile in her voice, even through the walls of the house.  “Thor.  Thor hates ceremony.  The more annoyed Odin is with Thor at any given time, the longer ceremonies will be.  If Thor has been in Odin’s good graces, the ceremonies will be short.”

I was apparently not the only one listening in, as I heard Pops laugh, a single short “Ha!”

Hildr’s voice resounded through the house.  “Indeed, Elder Collins, from what I can see of you and your son, as fathers, you and Odin probably would agree on many things, despite your occupation as a simple farmer.”

I wasn’t in the bathroom any longer, I was waiting for Anne, like she had asked me to do.  I could barely hear Pops’ response.  “I don’t know about that, Ma’am, but if I caught your name right, you’re the one who found my boy?”

“I did.  It’s normally not my place to find the living, but it happens from time to time when my liege, Odin, tasks me with watching a mortal who then becomes lost.  It was a challenging search, and even after I found where he was, I could not find a way into the place.  Coyote should be thanked for that feat.”

“Hildr, Coyote told me that remembering you by name for what you did for my boy would be sufficient payment for what you’ve done for me, but I’d hear that from you as well, if you don’t mind.”  Pops voice was shaking.

“Having a few voices, glasses, or horns raised in praise to me for helping to save a life as opposed to safely gathering and guiding the dead won’t harm me at all, Elder Collins.  There’s honor in both.  What Coyote told you is not a trick, if you were thinking it might be.”

Pops started talking in a shaky voice.  “I vow that for as long as I have my wits, every time I give thanks for my boy’s life, I will try to remember to thank the both of you by name.  I cannot vow for her, but I know my wife.  She holds strongly to her Baptist beliefs that we once shared together.  I suspect you will figure high in her prayers, as Coyote said she might do.  She’ll certainly come out of the restroom mad if I’ve said anything wrong, because I know my voice carries.”

When did Pops lose his faith?

That must have been a hard blow to Mom.

Anne came out of the restroom, finally. “It took your mother and me over thirty years to get you to put the toilet seat down, Zeke.  I know you’ve lost some memories, but you need to work on remembering that one, please.”

Whoops.

I didn’t know what to say, other than “Sorry, Anne.”  I knew I was blushing.

Anne laughed and pulled me into a hug.  “Zeke, I was kidding.  I’ll put up with a thousand lifted lids to have you back.”  She stopped hugging me and sniffled a little bit.  “Even if your memory doesn’t let you be the husband I know, I’ll settle for a childhood friend again.  Your parents are young enough to make you an adult again, I think.  Your memories might come back with therapy or just with time.”

“Anne, I hope so.  When I saw you, I got some memories back for a little while, I remember that, but I can’t remember them now, so the memories are there, hiding in my head.  One of the trucks outside made me think I remembered it too, but I don’t think I got any memories from it.”

Anne smiled.  “You and that damned old truck.  Danny and I have wanted to get you a new truck for so long, but we have been afraid to, because we were afraid the new truck would just be ignored, or you would feel obligated to give up the old one and be annoyed at us.”

“Does the old truck still run good and do everything I need it to?”

Anne laughed.  “The exact same argument.  I’m not winning that argument with you when you’re a kid either, I see.”

I shrugged.  “Mom and Pops raised me right.  At least that’s what they always said they were trying to do.  Waste is wrong, if you can avoid it.”

Anne looked at me funny.  “I can’t argue with that, I guess.  I don’t remember you being this adult when you were a kid.  I think some of the adult you is coming through, even if your memories aren’t right.”  She shook her head.  “Did you wash your hands?  Have you brushed your teeth today?”

I couldn’t remember.

“I don’t know.  I think I washed my hands.  Did you hear the water running?  I can wash them again.”  I stepped into the bathroom turned on the water, grabbed the bar of soap, and started to wash my hands.

Anne looked in the medicine cabinet.  “Here we are, your travel toothbrush.  Figured you would leave it here.”  Anne put the toothbrush on the flat part of the sink next to the faucet and moved some toothpaste next to it.  “Zeke!  Why is your hand bleeding?”

I looked down.  Red in the sink.  I guess I was bleeding.  “I guess I hurt myself, Anne.”  I washed the last of the soap off my hands and reached for a towel, but Anne grabbed my hands before I grabbed the towel.

“Let me see.”  Anne turned my hands over, back and forth and squeezed them, finally finding that I was bleeding from a torn edge of a fingernail.

“How did this happen, Zeke?  Why didn’t you tell anyone you were hurt?” Anne asked.

“I dunno.  I didn’t know I was hurt, Anne.  I can’t feel hurt anymore.  Coyote says that’s one way my power was shut off.”  What else had Coyote said about my power?  “I can’t feel scared anymore either.  I can still feel things and be happy, but those things don’t make my power work.  If I ask him nice, Coyote can heal it.  I was hurt really, really bad before, and he fixed it.  I got to eat lots of cheeseburgers and milkshakes too, Coyote said I ate over two hundred cheeseburgers to let him heal me!”  I did the math in my head.  Fifty-two weeks minus summer vacation and winter break, so forty weeks times five days.  “That’s a cheeseburger every day at school for a whole year, Anne, and I ate that much in one day!  He can’t fix the things the Ahmed guy did in my brain though.  That’s what we’re going to see if we can get fixed today, right?”

Anne held up a finger.  “One second, Zeke, let me think about all you just said.”  A few seconds later, she looked at me sadly.  “Yes, Zeke.  Sigrun and I already spoke about what sorts of things I might ask for in a boon, on your behalf.  Odin doesn’t like doing things by half measures.  If I ask him to restore your mind, he’s going to want to do his best to restore everything.  This is because you, with everything restored, will be the man who earned the boon Odin offered.  You, only partly restored, would not be the man who earned the boon.  You might be a better man, or a worse man, but you still wouldn’t be the man Odin offered the boon to.  It might even make him mad, if he felt I was asking for you to be partly restored just for my own selfishness, and Sigrun warned me that Odin can be very harsh when he’s mad.”

Anne hugged me, and put her head on my shoulder, and started crying.  “Zeke, I know how much you hated your power, but if I don’t ask for you to be fully restored to what you were, Odin may do something terrible.  Even if he only partly restores your mind, you may resent me for the changes you would have to make in your life.”

I held Anne against me, putting a little pressure on her back in a loose hug.

What would Pops say?

I have no idea.  This is just too weird.

Well, maybe.

“Anne.  When I was a grown up, was I a good man?”

“Yes, Zeke, one of the best, I think, but I’m a bit biased.  I loved you.  I love you.”  Anne sniffled.

“If I was a good man, Anne, ask Odin to make me that man again.  If the grown-up-me complains about it, tell him I asked you to do it, because you loved me the way I was.”

Anne stopped moving for a second, and then tightened her hug on me and started shuddering more than before.  I held her tighter, and she started to shudder even harder.  I started to panic a little.

I said something wrong.

What do I do now?

“Hahahahaha!”  Anne gently pushed me away and sniffled, smiling a bit crookedly at me.  “I will, Zeke, and I hope the adult you says something, because I want to see his eyes cross when I tell him what you just told me.”

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Arc 3, Balance 21

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After we were done looking at the Grand Canyon, we started running back to Georgia again.  I noticed something else that moved as fast as we did.  Our shadows, which were ahead of us now, as we ran east.  I stared at our shadows until I figured it out, and I almost stumbled.

“Zeke.  Pay attention.  Match my steps.”  Coyote sounded a little annoyed.

“Sorry Sir.”  I carefully matched my running pace to his again.  “Sir, you’re really fast, but light’s a lot faster, right?  That’s why our shadows keep up with us and the street lights and turn signals still turn on and off so fast?”

“Yes, Zeke.  Light is a lot faster than me, even if I don’t have a companion.  That’s not all of it though. We aren’t exactly obeying all the laws of physics here.  Pay attention to the pace, but enjoy yourself for the last little bit too.”

“Can you run across water, Sir?”

“Can I run across water?”  Coyote looked sideways at me.  “I think I can, Zeke, would you like to run across a lake?”

He sounds like Pops, when Pops is going to show me how to fix something.

“Yes Sir.  That sounds like a whole lot of fun.”

This’ll be great!  We’re going to make a huge rooster tail, like a jetboat!

Coyote nodded, and we took a couple turns.  After a few seconds on a different highway, he said.  “Ten seconds and we’ll hit a lakeshore, and then cross the lake, Zeke.  There will be a couple turns before that, keep the pace.”

“Yes, Sir.”

Can’t wait!  We’re gonna splash so many people!

We made a couple turns, before running through a parking lot, down a boat ramp, and onto the water.  I looked behind us to see our rooster tail.

Nothing.  I couldn’t even see our footsteps.

Darn.  This isn’t any fun.

I stumbled, and Coyote shot his arm out at me, not touching me, but I stopped moving, even though Coyote kept moving and we were still moving fast.

He’s pulling me with him.

“I’m sorry sir, I got too distracted, and lost the pace.”

“You seem disappointed, Zeke, didn’t we do what you asked?”

We did run across water.  I guess that’s neat.

“We did, Sir.  Thank you.”

“You were expecting something different, I can tell.  What?”

Don’t complain, just answer the question.

“Well, sir, as fast as we are, I figured we would create a huge rooster tail, like the racing boats do.  But that didn’t happen.”

Coyote looked at me, and licked his nose.  “I see, Zeke.  It doesn’t work quite that way, but I think we can make a little rooster tail.  Let’s go try that again.  I’ll just carry you next time around, so you can watch without worrying about matching my pace.”

“Yes, Sir.  Sorry I lost the pace.”

“Don’t worry about it Zeke, just watch.  Now that I know what you wanted, I think you will enjoy yourself.”

All of a sudden we were going in the opposite direction.  We didn’t turn, we didn’t slow down.  I was dizzy for a second, but Coyote was carrying me so it didn’t matter.  As we approached the lake, Coyote moved his left arm forward, and I drifted in front of him, turning so I was facing behind him.  I saw him scan in front of us, looking carefully side-to-side with narrowed eyes, and then he relaxed his grip on his cane, allowing it to slide down in his grip, until he was holding it barely below the disco ball on top.

I watched, trying to figure out what he was doing.

As Coyote stepped onto the water again, he dipped his right shoulder a bit and held his cane behind him.  When we were a few feet from shore, he dipped the tip of the cane down until it touched the water.  The water exploded behind us, where the tip of the cane hit it, but after it exploded out a foot or so, it stopped moving.  For some reason, there was steam too, not just water.

Awesome!

Coyote kept running; the tip of his long cane carved a ditch in the water that was a couple feet deep and a couple feet wide.  After a couple hundred feet, he lifted his cane and straightened his posture and picked up his cane so he wasn’t creating a trench in the lake’s surface.

After he straightened up, Coyote carried me to the shore, to a little point that stuck out into the lake.  We were a hundred feet or so from the water trench.  “I’m going to slow us down so you can watch it, but there won’t be a replay.”

I looked at the water trench.  It was pretty weird looking, and seeing it reminded me of the ditch that Pops had me help him dig when an irrigation pipe broke once.  When we first started, Mom had been pretty mad that Pops and I were going to dig the hole rather than Pops renting a backhoe, but Pops said it would build character.  Mom just looked at him funny and walked away, fast.  Pops said something about sleeping on the couch.  I wasn’t sure if we built any character, but I sure remember plenty of blisters that week.

The water and steam suspended in the air above and to the sides of the trench were pretty neat looking too.  I tried to fix them in my mind, since I’d only be able to see it once.

Coyote watched me watching the water, and tapped his cane once.  The water started to move, exploding up and away from the trench in the surface of the lake.  A wave several feet tall started moving slowly towards shore as the water and steam in the air above the trench billowed out like a slow-motion exploding car on TV, except there wasn’t any fire.  Everything was moving slowly, but the water explosion continued to expand and the lead wave was coming towards us on shore.  The water in the air hit us first, and threw me back, almost knocking me over, so I had to grab a tree to keep my balance.  The water stung my face, but not too much.  The wave crashed against the shore a couple seconds later, and washed across my legs.  I had to keep holding onto the tree.

“That. Was. Awesome!” I yelled out.

Coyote was standing a couple feet off the ground, looking at me.  After a few seconds he commented.  “Even if everything doesn’t work out, I think you’ll be just fine in a couple years, Zeke.”

What?

Oh, probably something to do with me being older than I think I am.

I’m not sure I want to be that old.

I remembered what I had seen in the mirror.  I had a lot of grey hair above my ears and at my temples.  I looked older than Pops.  Mom always used to tease Pops about the grey hairs she found when she cut his hair, and he had lots less than me.  Pops would make a comment about teaching her a lesson later, and they would both laugh a little.

I looked over at Coyote to watch him when I asked the question.  “Sir, are my Mom and Pops still alive?”

“Yes, Zeke.  I already told you they were.  They will be there when we arrive.  That’s one of several reasons we can take a little time now.  I can tell that things aren’t quite right yet.”

“Is that one of those god-things you can do, or do you have one of those new pager-things?”

Coyote opened his mouth a little and his tongue came out.  I had figured out that was what he did when something was funny to him.

“What’s funny, Sir?”

“Some of the things you’ve forgotten are funny.”

“Well, that’s no fair, if I’ve forgotten them, they aren’t funny to me.”

“That makes it even funnier.”

I don’t get it.

“If you say so, Sir.”

“I do say so.  Are you ready to run again?  The time feels about right.”

I looked at myself.  My shirt had lost a couple buttons, and everything was wet.  My slacks had some patches of mud on them.  “Sir, I’m a mess.  You said you could fix my clothes if they got messed up.  Mom will be furious if I show up to meet family like this, even if the clothes aren’t mine.”

“Sure, Zeke.”  My clothes moved against my skin.  It felt creepy, but as I watched, water drained out, buttons popped off the ground and jumped back onto the shirt, and the muddy spots fell off my pants.  I didn’t even have to take off my boots, I could feel the water from inside my boots climbing my leg up to just below my knee, then it poured down the inside of my pants legs to the ground.

Coyote reached over and ruffled my hair.  “There we go, clean as a whistle.”

“Thank you, Sir.”  I stepped back and ran my fingers through my hair, then shifted my weight from foot to foot to make sure my socks were pulled up and there weren’t any rocks in my boots. “I’m ready to run again.”

“Follow me then, same as before.”

“Yes, Sir.”  Coyote started walking and I matched his pace, then he started moving faster and I continued to match the pace.  “Can I ask a question, Sir?”

“You can.” Coyote didn’t look at me, he was looking ahead of us, intently.

I wonder what he’s looking for.

“How was everything slow when we were at the lake, before you made everything speed up for the water explosion, even though we weren’t running?”

Coyote glanced at me a second then looked intently forward again.  “The running, and the speed of everything around us are two different things I can control.  I can make things really slow around us, or I can make us really fast, or both.  Even I don’t understand exactly how it works.”

That’s crazy.

“But you’re a god, you said?  How can you not know?”

“I don’t know.”

“You don’t know why you don’t know?”

“Exactly.”

“Oh.  I see.  I think.”

Clear as mud.

We ran a few seconds before I decided to play a joke.  “Are we there yet?”

“No, not yet.”  Coyote glanced down at me.

After a second, I started again “Are we…”

Coyote cut me off.  “Nope.”

I couldn’t help but laugh a little, and Coyote looked at me with his tongue rolling out the side of his jaw.

“I’m just a kid, Sir, but you’re spending a whole lot of time with me.  Is it because of who I was, or who I am, or is this normal for the people you rescue?  After you’re done with me, will you go back and go running with the big man and his Walkman that you saved from the truck earlier?”

We continued running for a while and I thought Coyote wasn’t going to answer me.  “It’s because of who and what you were, Zeke.  It’s also because of what you are, or rather what I expect you soon will be again.”  Coyote looked to his left a little and I watched his left eye looking me up and down.  “You were hurt badly, worse than most people have ever been hurt and still lived.  You suffered that hurt fighting a friend of mine.  You and I weren’t friends before, but we knew each other, just a little bit.  It seems impossible that you were able to kill my friend.  There’s really no way you should have ever managed it, but it happened anyway.  Even though you can’t remember it, I can tell because of what I saw back there that you weren’t even aware of how you did it.  Others made it happen, and I know who they are.”

I killed his friend?

How is he not angry with me?

I wasn’t sure how to apologize to a god about killing his friend.  I had to do it anyway.  “I’m very sorry, Sir, I don’t remember killing anyone, but I’ll take your word for it.  If you knew him, and were friends with him, I’m sure he was a good person.  Will I need to go to jail?”

Coyote did not look at me, but he snorted a little.  “No, Zeke, I will not be handing out any punishments.  You killed my friend Ahmed, but others arranged for it to happen.  You were only a pawn.”

“So do you need me to get my memories back, so I can help you figure out who made me kill your friend?”

“No, I already know that.  You figured out at least part of it before you lost your memory.  I saw those connections very clearly in the place where we found you.”

“Oh.  I’m confused then, Sir.  Why does all that make you want to spend time with me?”

“Because when Ahmed died, there was an upheaval.  A great changing.  All the gods felt it.  The world became a little bit easier for us to touch, the people a little more receptive.  Magic responded faster and made more sense.  Our abilities to see connections and intent became much more potent.  This includes our ability to see our own connections.  I have met and talked to many other gods in the eight days since Ahmed died.  We all see the same signs.  Each of us had hundreds, even thousands of connections with Ahmed.  None of us were his puppets, but all of us were controlled in subtle but powerful ways.  The number of suggestions and even very minor coercions laid against us were staggering.  Enchantments to prevent us from remembering certain types of knowledge, a mild fear of him imprinted on us.  None of us were able to see the enchantments or connections Ahmed put in place, and none of us would ever seriously challenge him, even though most of us were far more powerful than him.”

Coyote continued to run, looking straight ahead.  “With Ahmed dead, we can now see the remnants of unraveled connections between him and the Svartalves as well.  Those connections were very strong, and very old.  There is disagreement amongst some of us gods about what that relationship between Ahmed and the Svartalves might have been.  Most of the strongest connections are very dark, but not all.  There were some very benevolent connections as well.  We know a lot of the history between Svartalves and Ahmed, but clearly not all of it.”

We passed a truck convoy.  I gave the trucker in the first truck the horn-pull signal with my right arm, but then realized I was too fast and he wouldn’t be able to see me.

Dangit.

Coyote had been watching me, and when I looked back at him, he kept talking.  “We, the gods, were used and controlled by my friend, who was, in turn, killed by you.  You were guided into killing Ahmed by Svartalves, and the Svartalves were themselves tightly connected to Ahmed with connections that we can’t clearly read, because those connections are now broken and all we can detect are remnants.  The Svartalves are not talking, and they are extremely difficult and potentially dangerous to coerce.”

I was starting to get confused.  “So everything was a mess, and someone tricked me into killing your friend Ahmed.  Now it’s an even bigger mess because now that he is dead, you can see everything he did before, and it wasn’t the kinds of things that you would think a friend would do.  What do I have to do with that?”

“That’s pretty close.  I wanted to see what sorts of connections you had.  I wanted to watch you very closely, to see if there were hints that you were part of an even deeper game on Ahmed’s part than what we have seen so far.  In your altered mental state, any connections to you would be easier to spot, especially connections meant to be very difficult to detect.  The more difficult to detect a connection is, the more extremely tightly individualized they have to be.  In the last little while, it’s become clear to me that you have no such hidden connections.  You are too different now, mentally, from what you were.  Any connections to the adult you would be clearly visible against the young you.”

I didn’t understand half of that, but I was pretty sure I was being tested.  “So I passed the test?”

“You did.  And the little bit of fun we had was an effort on my part to make it up to you while I watched you.  The Grand Canyon is a place where I meditate, I didn’t make that up.  That place used to remind me of Ahmed, as I told you, but I’m not so sure of that anymore.  Ahmed was playing a deception and control game on levels none of us had any idea he was capable of.  Loki was so angry he couldn’t even talk, and that’s quite an accomplishment.  The Abrahamic gods actually talked to us, briefly, and confirmed that they too had been under the influence of great numbers of subtle connections.  Looking at my own broken connections to him, it appears as if Ahmed actually guided my creation, and established controls over me before I was sufficiently formed to have independent thought.  The other worship-conceived gods reported similar connections within themselves.  Some of the gods who were once human indicated they found evidence that their controls were established while they were still human.”

“Well, Sir, I’m not sure I understand all that, but it sounds like Ahmed was really sneaky, good at hiding what he was doing, and really good at making people do what he wanted without them knowing it.  Maybe that’s why you liked him.  Maybe that’s why he liked you?  I mean, you talk about these connections that I can’t see, but one of those connections you can see is friendship, right?  Can you make a fake connection?”

Coyote looked sideways at me again.  “No.  You can hide them, even alter them slightly, but you can’t make fake connections.”

“Then he really was a friend?  Maybe not as good a friend as you thought, but still a friend?”

Coyote continued looking at me for a few seconds, and it made me nervous.  “Did I say something wrong, Sir?”

“No, Zeke.  You didn’t.  Thank you.”  Coyote looked away.  “We’re almost to your home.  Remember, you told your family that you were probably dead by letters delivered by your lawyers six days ago, without giving them any details as to how or why.  They only found out you were alive when Hildr told her sisters that you had been found, a few hours ago, and Sigrun delivered the message.”

“Oh, I didn’t tell them why or anything?”

“Nope, nothing.  Don’t worry about why.  You had good reasons, and you will remember them when your mind is restored.  I’d be willing to bet that your family will be more interested in welcoming you back than quibbling about goodbye letters.”  He paused.  “Until a few days have passed, anyway.”

We ran down a long gravel driveway.  There was a pickup truck that looked vaguely familiar for some reason.  Next to the familiar truck was a station wagon, and another old pickup truck.  Off a couple hundred feet to the left side of the main gravel driveway, with no driveway leading to it, was a big red barn that seemed to be in good condition.  The house was a two-story house in good repair.  White with black shutters.

“Do they know I’m not me right now?  Someone told them that I’m a kid again, in my head, right?”

“They know, Zeke.  They are all here now, so they can go with you and see about getting your mind set straight.”

Coyote opened the front door of the house, and we walked in.  I saw four people sitting at a kitchen table, immobile.  A woman who looked a little like Anne, but a little taller and heavier, a young man who looked a bit like Pops, but a lot skinnier, an old heavyset man, and an old woman.  The old man and old woman might be Pops and Mom, but they were really old with lots of grey hair, even more than me.

“Remember, Zeke, brace yourself.” Coyote said as we both came to a complete stop.

“OK, Sir, I’m ready.”

Coyote knocked on the wall of the entryway from the foyer into the dining room, and I heard people making noises like they had been interrupted halfway through a word.  I was standing in the doorway in full sight of them.

The young man was drinking something, coffee or tea, maybe cocoa, and spilled it on himself when he saw me.  He stood up like a shot, saying “Dad!” in a high pitched, pained voice as he tried to pull his wet shirt away from his chest.  As he stood, he hit the table, knocking it heavily.

The older couple had been preparing their own drinks.  Coffee, it looked like.  The older woman just stopped, immobile, closed her eyes and whispered “Zeke.  Thank God.”  Her cup of coffee moved with the table, but her arm with the spoon in it didn’t, and the coffee cup flipped over as the table carried it under the immobile spoon.  The old man sitting next to her, despite his thick-looking, heavily calloused fingers and hands smoothly picked up the saucer his coffee cup was sitting on, preventing any spillage as the table bucked underneath where the saucer had been.  After the table stopped moving, he set the saucer back down and reached for the paper towels in the middle of the table with his right hand as he laid his meaty left arm across the table to keep the pool of coffee from the older woman’s cup from dripping off the table into her lap.

The woman who looked like Anne stood up and turned to face me, saying “Zeke?” in a small, questioning voice.

We locked eyes, and I was stunned.  Memories poured into my mind.  Our marriage and honeymoon.  Danny’s birth.  Her surprise thirtieth birthday, when I had arranged for there to be nobody home but us, jumped out of the cake wearing only a ribbon, and then fallen over, cracking my left lower floating rib as I fell onto a footstool.  The dinner celebration after her first contract as a freelance web designer.  The episode where Danny caught us in the act in the middle of the living room floor.  Danny’s graduation.  I could feel tears streaming down my cheeks.  The memories faded after a few seconds, but I knew they were there still.  I knew this wasn’t some sort of lie or joke.  All of a sudden, I felt terribly empty.

“Anne.  Help, I’ve lost so much.”

Anne took three quick steps forward and wrapped me in her arms, laying her head on my shoulder.

My arms surrounded her without me needing to think about it.  It just felt right.

Prior Chapter      Next Chapter

Arc 3, Balance 20

Prior Chapter      Next Chapter

Coyote looked at me sternly.  “Zeke, let me speak.  Stay silent unless you are addressed directly.”

“Yes, Sir.”  Coyote had explained a few things.  I had been hurt really bad.  I was much older than I thought I was.  A lot of my memories were gone.  I was married.  To Anne.  If I had to be married to someone, Anne seemed like a pretty good choice.  Mom and Pop liked her parents, and Anne wasn’t mean like some of the other girls.  I even had a son.  A son who was getting ready to go to college.  I hadn’t even graduated high school yet, and my son was going to college.  That just seemed really weird.

When does school start again?

Will my son help me with my homework?

I looked at my hands and arms.  Hairy.  Longer fingers than I remembered.  I shrugged and started listening to Coyote and Octagon.

As I shrugged, both Coyote and Octagon looked at me briefly, and then they looked at each other again.

Coyote spoke patiently.  “Octagon, there was no danger bringing him here.  I promise you that.  His power is disabled and cannot be activated by either conscious or unconscious triggering.”

Power.  Hard to believe I have a power.

Did Anne get a power too?  I forgot to ask.

That might be pretty cool, we could fight crime together!

She’s a girl though.  I’d have to make sure she stayed safe, or Pops would kill me. 

Octagon crossed his arms, ducked his head a little, and then closed his eyes, clearly thinking. A moment later he spoke again.  “Coyote, it’s difficult to believe every word you say.  While I’ve yet to catch you saying anything untrue or deliberately manipulating anyone on the team during your visits, your simple presence here is disruptive.  It’s very hard to ignore all of your decades of thievery.”

Coyote tapped his long cane on the ground. “I am well aware of my own past history and of Whizzard’s dislike for my presence, despite the fact that I pulled him out of a kidnap situation so recently.  His paranoia about me stealing his prototypes or research data is understandable.  Especially with him being a Tinker.”  There was a brief pause as Coyote locked eyes with Octagon.  “You, on the other hand, are beginning to get a little annoying.”

Octagon frowned behind his mask.  “We have no problems with occasional visits to consult with my wife.  That was an agreement she made by herself, and I won’t fight with her about it.  I will even say that I approve of it.  There’s almost always room for someone to reform.  Even though you did that weird bet and scarring thing, I fully recognize the efforts you went through to avoid killing or maiming people.  At the same time, I would far rather you videoconference with each other, or something, rather than personal visits.”

Coyote smiled, and a lot of teeth showed.  “It pleases me to speak with a mortal who understands how important image is, even if you don’t understand all of its implications for those of us who are not mortal.”

Octagon stiffened.  “You claim to be a god.  Over the last week, quite a few other supers have done the same.  I have spoken to a few people who are involved in magic, and they have verified that you are, in fact, Coyote.  The Trickster.  What they don’t know is why you all kept it hidden so long, and why some of you are starting to make claims of godhood now.”

Coyote’s tongue fell out of the side of his mouth, hanging there for a couple seconds before he pulled it back in.  “Clearly, you are concerned that what I am doing is all a deception or trick of some sort.”

I watched as Octagon nodded.  He had locked eyes with Coyote.

Please don’t fight.

Coyote started to talk, paused, stared at Octagon, and then started talking again.  “Don’t try to stare me down, Octagon.  It won’t work on me.  You’re a brave man, and you’ve got a powerful will, but I’m far beyond your weight class when it comes to willpower.”

Octagon looked away. “Fine.  You know I don’t trust you, and Whizzard goes nuts anytime you are in the facility, but you came anyway.”  Octagon turned to face me.  “Why?  If you are a god, why didn’t you take care of him somewhere else?  Don’t you have some secret lair somewhere or something?”

“Gods need affirmation, Octagon.  I do, indeed, have quite a few places where I could have taken Mr. Collins, but there are symbolic reasons why I came here.” Coyote paused before continuing.  “For your team, and many hero teams like it, good public image is important.  When your image is good, your government and the people around you cooperate with you, making your lives less complex and enabling you to do more with less effort.  If your image falters, your government starts to be less cooperative, the people withdraw their support and are less open with you, and it becomes harder for you.  Do you disagree with my characterization of image as related to a super hero team?”

Octagon shook his head.  “No disagreement.  It’s a fair enough simple explanation, and it is part of the reason I have issues with you openly associating with us.  The public knowing that you are associating with us is a smudge on our image.  Not a big one as long as you behave, but how long do you plan on behaving?”

“I need to build up to answering that, bear with me a moment.  Image is important to you.  To gods, image is everything.  It literally defines us.  Native Americans originally defined me as a trickster, and I wasn’t that nice, but I almost always had a lesson to teach, even if I taught the lesson by failing.  I spent thousands of years as a teacher of painful lessons, until the Native Americans tribes were decimated time and time again, and their cultures were nearly eliminated.  I was an interesting god though, even to those outside the Native American culture.  Over the decades, children and young adults were fascinated by me, especially in the United States.  I became a little less harsh, a bit sneakier, and a lot more benevolent.”

Octagon squinted.  “Are you saying that the interest of children somehow molded you?  They didn’t even need to be worshippers of your religion?”

“The interest of everyone.  Gods feed on attention.  Prayer is direct attention and very potent, but fear, respect, love, or even curiosity go a long way too.  Children love stories about gods, children become adults, and adults tell stories to children.  Generation after generation.  I was rarely worshipped, but I was interesting.  I was seen differently by a different culture.  Slowly, I changed.  Of all the Native American gods, I’m the strongest now.”  Coyote stared at Octagon for just a moment.  Octagon looked to the side, flexed his shoulders a little, and turned his gaze back to Coyote.

Coyote’s tongue came out if the side of his mouth for just a second, and then he started talking again.  “When I started my career as Disco Wolf, it was to test a theory and enjoy myself.  I was correct about my theory, and enjoyed myself immensely to start with.  Even though mortals didn’t know I was a god, their attention fed me and made me powerful.  That meant that I didn’t need to say I was a god, but I was still able to gain power and sustenance.  Several other gods saw me doing this and followed suit.”

Octagon looked thoughtful for a second, and scratched the side of his cheek with two fingers.  “That’s a strange twist on a secret identity.”

“Depends on how you look at it.  In both of our cases, Octagon and Disco Wolf are masks to avoid drawing attention to our real selves.  In your case, the real self was human, in mine, it was a god.”  Coyote seemed to be waiting for something.  After Octagon nodded, Coyote continued.  “Back to the lesson.  The public attention quickly made me as powerful as I had ever been as an object of worship, but it had a down side.  I was having more and more difficulty resisting being violent and destructive.  My activities were having an undesired effect on me, attracting the wrong sorts of negative attention from the public.  Every time someone was hurt in a heist, even if it wasn’t serious, I was hammered with negativity.  Every time there was significant property damage, the same.  I had to go into semi-retirement and choose my targets very carefully, or else public negativity might have eventually redefined me into a dark god.  That’s an extremely difficult hole to dig oneself out of.  Being a trickster is one thing, being a dark god is completely different.”

“So this whole thing with the bet with Strangest.” Octagon looked at me for a moment. “It’s another effort to game the system and try to become a different sort of god?”

“Exactly.”  Coyote drew his cane behind himself and started pacing.  “There’s no way I’ll ever be a passive god, like the Abrahamic gods.  I can’t imagine myself being a god of farming, literature, knowledge, hunting or battle.  One of the groups who provided me with the greatest energy during the last few decades were college students interested in role playing games, and they led me to a discovery and an idea.  Everyone knows that people love a hero.  Humans especially love a hero that rescues people rather than just beating up villains.  You save a man’s possessions, and he’ll thank you and that’s a nice little image and power boost.  You save a man himself, or his loved ones?  That man becomes a powerful battery for you.  He’ll sing your praises to everyone who will listen and his personal devotion to you will be intense.  You can hardly do wrong in his eyes.  It’s not worship, exactly, because they know you exist, but its close enough.  Reverence is a closer word.”

Octagon was nodding.  “You feed off this somehow, and you are what you eat.”

“Yes.  Attention defines me.  Every time I rescue a hostage or a kidnap victim.  Every time I rescue someone from a burning building or a sinking ship, I am typically revered as a rescuer by the one I save, and frequently by their relatives as well.  This defines me and empowers me.  Every rescue makes me more of a benevolent god of rescue and less of a murky-morality god of tricks and thievery.  It changes everything about me.”

Octagon turned and looked at me.  “How does this explain Strangest then?  Once his mind is set right, is he going to be any net gain for you?”  He paused.  “Ah.  His wife.  His son, and parents, if they are still alive.  Even if he doesn’t have visceral memories of the event, he’ll still know who helped.”

I wanted to say something, but I couldn’t think what.  Coyote had also told me not to talk unless talked to.  Pops told me there were times when the best thing to do was just watch and listen.  I bounced on my heels a bit.

That’s just so weird.

I tried to imagine myself with a wife and a son, and I just couldn’t.

I wonder if they made a mistake and I’m not the person I thought I was.

Wouldn’t I remember my own family?

A strong urge to run hit me at that moment.  Not to run away, but just to run.  To feel the wind in my hair.  There was no room to run here in the jackoozie room though, even after we had put away the table and chair, and cleaned it up.

Stop staring at me, Octagon.

I stared back at him for a second.  He shook his head, and then turned back to Coyote.

Coyote braced his long cane in front of him, and put both hands on it.  “It’s not that mercenary any more.  A couple weeks ago, it was.  I was rescuing people and I didn’t really care, but I needed to do it, and I knew I did.  My bet with Mr. Collins here helped me stay on the straight and narrow for the first few days as I became extremely active again, with oh so many opportunities for mischief.”

“I see, I think.”

“Two weeks ago, my reaction to finding Mr. Collins where he was would have been significantly different.  The being he fought with and killed, somehow, was one of few that I would have called a friend.  Mr. Collins would not be here right now, if I had found him two weeks ago.  That being said, the changes in my attitudes and reactions to others have slowed dramatically, but there are still aspects of darkness within me.  There always will be.  Part of what I do, breaking into places and getting people out, is closely associated with thievery, and everyone’s opinion of me matters.  The relief and reverence of the ones I save are balanced to some degree by the anger of those whose plans I thwart.  I have a decades-long history of thievery, and many people in the world won’t believe I’m reformed.  Their negativity impacts me as well.”

“So, you are an Amalgam of what humans think of you, weighted by how strongly they believe.”  Octagon looked thoughtful.  “If I’m understanding right, the trick here is that you ha…”  Octagon’s eyes got big, and he abruptly turned his head to face Coyote.  “Social media.  That’s what you’ve been doing with social media.”

“Like I told you two, if you need to reach me about a rescue, Hashtag CoyoteRescue.  Social media goes both ways.”  Coyote bowed a shallow formal bow with sweeping arms.  “I fear that’s all the lesson time I have for today.  Mr. Collins and I have places to be.  I’m rather confident that there’s a very worried wife and son waiting for me to bring him along.”

Coyote turned to me.  “You ready to run, Zeke?”

Run, oh yes.  Definitely.

“Yes Sir.  Ready when you are.  Oh, wait.” I turned to face Octagon.  “Goodbye Mr. Octagon, please say goodbye to your wife for me as well.  Mrs. Cupcake makes awesome cheeseburgers.”

Octagon just stared at me for a second then smiled.  The smile seemed real, though his staring at me before that felt weird.  “Thank you, Zeke, I’ll tell her you said goodbye, and pass on your compliment.”

Coyote tapped his cane twice on the floor, and I looked towards him.  “Sorry, Sir.  I’m ready now.”

Can’t wait to run, but these clothes aren’t good to run in.

“Sir, sorry to be a bother, but should I be running in church clothes?”  Slacks and fancy boots, with a long sleeve button-up shirt.  “Mom would have me cut my own switch if she caught me running in clothes this nice.”

“You’ll be fine, Zeke.  I can fix them for you before you meet your family, if you tear anything.  Remember, I made them, I can fix them.  You’re just borrowing them until you can get your own.”

“As long as you’re sure.”  I hopped from foot to foot to try to get a feel for the boots.  Running in boots would be weird.  “Can we run now?”

“Yes.  Try and keep pace with me now, match your paces to mine.  Don’t watch my feet, watch my legs.  My feet move differently from yours, but my upper legs don’t.  If you can time your footsteps to the sound of my footsteps that works just as well.”

“I think I understand, Sir.  You want us to run like Army guys run in the movies, when they all run in a line?”

“That’s it, exactly, Zeke.  We’ll start with a walk, and pick up the pace from there.”  Coyote walked out of the jackoozie room, and I stepped at the same time he did.  We walked past Octagon, who seemed to be smiling for no reason I could figure out.

After we left the apartment and entered the hallway, Coyote started to walk faster.  I could hear his claws clicking on the ground as he ran, it was easier to time my steps to his that way.  By the time we got to another door, next to the outside of a building. We were running really fast, and I thought we were going to break the door, but even though we were going so fast, Coyote opened the door and it didn’t break as we passed it.

As we ran across the yard, and under a couple trees on the way to the road, Coyote spoke to me.  “If you want to run with me, Zeke, you have to concentrate on running.  You can look at other things, but you have to pay attention to the pace I set, and match it.  If you can’t do that, I’ll have to carry you.  That wouldn’t be any fun, would it?”

“Yes Sir, I mean no Sir.  I mean…” I couldn’t figure out how to say it while I was concentrating on matching my pace to Coyote’s.

“I understand, Zeke, don’t worry about it.  Just keep running.  I think it’s time we go a little faster, don’t you?”

We were running on a road through the city, around cars like they were standing still.  But they weren’t.  I could see them moving slowly.  I could see people starting to turn their heads to look at us.  Everything was slow.  Except traffic lights.  I watched one change from red to green.  It was just as fast as a normal traffic light.

Weird.

“Sir, why are the traffic lights still so fast to change colors when everything else is slow?”  I carefully kept pace with Coyote, matching my pace to the clicks of his claws.

Coyote didn’t answer for a second, and then simply said “We’ll talk about that later.”  Then he twisted right a little bit.  “Stay close, don’t touch any people or things.  I need to help this guy real quick.”  He pointed towards the side of the road, at an intersection a couple blocks ahead.

As we got closer, I could see that there was a big, heavyset guy who looked like he was falling in super slow motion, right in front of a parked truck.  As I looked at the truck though, I realized it wasn’t parked.  It was really slow too, but the falling guy and the truck were going to hit each other.  As we ran up to the guy, Coyote reached out both hands.  One hand grabbed the guy by the collar of his windbreaker and picked him up so his feet were a few inches off the ground, the other hand grabbed the little black box out of the air.  It looked like the guy had been trying to catch the box.

It was pretty funny to watch.  The guy kept moving really slowly, like he didn’t realize Coyote had picked him up.  Coyote looked at the little black box and did something with his fingers, than looked directly at the phone.  “Safety tip.  Texting while walking next to traffic is a bad idea.”  He licked his nose, and then continued.  “If I hadn’t been passing by, you would be having a very bad day right now.”

Coyote carefully placed the little black box in the man’s jacket pocket, before turning the man to the side, and putting him down on the sidewalk, so he was facing away from the road, and there wasn’t anyone right next to him.  Everyone around us seemed to be very slowly turning their heads to watch us, including the guy Coyote had picked up.

“OK, that was fun.  Ready to go faster, Zeke?”

Faster?  We were already so fast people couldn’t even turn their heads fast enough to watch us.

Awesome!

“Yes Sir!  I’m ready for faster!”

“I thought you might be, Zeke.”  Everything stopped moving completely, and then things started to get a little blurry.  I had a hard time matching Coyote’s footsteps, and then it got easier.

“That’s about as fast as the two of us can go together, Zeke.  Are you having fun?”

“Yes Sir, this is great!  Thank you so much.  I know you’re helping me with your power, but it still feels like I’m running, and this is awesome fast.”

“There’s no need to thank me, Zeke.  I’m not sure exactly how, yet, but you did something big a while ago.  Something you don’t remember very well, and that nobody else saw directly.”

I did?

“What did I do, Sir?  Will I need to apologize to someone?”  I couldn’t help but be worried.  I didn’t remember doing very much at all recently, other than chores and schoolwork.  Well, and throwing a rotten egg into the cab of old man Halloway’s truck because he had shot one of Doug’s dogs.  Pops had already whipped me on the legs with a switch for that though, and I couldn’t imagine him whipping me for it again.  I squared my shoulders.  It had been worth it, and if I got whipped again, it would be worth it again.

“Maybe.  Probably.  But its complex, and you won’t have to worry about it until we take care of a few more things.  Just enjoy the run.  Have you ever been to the Grand Canyon?”

“No Sir, not that I can remember, but there seems to be a whole lot I can’t remember.  Didn’t you say we had to meet Anne and, err, my son?  That just seems so weird.  Do we have time?  The Grand Canyon is nowhere near where I live.  I don’t think.  Do I still live in Georgia?”

“So many questions.”  Coyote continued to run, his long cane in his right hand, and me on his left side.  “Match my pace, Zeke, we can take a few minutes time to go see something that every child should see, if they can.”

We were running alongside a highway now, still super-fast.  Every now and then I would see a car’s turn signal blink.  It was amazing that the lights still turned off and on so fast, even though everything else was so slow!  It was even cooler than that though.  The lights didn’t instantly turn on and off like I had always thought they did, they rapidly got brighter or dimmer as they turned on and off.

That’s pretty cool.

“Here we are.” Coyote turned off the highway and followed a smaller road for a second or two.

As we came to the end of the road to a parking lot, Coyote made a hand gesture at me, and we both slowed down.  I saw a little piece of paper blow across the parking lot.

Coyote didn’t look at me as he walked out towards a railing that protruded out a little bit over the huge hole in the ground.  “I come here sometimes, Zeke, to remind myself how small I am, and how old the world is.  I used to come here to try to understand a friend, a friend who made even this place seem young.  I never did understand him.”  He waved his hand at me, beckoning me to come closer.

That sounded weird, but Coyote did have a dog’s head, and claws, and funny legs.  His eyes were yellow too.  Maybe he just saw things really differently.  “I don’t understand how the Grand Canyon can remind you of a person, Sir, or how someone can seem older than this place.  I learned in school how it took millions of years for the river to cut the canyon out of the rock.”

Coyote nodded at me.  “It is hard to understand.  You’ll understand a bit better, later, if we can get your mind back on track.  After we take a couple minutes here, we’ll go to meet your family.”

We should be doing that now, I think.  My family is important!

Even if I don’t remember them?

There was a chuckle.  “I saw that, Zeke.  Yes, you are right that we’re avoiding an important obligation.  Sometimes though, one needs to be irresponsible and self-indulgent, even gods.”

I looked down, and across the canyon.  It was huge, deep, and incredible.  I just stood and stared for a couple minutes, and I felt tiny.  Coyote did the same, staring across the canyon without moving or speaking.  Eventually I had seen it enough.  I was quiet a couple more minutes, since Coyote wasn’t talking or moving, but after a while I had to say something.  “This really is an awesome gift, Sir, I’ll remember it forever.”

Coyote shook his head a little, and his tongue rolled out the side of his mouth as he turned to face me.  “Maybe you will.”

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Arc 3, Balance 19

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“Nurse, Nurse!  Why can’t I move my arms, Nurse?”

Nurse ignored me, carrying another rock to the big pile of rocks.

“Nurse, what’s the big pile of rocks for?”

I can’t move my legs.  Why am I tied up?

“Nurse, did I do something bad?”

Nothing.

“Nurse why aren’t you talking to me?”

“You told me to only talk to you, if you called me what I am, or if you ask why I won’t talk to you.”

“Oh.  I don’t remember telling you that, Nurse, I’m sorry.  You can talk if you want to!”

Nurse walked away, and didn’t talk any more.

“Nurse, did I say something wrong?”

What did Nurse do wrong that made me tell them not to talk to me?

Maybe I got mad at them because they wouldn’t talk to me?

That must be it.

“Nurse, I’m sorry.  You can talk to me if you want.”

**

“Nurse, is that a shark’s tooth?”

Nurse didn’t talk.  They just walked closer and knelt next to me, with the shark tooth in one hand and a hot rock from the fire in the other.

“Do I have cancer nurse?  Is that why you have to keep cutting me?”

“I’m a big boy, nurse.  A little shark’s tooth can’t make me cry, see?”

“Did you get the cancer this time, Nurse?”

**

“Please talk to me Nurse?”

“Nurse, why won’t you talk to me?”

Nurse started talking!  “You told me to only talk to you, if you called me what I am, or if you ask why I won’t talk to you.”

Why doesn’t her mouth move?

Oh, she’s wearing a mask.

“Why is your skin so shiny, nurse?”

“Am I sick, Nurse, is that why you wear a mask?”

Nurse just walked away, still carrying the big rock.

“Nurse, I’m tired of jerky.  Can you bring me a hamburger, with a milkshake?”

“Nurse!  Nurse!  Why are you running away, Nurse!”

Did I scare her?  Maybe that’s why I’m tied up and can’t move?

“Nurse, don’t leave me, Nurse!  I’m sorry if I scared you!  I didn’t mean to!”

“Mr. Collins requires immediate medical assistance.  He is also severely mentally impaired due to mental trauma and malnutrition.”

“Is my father here, Nurse?  He’s hurt?  Please let me see my father!”

“Explain.  Be brief.” That wasn’t Nurse!!

That’s not Pops either.

He sounds smart!

“Doctor, is that you?”

“This place has nothing a human can eat for sustenance.  Mr. Collins directed me to use his own body as a food source.  It has been seventy-two days now.  He has fallen into a state of childhood regression with frequent hallucinations.”

Is that why I can’t move my arms and legs?

“Nurse why didn’t you tell me I had fallen?  Please come back, Nurse!”

What did I fall into?

I remember Pops said I should never go near a well if he or Mom weren’t there.

“Did I fall into a well, Nurse?  Who is that?”

Someone walked around so I could see them.  They were bright and hard to look at, with big teeth.

“Oh, Laddie!  You found me!!  Good Dog!!  Go find Tommy, and get Nurse, I think I’ve fallen into a well!”

Laddie shook his head at me.  “Way too much trouble to read him like this.”

“Laddie, you’re smart, but you can’t talk, or read, please go get Tommy!”

Laddie just stared at me.

Did I get my lines mixed up?

“Please, Laddie, you’re my only hope!  Go get Tommy!”

A smaller person walked around me.  From the other side.

Oh, there’s Tommy!

“Tommy!  Did you bring a hamburger and milkshake like you promised?”

Tommy stared, his eyes looking up and down as he faced me.  “What did you do to yourself, Zeke?”

Laddie was just looking at me.  “He survived, Ali.”

They’re doing it all wrong!

I looked at Tommy.  “Don’t stare.  That’s not polite!  You supposed to just look long enough to see that I’m in danger, then you go get the neighbors!”  I turned to look at Laddie next.  “Laddie, stop talking!  That’s off script!”

Could Tommy really not see what had happened?

Maybe if I say it slower?

“Tommy. I. Fell. Into. A. well.”

Tommy still wasn’t doing anything.

I took a deep breath.  “Tommy, Laddie needs to go get help, and you owe me a hamburger and a vanilla shake.  But I’ll take anything.  Except jerky.  That’s all the hospital has.”

Tommy still looked confused and maybe a little mad.

Laddie was just watching Tommy.

Maybe they just forgot their lines?  “Remember the script, Tommy!”

Laddie stopped looking at Tommy and turned his head to me.  “Not quite what we were expecting.  I’ll stabilize him, if you don’t trust yourself to, but I can’t heal his mind, not damage this bad.  That’s never been a skill of mine.  Yet.  I’m working on it.”

I sighed and turned my head.

They’re hopeless.  They’ll never make it in the movie industry.  And such a clever dog too.  It must be his trainer.

“Fine, you two ignore me.  The director will cut you and bring in people who can follow the script.”

Laddie looked back and forth between Tommy and me again.  “On some level I think he’s still in there.  He’s recognizing us as a rescue of some sort, Ali.”

Of course it’s a rescue.  The people watching the show want something exciting to happen.

I wanted to cross my arms and stare at them, but my arms couldn’t move, so I just stared.

“I don’t trust myself to heal him, Coyote.  Not right now.  He clearly doesn’t have the energy reserves to support induced regeneration, and there’s barely any human tissue nearby for me to integrate into him.  What is around is all dried or ground into powder and mixed with water.  On top of all that, I can’t understand half of what Father did in his brain to disable his powers.  If I made a mistake fiddling around in his mind to fix what father broke, I might kill him.  Contract or not, right now, I’m not sure it would be a mistake if I killed him.”

Is Tommy a doctor?

“Am I terminal, doctor?”

Tommy just stared at me, and said nothing.

When the doctor won’t talk, that’s bad.

“Can I say goodbye to my mother and father first, please?”

Laddie paused.  “In that case, I’ll stabilize him, and get him away from here.  If you haven’t been paying attention, Matty is talking to the suit over at the grave.  She seems distracted, and could probably use a shoulder to lean on.”

A suit?  What is a lawyer doing here?

Laddie looked at Tommy, staring at him, and Tommy looked a little worried or sad, maybe both.  Laddie started talking again.  “As a friend of your father’s, I ask that you don’t damage the suit or modify anything Zeke changed here, yet.  If you haven’t already, look at the connections Zeke built between himself and the grave, the suit, and the cairn.  They are powerful.  I know it was your father’s place, and I know you’re conflicted, but your father was my friend, and there’s a lot of answers here.  I can feel them.  I’m not sure Mr. Collins will ever be able to give us good answers.  I will be unhappy if you destroy the answers here before I have an opportunity to explore them myself.”

Tommy swallowed, and nodded, then walked away, and Laddie started to talk again.  “Thank you for helping us find this place, Hildr, Ahmed hid it well.  I’m not sure why you are still here though.”

Laddie stared at me, touched my forehead with his finger, and warmth spread through my body.

“I was charged with watching him.  I couldn’t do that if he was hidden.  After I found this place, and you found a way in, I saw there was still a chance I would be needed to do more than find him.  I’m still amazed that you found a way into this place.  I still don’t see how you managed it.”

Laddie turned to look in the direction Tommy had walked.  “True, to the first part.  As for the second, I don’t even know how I do it, sometimes.  I’d be willing to bet that you don’t know how you can always follow and find the ones you’ve been told to watch.”

“No bet.”  The woman’s voice, again.

I couldn’t turn my head far enough to see the woman who was speaking.  “It’s not polite to talk over someone’s head.”

Laddie looked over my head, and laughed.  I heard the woman laughing too.

“I’m surprised you haven’t silenced him, Coyote.”

Laddie is a Collie, not a Coyote.

“Oh, no, Hildr, I’m hoping he will remember at least parts of this conversation if he recovers most or all of his senses.  It might be useful to have him remember how accommodating I was with him.”

Hildr.  I know that name.  Can’t remember from where.

More laughter.  “I see that there’s still something of the trickster in you, despite your recent activities.”

“I hope there always will be.  As humans become more aware of us, I’m finding it more difficult to forge my own path.  I acted soon enough that I’ve cemented myself as a god to be called on for help, and that will do, if need be, but I was hoping for more.”

“Time will tell.  Humans can be strange.”

Nobody said anything for a few seconds.  I thought I heard Nurse start to talk, far away.

“I’m not complaining, but why are you still here, Hildr?  Surely you do not suspect I will end his life.”

Laddie would never kill anyone!  That would be completely off script!

“You can restore his body when you get him out of this place, I know, but as you said, you are not a mind healer.  You’ve always been more concerned with playing mind games than fixing minds.”

Laddie put his finger on my forehead again.  My head felt warm.  “I can’t fix this.  He’s pretty severely damaged, especially around the pain and emotion centers.  There’s a real mess in a few of the cognitive sections associated with magic in humans as well.  Ahmed did something in there that I can’t begin to understand.  I was hoping Ahmed’s son would have some insights, or his daughter, but they are both too distraught.  They might be able to help, eventually.  There are others who might assist, but he’s in no position to bargain, and it would be an extreme stretch of my interests and obligations to bargain for him.”

After a second, the woman’s voice spoke again.  “Just to let you know, this human has a pending major boon, offered by someone rather high up in my pantheon.  He had never been told about it though.  The holder of the boon had been holding it, knowing it would be needed, but not knowing why, until Ahmed’s workings began to unravel.”

Laddie paused.  “A mortal has to request the boon.  Unfortunately, he’s in no condition to be offered a boon.  Not with any confidence that it wouldn’t be wasted.”  After a couple seconds in thought, Laddie continued.  “It would be a memorable moment though, for Odin to offer a major boon, and have it be fulfilled by the creation of a stuffed toy, or a hamburger and milkshake.”  Laddie’s tongue stuck out the side of his mouth, briefly, then he licked his nose.

That sounds good.

“I’m hungry.  Really hungry.  Can we please get me out of the well and go get a hamburger and milkshake?”

The woman spoke, from behind me.  “One of my sisters has just finished speaking to his wife.  He created mortal contingency documents and instructions that cover many scenarios, including documents giving her permission to act in his stead, if his mind were to be damaged.  She has agreed to represent Mr. Collins and request the boon.”

“Rather emphatically too, I imagine.”  Laddie stopped talking for a moment.  “She’s a strong woman, but it would be poor form to let her see him in this physical condition.  Her sanity might suffer, resulting in an inappropriate boon request.  I can’t fix his mind, but I can fix his body.  I’d really rather not do it with pure magic though, I’ve already expended a great deal to stabilize him.  Since he’s now stable, there’s no extreme urgency.  I know just the person to help out.”

“You know where to find us.”

“I certainly do.  Heimdallr and I have a little game we play.”

I heard a loud laugh from the woman, and then I heard hooves striking the ground as a horse begin to walk, then trot, and finally gallop, then there was silence.  That was really strange.  “Horses can’t stop that fast, Laddie.  Is the horse OK?”

Laddie had been looking behind me, but looked down to me as I spoke.  “I am going to enjoy taunting you about these moments from time to time, Mr. Collins.  Let’s get you out of here.”  He looked away from me in a different direction.  “Matty, I’ve already spoken to Ali, but please do not destroy anything here.  As your father’s friend, I would also like the opportunity to know exactly what happened, without having to resort to years of scrying.

“We will preserve the place for you and for our other siblings, Coyote.” A woman’s voice, a different woman.  It sounded like she might have been crying.

Laddie nodded at me and then all of a sudden I moved.

I’m flying!

This is fast.  Wow.  I feel like a race car!

We moved so fast.  I couldn’t even tell if anything else was moving.  Cars don’t park on highways though, so I figured Laddie was super-fast.

That would explain some of the things he did in the show!

“Hahaha!  This is awesome.”

Why are we stopping?

Laddie knocked on the door in front of him, using a cool white cane with a sparkly top, like a disco ball.

“All you have to do is bark, Laddie.  You don’t have to knock.”

Laddie looked at me and laughed.

The door opened, and Laddie spoke to a short, chubby lady who answered it.  “Cupcake, I have someone here in need.  Can you assist?  He needs a lot of calories so I can induce regeneration.  I’d rather not take him to a buffet.  As funny as it might be, I think he deserves some privacy.”

The lady looked up at me as I was flying next to Laddie.  “Of course.  Please enter.  Bring him in.  Another torture or burn victim, Coyote?  Is he stable, or do you need something immediately?”  She looked at me again.  “No arms, no legs.  He’ll need to regrow a lot of muscle and bone.  Definitely going to need a few hundred pounds of proteins and high calcium foods.”

“He’s stable.  The circumstances around the injuries are his story, if he wishes to tell it after we fix his body and see if we can repair his mind.”  I flew in the door, following in after Laddie.

Two adults were talking, but I couldn’t help myself.  “That was fun, Laddie, can we do it again?”

The lady stopped, turned about halfway around and looked at me and Laddie with a big smile.  “Laddie?”

Laddie growled.  “Allowances can be made for those who are very young or mentally infirm and have no grasp of the importance of dignity.  If others who do understand dignity were to insist upon using unflattering names to address me, I would be forced to respond in ways which might be very embarrassing to said unwise individuals.”

“I would not dream of insulting you, Coyote.”  She paused.  “Well, I wouldn’t act on it.”  The lady grinned, and turned away, talking as she walked.  “He seems familiar, especially the voice, but I can’t place him.  Does he have powers?”

“Not right now.  They have been disabled.”

“I see.  I didn’t know you could do that.”  The woman stopped and turned again to look at us.

She looks like mom does after I get cookies without asking.

“I didn’t do it, Cupcake.  I can see the damage, but I can’t fix it directly.”  Laddie looked at me.  “There’s no way that simple regeneration will reactivate his powers.”

The woman walked into a kitchen, and I heard pots banging together.  “Does he have a working digestive tract, or will we have to start with sugar water and milk?  Baby foods?”

It sounded like she was asking what I wanted to eat.  “Anything but jerky, please, that’s all the hospital had.  A hamburger and milkshake would be awesome, ma’am.”

“No diet restrictions, Cupcake, just avoid food with shells or bones.”

The pots and pans stopped banging.  The Lady’s head popped around the corner, and her eyes were wide open.  “I knew I remembered that voice.  His beard threw me, I’ve never seen him except when he was clean shaven.  That’s Strangest.  Tell me again that his power won’t activate while he heals.  I do not even want to imagine what chaos he could cause in team headquarters.”

Laddie sounded very patient.  “As I said, his powers won’t activate.”

“As he heals, will he need restraining?”  She was looking at me like I had scared her.

“I’m sorry if I scared you, ma’am.  I’ll be a good boy.  I promise.  Cross my heart.”

The lady looked at me then turned around and walked into the kitchen again, talking to herself with words I didn’t hear very well.

“If he does, I’ll handle it.” Laddie looked at me.  “He’s given no indication of violence though, since we found him.”

“What happened to him, I thought he was unkillable.”

Laddie started talking with a funny accent. “Well, e’s not dead yet.  Just flesh wounds.”

Lady started laughing loudly in the kitchen for a couple seconds.  “Sorry, you’re perhaps the last person I’d imagine watching that show.  Since he seems to want them, and they have a lot of what he needs, I’ll start with a few cheeseburgers and vanilla protein shakes.  Set him in the recovery room, please.  I’ll start bringing food shortly.”

Laddie’s voice returned to normal, and the next thing I knew, we were in a different room.  There was a really big bathtub with stairs leading down into it.

I watched in amazement as a little table and a couple chairs flew through the air, coming into this room through the door behind me and Laddie.  They set themselves up in the bottom of the bathtub.

“Wow, this place has flying furniture too!”

It looked like a bathroom, sort of.  There was no sink or toilet though.  It looked like there was a trapeze above the bathtub.

I saw one of these bathtubs in a hotel once next to a big pool.  What is it mom called it, a jackoozie?  There’s no water in this one though.  I don’t remember a table in the one at the hotel.  Maybe it was under water.

I looked at the trapeze.  The bathtub was really big but not big enough for a diving board.  And the water wouldn’t be that deep when it was full.  I could maybe see using the trapeze to hang upside down over the water, or do a few tricks.  I’d have to remember to ask the lady if her children could show me how to use the trapeze safely.  I could see someone getting hurt pretty bad if they didn’t know what they were doing.

The lady came in through the door, carrying a plate with hamburgers and cups on it.  I took a deep breath in through my nose.

Oh, that smells so good.

Laddie started talking again when the lady started walking down the stairs to us.  “Cupcake, I’ll answer your earlier question now, without flippancy.  As we’ve been discussing recently, there are a great many beings in the world that are similar to me to varying degrees.  Quite a few beings similar to me can kill Strangest.  One of them nearly did.  I’m still not sure exactly how he managed to win the fight, but he apparently did.  He should not have.  I certainly would have bet against him winning.”

The lady put the big plate down on the table and touched the blanket around my shoulder.  “I see.”  She paused a moment, looking at me.  “What is this blanket he’s wrapped in made from?”

Oh, that’s an easy one.

“Nurse made the blanket to help keep me warm.”

The lady blinked and shook her head, then looked at Laddie.

Laddie’s tongue fell out the side of his mouth for a second, then he licked his nose.  “Ferns.  I need to remove it now, so his body doesn’t try to grow into and around it where it presses into where the pectoral and gluteus maximus muscles used to be.  Can you bring a couple towels?  His torso musculature will regenerate first, then his limbs.  I’ll be able to put a towel on him and not worry about his body trying to incorporate it within a couple minutes.”

The lady took the burgers and shakes off the plate and stacked them on the table in front of me, and then she tucked the plate under her arm.  “That smells sooo good, ma’am.  Can someone untie me so I can eat?  I can’t eat without being able to move my arms.”

In a patient voice, Laddie spoke to me.”Soon, Zeke.  You will be able to move your arms soon.”

“But I want to eat now!  Please!”

Laddie reached out with his claws and cut my blanket.  The blanket started to unwind from around me.

The lady’s face got weird-looking and her mouth opened a little.

I can’t say anything.  That wouldn’t be polite.

After she stared at me for a couple seconds, the lady swallowed, looked away, and then started climbing the stairs out of the jackoozie.  “I’ll… go get towels.  What in the hell happened to him, Coyote?”

“To us, he’s only been missing eight days.  For him, it’s been well over two months.  Seventy-two days, according to his armor suit, which was feeding and tending him.  There was nothing else he could eat where he was.”

I could barely hear the lady as she talked.  “Anything but jerky.”  I heard her start running, and a door closed.  After that I could hear her making sick sounds.

Laddie shook his head, looking towards where the lady had gone to.

“Is the lady sick?  Will she be OK?”

“She’ll be better soon.  Here Zeke, take a bite of this cheeseburger.”  Laddie was holding a cheeseburger up to my mouth.

I took a huge bite. “Mmm. If goot! Beft Efer.”

I swallowed.  “Sorry, Mom would be so mad I talked with my mouth full.  Please don’t tell her?

“I won’t tell.”  Laddie winked at me.  “It’ll be just between us, Zeke.  Keep eating.  If you want a drink of milkshake, tell me.”

“Thanks Laddie, you’re awesome.”

With a smile, Laddie touched my forehead with the finger on his other hand, the one that didn’t have a cheeseburger in it.  All of a sudden I felt super hungry, even hungrier than before.  My stomach growled, really loud, like it was mad at me.  I couldn’t stop myself from leaning over and taking another big bite of the cheeseburger Laddie was holding for me.

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Arc 3, Balance 18

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*Stone 1*

To whomever might discover these stones,

 

The remains of the metallic suit next to these inscribed stones, if it has not been more than a couple hundred years or so, should have electronic copies of what is carved here, as well as electronic recordings of the events leading up to my death.  This is the year 2014 AD, as measured by the Christian calendar.  I was a human, homo sapiens, named Zeke Collins. I resided in the state of Georgia, in the country of the United States, on the world of Earth.  I was a super-powered individual, known to the public as ‘Strangest.’  My wife is Anne Collins, if she is still alive.  My son is Danny Collins.  My ashes, if I have properly instructed the suit, will be stored in a clay-sealed left gauntlet, stuffed into the right boot, which itself will then be sealed with clay, and placed in the body cavity of the suit, which will itself, in turn, be packed with clay.  The suit will then heat itself slowly and cure the clay.

If not too much time has passed, please get these ashes to Anne, or whatever other relatives of mine may still exist.  If possible I would like to be buried next to Anne.  If not possible, feel free to experiment to your heart’s content with most of what’s left of me, but sprinkle a little bit on the ground, on Earth, please.  I’d like to think that at least some part of me will one day make it back home.  Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.  Now that I know that magic, souls, and gods exist, I know that things like that matter.

*Stone 2*

The creator of this place, at least I assume he was the creator of the place, was known to me only as Ahmed.  He has many children, I have been told, but I know the names of only two.  One, a male roughly four hundred years old, with the appearance of an eight-year-old boy at the time of my death, is named Ali.  The other child is named Matty, and is around a thousand years old, if I remember correctly.  At the time of my death, Matty had the appearance of a young woman in her late teens.  No matter how much time has passed, these two might still be alive.  Their father was sentient before the Earth’s moon was formed.  He had stories about that time, I was told, though I never had the opportunity to hear one.  As far as I’m aware, Ali and Matty are immortal.  Even if humans no longer exist, they could both still be around.

On that note, no matter how long it’s been, if you publicize these inscriptions, I would appreciate it.  I’m giving you something interesting to find, do the dead guy a favor, please?  If Ali and Matty are still around, and you bring this find to their attention, I strongly suspect that you will find yourself on the receiving end of some good fortune.  Even if I might seem to be some sort of prehistoric, ignorant savage to you, my ramblings will probably be amusing enough to find their way into a few books.  Ali and Matty, or someone who knows of them, might discover references to this place.  I am absolutely certain that they will want to know if this place is found, as it is the place where their father died.

Ahmed and I killed each other here, but we were both victims.  Ahmed was the greater victim, he was forced to kill me, and had apparently killed many others before me, as a result of a geas laid upon him roughly seventy-five million years before my birth.  I still don’t know the entire story, but from what I’ve been able to piece together, the Troodon gods were some truly nasty, vindictive deities.  The Troodon civilization was extremely bloodthirsty by human standards before they created their own gods with soul wells, by accident.  The Troodon were pack predators, every one of them was a magical practitioner, but they had problems working with technology.  They apparently created the Svartalves to better combine technology and magic, to create more potent weapons.  He never confirmed it to me, but I suspect Ahmed helped the Troodon create the Svartalves.  After Svartalve-made weapons allowed the Troodon race to annihilate themselves in a matter of a few minutes on one terrible day, the Troodon Gods were a wee bit angry, and used their power to curse the Svartalves, and place a geas on them.  They did the same for Ahmed.

Ahmed was forced to become the guardian of the Svartalve’s eternal punishment.  For seventy-five million years he made certain that no being removed or adjusted the curse or geas on the Svartalves.  He was forced to do so by geas, but disguised his forced behavior behind a false hatred of Svartalves.  I say false hatred, because of how the Troodon gods chose to punish him.  His geas required that anyone who discovered that he was being controlled by the Troodon geas would have to be killed, slowly, and, if possible, by Ahmed in the shape of a Svartalve.  This would include family and friends.  He was required to kill slowly.  Since Ahmed was allowed to deaden all my pain before he started attacking me, this requirement to kill slowly was clearly not to cause pains to others, but to cause pain to Ahmed.  Imagine being forced to slowly dismember your own family and friends.  He was required to kill in the shape of a Svartalve, I suspect, because Ahmed had a hand in their creation and likely cared about them.  From what little I’ve been told about them, I’m confident that the Troodon gods wanted to twist Ahmed’s care into pain, to make one thing he cared about the tool he used to destroy others that he loved and cared for.

I never had the chance to even ask, but I would be willing to put money on Ahmed somehow protecting the Svartalves and allowing the Troodon to die on that day when the Troodon mutually annihilated themselves.  Perhaps they might have even sheltered in this very same pocket of space where you find this inscription, and perhaps evidence of my own existence.

Me?  I just got in the way of a being who was literally a force of nature.  My power prevented Ahmed from altering my mind when it was active, and restored memories I experienced when I was powered, if the memories were removed while I was not powered.  It sounds a bit complicated, but after I was introduced to Svartalves through an unfortunate mistake involving the very armor I brought here, Ahmed was not able to prevent me from slowly building up an understanding that Ahmed himself was probably the warden of the Svartalve prison.  It was always clear that Ahmed was strongly opposed to freeing the Svartalves.  He was even, apparently, known to kill in defense of the Svartalve geas.  This seemed extremely strange for a being so easily capable of editing people’s memories to resort to killing them, especially when I remembered our first encounters, and it became very clear that individuals with my resistance to his mental editing abilities were very rare.

I came here expecting to possibly die, thinking that perhaps Ahmed was so afraid of the potential of Svartalves, or so hate-filled towards them that he might kill me just for suggesting that the Svartalves might have another geas added to their present geas.  I imagined a new racial geas to be added to the Svartalves which would require them to become protectors of the dimensional layer that Earth resides in.  Any attack on Earth would result in a simultaneous counter-infiltration of Svartalves into the attacking dimension.  They would first disable the technology or magic generating the cross-dimensional portals, and then prevent any cross dimensional portals from ever being created to leave the attacking dimension ever again.

Using the Svartalves as an antibody analogue to prevent different layers of dimensions from warring seems to be a good idea to me, even now, provided that it wouldn’t destroy the universe or something – people who know something about magic would surely have to look into the consequences of my suggestion.  The biggest problem with the possibility of enacting a secondary geas after Ahmed’s death being that without Ahmed’s existence and constant efforts holding them back, I strongly believe that the Svartalves will be free of their geas and curse within a few years at most, and trying to convince them to accept another geas of a highly restrictive nature will likely be the next best thing to impossible.  Perhaps they might be willing to take on this task without a geas?

Another option I considered when I first started contemplating Svartalves, but was certainly not in my plans for this visit, was to allow the Svartalves to be bound by a much less restrictive geas which would require only that they maintain an effective oversight board, to monitor the efforts of Svartalves and tinkers and protect all races from runaway magic and technology.  A geas requiring them to monitor themselves by reporting all of their projects, would go a huge distance towards protecting the rest of us from Svartalves and tinkers.  This could, perhaps, be a cross-racial geas, and allow human tinkers to be bound into the geas as well.

There’s a pretty good chance that I just gave some practitioner a headache by mentioning a cross-racial geas. I’ve never heard of one before, and I am not a practitioner, so please excuse me if I just gave you a headache.  But back to the discussion.  Such a geas, however it’s structured, provided that it’s a global geas (or two of them) across all Svartalves and tinkers, might allow human tinkers to be freed from the mental illnesses they were genetically designed to be burdened with.  When I imagine what tinkers and Svartalves might accomplish if they could act almost-freely, with oversight to protect the rest of us, I cannot help but sigh and wish I could see it.  I’ve seen a small taste of what Svartalves can do.

Personally, I cannot even imagine the magnitude of the effort that would be required to implement such an oversight board, but from my experience with Svartalves, if it’s presented in the right way, and made to seem suitably challenging, they might well demand that they be given such a geas.  I would be extremely surprised if they were not cognizant of the danger they would represent to themselves, racially, if they are freed of all limits.

Those who read deeply and are good at seeing potential problems might note that if Svartalves are so damn smart, how is any sort of oversight system going to control them?  There’s a very simple solution for that.  Have the Svartalves themselves, under geas, design a foolproof oversight system with as little bureaucracy as possible.  Do not forget the bureaucracy part.  Even I can imagine a system that is so heavily controlled with rules that one must follow under geas that doing any tinkering would be impossible.  Several of my competitors had business models a lot like that, I think.  Ha!

Yes, I am trying to use words scratched into rocks to shape the future here.  The Rosetta stone managed it, in a way, right?  I came here hoping to create change, knowing I might die, but hoping I wouldn’t.  I have created change, or at the very least I have made it more possible for change to happen.  Unfortunately, I’m dead now without any opportunity to shape that change, but I’d like to get my two cents in anyway.  Even if you’ve already done all this, or found a better way.  I guess I’d just like to think that maybe I can offer just a little more to you future folks before I die.

 

*Stone 3*

Anne,

It’s been two months now, and I’m fairly certain nobody is going to get here in the few days I’ve got left.  Since I’ve started hallucinating regularly, I’ve directed the suit to inscribe all three sets of the third and fourth stones with my personal goodbyes.  Then the suit will seal the stones with amber, clay, and glass, before burying them under a cairn of stones.  They should remain readable for thousands of years that way, but you know that by now, at least how the messages were protected, anyway.  I know I already did this once, with letters I know you will have gotten, but that was then, and this is now.

It’s almost impossible for me to start this letter.  I am terribly sorry that I had to leave you alone the way I did, and I hope that you can find it in your heart to forgive me for knowingly putting myself in harm’s way, and giving you no warning that I might not return.  I can only hope that our last night together will be a memory you will cherish as much as I am cherishing the memory of it as I write this.  If anyone ever re-discovers this place and you get an opportunity to read this and the other two stones, you will understand, I hope, that I could not allow even the smallest chance that Ahmed might come after you because of what I told you.

It will probably come as no large surprise to you that Ahmed was Ali’s father, even though I wasn’t allowed to tell you that.  You’ve always been good at figuring out people, and Ali and Ahmed had several mannerisms they shared, even if they looked nothing alike.  I knew Ahmed was killing people he didn’t need to kill, but I didn’t know exactly why.  I now know I could have at least warned you that I was going to do something dangerous.  It hurts that I could have warned you, but didn’t.

I won’t tell you to find another man and remarry, because that would probably just make you mad.  I will say that I wouldn’t disapprove, as long as it isn’t Carl Duncan from my homeroom.  The way he stared at you made me want to punch him way too many times in my senior year.

If Carl reads this, too bad.  It was never any secret that I didn’t like you.

I think we did a damn fine job raising Danny, but the job’s not done yet.  I know that your father and I had our differences, but if you need an older man to give Danny advice about marriage things, I would certainly suggest your father over my father.  Your parents have always had what seemed to me to be a better relationship than mine.  To be fair, if you think he needs some guidance from an older man about work ethic, I think we can both agree that my father would be a better choice.

If my father, or your father, is still alive to read this and get upset, tell them to get over it.  In fact, if they are reading this, I can tell them myself.  Get over it.  I’m dead.  You’re both good men, but you took slightly different paths to get there.

Again, I don’t have words to explain how much it hurts me to leave you like I did.  There are no apologies that will really matter.  All I can do is sniffle and wipe the tears away as I dictate this to the suit.

I love you.

Xoxo, Zeke

 

Danny,

Son, as I said above to your mother, I am very sorry I was not able to warn you in any way that I might not return.  I was very focused on your mother the last night we spoke, and I’m sorry that I didn’t leave you with better memories of our last interactions than I did.  It wasn’t anything bad, of course.  Neither of us said anything we would regret saying, but damnit son, I want to give you a quick hug and thump you on the back so much right now, just a quick man-hug.  Just a last moment to see that you really are a grown man, even if you are a couple inches too short, and clearly cheat to be able to run faster than me.

Other men might be as proud of their sons that I am of you, but I’ll damn well guarantee that none are prouder.  You’ve seen what I said about your grandfathers above.  I’ll stand by that, but if either of them passes away, and you need advice from someone who’s a man, who’s been there, done that, and loves you, either of them will give you sound advice, even if the other might have given better, had they still been alive.

If your mother is still alive when this is found, please be there for her as much as you can.  Don’t you dare give her a hard time about re-marrying.  Unless it’s Carl Duncan who went to school with me.  If it’s too late for that, and you’ve given her a hard time about someone other than Carl, apologize to her, NOW (unless he’s a real creep that’s not Carl).  If she married Carl, you have my permission to give her a hard time, but only if Carl’s still a creep.  He might have changed.  I doubt it, but I’ll leave it up to you to make that call.

I hope that things work out between you and Jane.  I suspect that they will, since you have been dating for four years, unless some new variable pops up and messes with your relationship.  My disappearance might cause that, but I hope not.

As for the business, I think I cleared the path for you to learn to run the company and eventually take over after you prove your competence.  I will warn you though that I can see it in you, the same thing that I have in myself.  Be very careful that you don’t invest too much in work and too little in family.  I went that road myself for a few years, and you might not remember it, but I damn near lost you two over it.  It’ll sneak up on you too.  Watch for it, and tell Jane to watch for it too.  I guarantee she’ll see it before you do.

 

Love,

The Proudest Father Ever.

 

Mom & Dad,

Thank you for always being there when you were needed.  The horse trailer was a kick in the ass, but sometimes a young man needs a kick in the ass.  I’m pretty sure that was a necessary kick in the ass.  I told you once that I didn’t hold it against you that you kicked me out of the house.  I tell you now, that I thank you for doing it.

You raised me and made me a good enough man that I was able to raise a good man myself, probably a better man than me, if I want to be fair about it, but that might just be the father in me talking.

(I know you’re reading this Danny, don’t get a big head, or Pops will have to take you down a notch.  He can probably still throw a bale of hay farther than either of us, at least at the time I’m writing this.)

Thank you for all the kissed bandaids, and iced tea, the puppies and foals, the hard work that taught me that two good things come from hard work – rewards and more hard work.

Thank you for the discipline I tried so hard to avoid learning, but managed to get taught anyway.

Thank you for letting me sleep in your bed with you oh so many years ago when the monsters under my bed started acting up.

Thank you for showing me how important caring is.

Thank you for showing what it means to be strong but still love one another.  If you two weren’t what you are, I would be less than what I am, my marriage would be less than what it is, and even Danny would be less than what he is, I’m sure.

You two built the foundation for me.  Even though there are a few flaws, on top of that foundation, I built a strong family, a strong company, and right here, in this place, I brought peace to an ancient, tortured soul.

I don’t want to die.  I’m still young.  I had a power that would let me live forever, but it’s turned off.  Perhaps that’s for the best.  Otherwise I might be trapped in this place, forever, alone.

Thank you, again, for making me the man I am, even if that sounds a little over-proud.

 

Your Loving Son

Ezekiel Grant Collins

 

*Stone 4*

Ali,

You were a good partner, and despite all the frustration on both of our parts dealing with one another from time to time, I think I would be right to call us friends.

I truly wish that I could have been kinder at the end, but if you investigate the writings on the stones, you will understand, I hope.

The Svartalves mentioned being able to scry millions of years into the past.  I hope it hasn’t been that long, but if it has, and you’ve used scrying magic to be able to read the stones, or whatever, I will ask you to scry the past here and see your father’s last moments.  What he did to you when you were last together shouldn’t be your final memory of him.  His final request should be.

 

Ciao Partner!

Zeke

 

Matty,

I barely knew you at all, but thank you for the compliment on the first day, and thank you again for giving Fifi to my wife and son, for their protection.

I wish I had gotten to know you better.  (No, not like that.)

I didn’t see the exchange between you and your father when he ejected you from this place, but I hope it wasn’t like what Ali experienced.  As with Ali, above, you really need to read the other stones and scry to see your father’s last moments.

 

Thank you again.

Zeke,

 

**

This has taken forever.

My single remaining hand cramped, again, and I dropped the claw.  I had hated to desecrate Ahmed’s body like that, but the suit had needed it to sew me up.  Painfully, I angled my wrist, and picked up the claw again.

I had asked the Svartalves to include a wilderness survival program in the suit, in case I was ever away from civilization, but didn’t realize what the Svartalves would consider wilderness survival.  I certainly wasn’t expecting any sort of wilderness medical programs.  Why would I have ever needed them?  I was more worried about staying warm and having shelter in human form

I realized later that not only was it good for me that the Svartalves had included wilderness medical programs, but it really did make sense.  I couldn’t heal other people with my power.

When the suit had finished Ahmed, it had automatically shifted into wilderness survival mode and activated the medical program.  It removed itself from me, one piece at a time and reassembled itself next to me, which I had absolutely no clue at all that it could do.  I thought I was hallucinating at that point, and was amused at my own near-death creativity.

As soon as it separated itself from me, the suit immediately put my feet up on Ahmed’s corpse to raise them a little, and then used a shredded section of its arm armor to saw through the connective tissue holding Ahmed’s left metal-shod killing claw.

Then it turned around to me with the claw in one hand, and used the claw to cut a crude needle out of another shredded section of itself.

After it examined the needle with a single close glance next to an eye sensor, it put down its two tools, and reached for my head, and started pulling out my hair.  I remember laughing because it was too surreal.  I wasn’t feeling any pain.

I was so far gone I barely remembered anything about the next two days, but when I next was conscious, the suit had moved me into a crude lean-to.  Neither of my legs would move.  My left arm was immobile as well, though I could control its thumb, and twitch the fingers.  My right arm was functional below the elbow.  I thought I was paralyzed, but then realized I could move my big toe on both feet.

My neck worked, and my shoulders, hips, and waist, so I was able to raise myself up a little to look at myself.  The suit gently pushed me back down with its right forearm, missing the gauntlet, and used its left gauntlet, still attached, to raise the missing right gauntlet to my mouth.  I was a bit confused, but my body understood as soon as the wetness hit my lips.  I started slurping water out of the gauntlet before I realized it was being used as a cup.

After a few seconds, the suit pulled the gauntlet away, and advised.  “More water in one minute.  Vomiting may cause involuntary muscle movements and reopen wounds.”

Makes sense.

“Why can’t I move my arms and legs?”

The suit, in a patient, calm voice replied.  “All major muscle group tendons in the legs, left arm, and upper right arm were severed at the joints.”

Crap, crap, crap.

“Why didn’t I bleed to death?”

“No major blood vessels were cut.  You lost a significant volume of blood, but not enough to kill you.”

Obviously.

I looked at the wounds on my left arm at the base of the palm” What did you sew me up with?”

“Your hair, using the claw from the enemy biped to cut holes in your skin, and a needle made from the shell of this armor to pull the hair through.”

“Clever.”

It didn’t answer.  I spent the next four hours quizzing the suit about how we could improve my situation, and there really wasn’t much.  The suit had already woven fern mats to keep my naked body out of the mud.  I couldn’t get back into the suit, because its motions would reopen the wounds.

There was zero chance of restoring any tendon connections.  Hair simply wasn’t strong enough unless the limb was held perfectly immobile, and the suit couldn’t guarantee that unless I occupied the suit, which would leave the suit unable to protect and provide for me.

The pocket, according to the suit, didn’t have any other animals, or even insects, that it had found, though it hadn’t found any borders yet.  There were some microbes that were in the vegetation, but none that seemed interested in human chemistry.  The suit had used some sort of combination of its gel shock-protecting layer and pressed fern juice to bathe my wounds.  They didn’t grow infected as they healed.

I was very hungry, and the suit hadn’t found anything edible for me.  I hated myself for doing it, but I asked if Ahmed’s body was edible.  Fortunately, or maybe unfortunately, he would have been poisonous to me.  Ahmed’s blood had apparently created a nasty welt on my foot, just from a small amount, when the suit tested it’s chemistry against mine.  The suit had buried Ahmed immediately after determining he was poisonous, just in case it might attract predators.

For the next two days, I had nightmares about Ali and Matty breaking into the pocket and finding me gnawing on one of Ahmed’s drumsticks.  The hunger finally started to diminish.  After a week, the suit had still not found a food source, and gave me two choices.  I would live thirty days one way, and perhaps as long as four months the other.

I chose to survive for four months.

It was probably the right choice.  It let me get a lot done.

Not being able to run is driving me completely mad, I swear.

As I lay reclined in a cleverly constructed chair made of fern rope, palm-like wood, and fern padding, I scratched a few more times on the stone sitting on the crude table next to the chair.  With Ahmed’s claw, even as weak as I was, the stone flaked off easily, requiring only the barest pressure.  I had ruined two stones by cutting too deep.

I carefully set the claw down and, without moving my forearm much, turned the palm-sized square stone that I had carefully been shaping, tapping it so the stone flakes fell out of the grooves, and then read the inscription.

“To his children: I’m sorry, and I loved you. ~ Ahmed”

It was the only way I could think of to possibly honor my promise to Ahmed, now that it was fairly certain that nobody would come in time.  I had wanted to make it myself.  Today was the last day that would be possible.

“Please lift the memorial up to my face, at three inches from my nose, with the inscription facing me.”

The suit picked the stone out of my hand and put it in front of my face.  I closed my eyes and blew hard.  After a second, I opened my eyes and looked at my work carefully.

Not perfect, but pretty decent.

“It’ll do.  Place it on Ahmed’s grave.  Tomorrow I will have you duplicate it a few times.”

The suit was silent.  It I didn’t ask it questions it could answer factually, it had no interest in conversation.  Apparently, despite all the extra features they included that I hadn’t asked for, the Svartalves hadn’t seen fit to hide a full-fledged AI in the suit anywhere.  I checked.  Several times.  Talking to myself was getting pretty old.

The suit returned and I clenched my fist a few times.  A little dribble of blood came out.  I apparently had nicked myself with the claw when I dropped it.

Thank you Ahmed, for the painless death.

“OK, now cut the next piece, as planned.”

The suit picked up the claw, carefully adjusting its grip.  I turned my head to the left, and a few seconds later, felt pressure at my right elbow, and my right forearm started rocking back and forth, slightly for a couple seconds.  A second after the rocking of my arm stopped, my elbow was pulled to one side and I felt warmth on the elbow, followed by a hiss and the smell of bacon.  My stomach growled.

I watched the suit walking over to the drying rack next to the fire.

Prior Chapter      Next Chapter

Arc 3, Balance 17

Prior Chapter      Next Chapter

I hadn’t been able to sleep well, despite the mental tiredness resulting from struggling through all the legal documents and letters to loved ones.  I remembered looking at the alarm clock and seeing 0418, but at some point after that, eventually, I had fallen asleep.  Sunlight woke me at 0808.  Less than four hours sleep, but there was no way I could fall back to sleep again.  I bounced out of the bed with nervous energy, which I felt was highly inappropriate.  I was certain I would have been better off with another two hours of sleep.

One of the things I had realized late last night that had kept me awake was that I was counting on two things being true.  The first being that most magical beings really weren’t super-intelligent, and the second was that Valsom had properly understood me, which would require that he was probably a lot smarter than I was, if he figured it out based on what I had asked him, and what he and his workers had overheard.

So, on the one side, magical beings weren’t super intelligent.  On the other, I was counting on at least some of them to be a whole lot smarter than me.

I couldn’t send Ali away again, because I had told him I wouldn’t.  I couldn’t confirm that Valsom really understood what I had said, because Ali would almost certainly figure it out, even if Valsom and I were highly careful.

Valsom’s understanding wasn’t critical though.  He wouldn’t have a direct role in the first step.  It would certainly cause some chaos on his end if he wasn’t on the same page with me, but Svartalves seemed to thrive on forcing order onto chaos.  If need be, I imagined they would probably be happy to completely change their plans.

Freaks.

If I survived the first step, I would probably just be able to step back, out of the way, and let others take over.

I hope.

I threw on a jogging outfit, did some quick stretches, and hit the trail.  I was full of nervous energy.  I didn’t want to tire myself out too much, but I needed to calm down a bit.  I hoped a couple miles would center me.

I stopped at around the halfway point and looked for the tracks Valsom had left when he ran back towards the house the other day.  Gone, like they had never been there.  Even the claw-cut roots were healed with no evidence of past damage.  I could still remember them though.

This is helping a little.

I was definitely calmer after a mile, and when I finished the second mile a few minutes later, I was feeling good.  Worried, but not jittery.  Worried was inevitable.

I did a couple cooling down stretches and quickly showered, as hot as I could stand it, coming out of the bathroom in only a towel.

I called out in a normal voice, “Ali, can you open the door to the lab, so I can get my armor?”

Ali appeared with a sigh.  “You’re going through with this, whatever it is?  Without advice.”

“Afraid so, Ali.  Not much longer, and you will know”

“Should I go ask my father to come here, or are you going to ask me to take you to him?”

Aw shit, did he figure it out?

Ali looked at me.  “Thought so.  No, I haven’t figured it all out, but I know it has something to do with Father and Svartalves, and that’s a very bad combination.  He’s never forgiven them.”

He’s definitely been paying attention.

Ali paced back and forth.  “You know that Father likes you, but you have to know that he has no extreme fondness for you that would keep him from killing you if you become a great enough threat.  You’re about to challenge him in some way on the Svartalves, and you don’t want me getting in the way, because you’re afraid he’s going to hurt me?  I’m his son, but you seem to think he’ll hurt me because of something you say or do, just because I know about it?  Either that, or you think my knowledge of what you are planning will change what my father’s response to you will be?”

Avoid, deflect, distract.

He looked so serious, pacing rapidly, back bent, head down, hands held behind him, and at the same time he was barely over four feet tall, wearing a Doofy Duck T-shirt.  I concentrated on the silliness of the shirt, and made myself chuckle.

Ali’s head tracked to mine like a turret, and his eyes glowed bright blue, reminding me a lot of Loki’s eyes for an instant.  “NOT funny.  Oh, for…”  He waved his hands and his clothes changed to faded black jeans and a solid red t-shirt.

That’s funny.

“Not a good color today, especially for a shirt, Ali.”

Ali just stared at me for a second.  “You are an idiot.” Then he waved his hand and the shirt changed to green.  “Better?”

“Much better, Ali.”

He’s figured out too much, I can’t talk about it at all with him.

“I’ve figured out a pretty big part of it then, but I still don’t understand?”  Ali was clearly waiting for a response from me.

“Please Ali, let me have access to my armor.”

“It’s the second day, I should take it from your mind now.  I’ve failed to figure it out, and you’re probably going to get yourself killed.  If I let you into the armor, I won’t be able to get into your mind without immediately triggering the suit to hurt you so you trigger, which would cut me off from your mind.”

Fuck. Bad.

“Trust me, Ali.  Please?”

“Zeke, you are trying so damn hard to protect me, when you’re the vulnerable one here.  My father can unravel you like a wool sock, and…”

I’m not sure he’s going to forgive me for this.

I slashed my hand in front of my chest.  “You father asked you to defer to me in adult matters after the kidnapping scenario.  This is an adult matter.”

Ali’s eyes opened widely, and then narrowed, and his jaw snapped shut.  He turned to the wall next to the apartment door, and abruptly waved his hand.  A door appeared.  “Get your damn armor.  Should I ask father to come here?”

“I’d rather go elsewhere.  There are still things here that Danny and Anne might want.  I’m not sure how must damage your father might cause if things don’t go well.”

“You are willing to throw away your life, but a building and some fripperies matter?  Whatever.  I’ll find Father, and let him choose where to meet, other than here, in fifteen minutes.”  Ali disappeared.

I quickly entered the lab where the Svartalves maintained the armor.  Thankfully, it was still racked in the ready rack.  They had built me a spare suit, but it was mostly used for testing.  Pieces of the spare were scattered throughout the room on various pieces of equipment; I couldn’t even begin to guess what most of the lab equipment did.

“I have irritated Ali significantly.  He might disallow us from using this room after today.  Please prepare a new facility like this one under the barn, hidden, but accessible by me without needing a Jinn’s power.”

There were several high pitched cheers.

“You guys are weird, but awesome.  Thank you.”

There was hissing laughter.

“Take care of yourself, human.  It’s not a trivial risk you’re undertaking.”  Valsom’s voice, I was pretty sure.

I bowed a little in the direction of the voice, and started quickly putting on the armor.

“Your continued curiosity about the Svartalve appearance has been noted, by the way.”  Again, Valsom’s voice.

“I know you cannot expose yourself to humans, Valsom.  I will not ask it, if that was some sort of invitation to request a viewing of some sort.”  I was trying to put on the midsection of the armor, which required care, considering the connections that had to be made there between my body and the suit.

“We do have some ancient historical images that might be of interest.”

I’m really trying to get ready here, Valsom.

I managed to remain polite despite my irritation “Please send the images to my suit, Valsom.”

You guys can see intent.

I’m really intent on getting this suit on right now.

Stop talking to me?

“Uploaded to your armor, Mr. Collins.  We will now begin the excavations for the new facility.”

I was briefly shocked, and stopped attaching the left forearm armor for a moment but continued after a moment.  “You had it planned already, didn’t you, Valsom?”

“Indeed, but you need to get that suit on quickly.  By irritating Ali to such a degree, his father will not delay in meeting you.”

I stopped fumbling with the right forearm armor and just stared at the place where Valsom’s voice was coming from, briefly, before shaking my head and continuing to put armor on.

Ouch I was schooled.  Bastard.

I couldn’t help laughing a little as I settled the helmet into place and initiated the seal and recirculation system.  Debilitating gasses wouldn’t set off my power unless they caused pain or injury.  Ahmed probably wouldn’t bother with something like a simple soporific gas, but I wanted to cover as many bases as possible.

The suit self-test indicated good, so I walked out of the room, back into the barn.

I could feel vibrations through my feet, and shook my head.  Svartalves were nuts.

Before I could figure out what to do while I was waiting, Ali appeared again, turned to the lab doorway, and waved his hands twice.  On the first wave, the first door disappeared.  On the second, a new door appeared.

I turned on the three new features of the armor, and crossed my fingers, briefly.

Ali opened the door, and waved me in, saying nothing, staring at me angrily.

There was no way I was saying anything at that moment, so I just walked in, and found myself in a strange landscape.  Palm trees and ferns were everywhere, but there were no grass or weeds, despite dark, apparently fertile soil.  Ahmed was sitting cross-legged on a waist-high rock looking towards Ali and me.

Ali entered behind me, and then closed the door.  I saw Ahmed’s head turn to look at Ali, and heard Ali make a pained noise.

Shit.  He knows.

I tried to shift, and nothing happened.

Fuck.  I’m dead.

“Yes, I know, Mr. Collins.  I’ve always known.  You learned too much, and I was not able to prevent it.  I have blocked your ability to shift into the soul well.”

“Ali doesn’t know, Ahmed.”

“I saw.  Thank you for that kindness.”  Ahmed didn’t look at me when he spoke to me, continuing to look at his son.  “Be gone, Ali, I will speak with you later on this.”

“But Father…”

Ahmed sighed. “Do I need to tell you twice?”

I broke in.  It wasn’t like I was going to get a worse punishment than what was coming.  “Ali, please leave.  You really need to leave.”

“Father, you need to explain this.  I can tell now that Zeke expects to die.  Why?”

“Unacceptable.  I do not need to explain it to you.  This pocket is now locked.  I will address your disobedience later.”

Ali disappeared, and Ahmed turned to me.  “I do sincerely regret what you have forced me to do.  I hope you recognize that.  I will see that your wife and son are well taken care of.  I will take particular enjoyment in explaining to Gorgon in no uncertain terms that interfering with your family will lead to a horrible death for him.”

I could have used that favor a couple weeks ago.

I decided that I might as well see if I could learn more before he was done.  He hadn’t simply killed me right off after he dismissed Ali.  Maybe I could even talk him down.  Maybe he would find a way to be able to resist the geas.  “I was hoping that you were unaware of the geas.”

“No.  The Troodon gods were not kind gods.  There was no god of love, or poetry, or any of the gentler things, only war, hate, and darker emotions.  When they set the geas onto me, they took particular care that I would never escape it, never get help, and destroy anyone who discovered its existence within me.”

“You helped the Troodon create the Svartalves then, right.”

My armor indicated activation of the pain system, but I felt no pain.

Ahmed looked at me, and smiled.  “Your armor is working perfectly, but your pain center is disabled.  The Troodon wanted to cause me pain, the geas doesn’t require that those I kill experience it.”  Ahmed paused.  “Interesting.  Terribly wrong but interesting.  Human optimism is amazing.  You are trying to distract me and hope that I find some way to defeat the geas myself because I really don’t want to kill you.  Unfortunately, your magical understanding is lacking, as I’ve pointed out before.  A typical geas will only effect mortals and is powered off metabolic energy, and it will not relinquish its hold on the individual or race while life remains.  Svartalves have not fully left their mortality behind because the geas won’t allow it.”  He paused, briefly, and then looked away from me towards a tall, carved stone with red markings on it. “When a geas is applied to a magical being, it attaches itself to magical energy.  The geas is as strong as I am, no matter how strong I am.”

“Oh, and I suppose it isn’t kind enough to let you kill yourself.”

Might as well throw that out there and see if there’s any interest.

“No, not hardly.  The geas requires that I prevent anyone from removing the geas on the Svartalves, it requires that I never rest, I must always be aware of the geas on me, and I must kill anyone that discovers the geas on me, amongst other things.”

“I was hoping that…”

Ahmed interrupted me.  “Yes, I know what you were hoping.  My geas didn’t draw me to you earlier because you didn’t understand enough about how geas magic works.  I am fortunate that you at least had a proper respect for the potential power of the geas, and didn’t involve my son.”

“Ali seems like a nice kid when he’s a kid, and a good friend when he’s an adult.  A bit confusing, but I figure that in a few hundred years he’ll be a decent person.”

Maybe if I make him angry something will change?

“How many of your friends and relatives have you had to kill, Ahmed?”

“Too many, Mr. Collins.  I will not allow you to torment me in a futile effort to enrage me in hopes that I will miraculously discover the hidden strength within me to defeat the geas.  Real magic doesn’t work that way.  I wish it did.  I might have avoided killing so many of my family and friends.”

The suit was constantly indicating it was trying to apply pain now, and I hadn’t felt a thing.

Ahmed must be reading me deeply.

“Yes Zeke, I’m checking to see who I have to adjust next.  Hopefully none of them will be too resistant to mental reprogramming.  You kept this remarkably isolated, but based on your memories, I’ll have to look more closely at how I modify the memories of the Svartalves.”  Ahmed sighed.  “Unfortunately, I am not allowed to kill you cleanly, I am forced to dismember you slowly, and, if possible, I must do it in the seeming I was maintaining as a Svartalve at the time of the death of the Troodon race.  I’m afraid that it’s entirely possible for me to kill you in my Svartalve form.”

Fuck me.  The Troodon gods were worse than the Aztec gods.

“Indeed, Zeke, they were.  The Aztec gods were tooth fairies in comparison.  At least you don’t have to suffer the physical pain while I do it.  If you would like to make final prayers, feel free to do so now.  Nobody will hear them here, I’m afraid, but if they will give you comfort, you have a few seconds.  I will let you know when I will begin.”

There are worse ways to die, I’m sure.

At least I’m not going to feel pain.

“Ahmed, there’s no need for me to pray, if nobody will hear me.  Make up some lie about me dying bravely or something, please?”

“I don’t have to make up a lie about you dying bravely, but I’ll make up a lie about how you died.” Ahmed nodded.

“Let’s get this over with.”

“Very well, Mr. Collins.” Ahmed disappeared.

I’m at least going to try to fight.

Maybe I’ll get lucky or something.

I activated the armor’s enhanced sensors, and popped all the drones.

“Invisible target.  Utilize all possible sensor types to locate and track threat.”

The drones and the suit itself began rapidly switching through sensor types, looking for anything that could be classified as a potential threat.

There was a thumping sound from my right, and the drones immediately showed me highlighted foot imprints and dirt flying into the air. The suit helpfully pointed out that the enemy seemed to be a bird analog, weighing about sixty kilograms.  None of the suit sensors could see Ahmed, but they could see what he was doing to the environment.

I tried to judge where the legs were, and where they would be when they got to me, and kicked at where the outside leg would be when Ahmed got close to me.

I missed my kick at Ahmed’s leg.  At the same time as my leg was sweeping through where I hoped Ahmed’s leg might be, there was a terribly loud screech of metal tearing.  My armor reported damage to it’s right shoulder, followed by reports of severe damage to my right arm too, under the shoulder armor.  I wasn’t feeling any pain.

Small favors.

My right upper arm wasn’t able to lift any longer.  The suit was complaining with lots of red and yellow HUD images about being unable to detect the enemy, except by environmental clues.

Why in the hell is echolocation not working?

Why doesn’t visual light work for that matter.

Fuck magic.

Ahmed charged again and again.  I turned on the suit’s adaptive hand to hand combat options, because I certainly couldn’t fight him myself.  The suit did a lot better than me, even landing a couple hits on him, but Ahmed was still cutting my arms and legs to pieces even through the armor.

The armor was doing all it could with its extremely limited medical capabilities, but I’d probably be dead from blood loss before the suit completely failed.

Zombie Armor Zeke vs. the Slave Dinosaur.

Sounds like a terrible B movie.

I must be damn near dead of blood loss if I’m thinking shit like this.

At least he’s not taunting me.

All of a sudden, it started to rain.

I’m going to die in the mud.  Lovely.

I closed my eyes.  The suit was controlling everything now anyway.  “On next damage caused by enemy, engage self-destruct.”  It probably wouldn’t kill Ahmed, but it might.  I had no idea how damage resistant he was in the Svartalve shape, but the suit had managed to hit him pretty hard twice and it didn’t seem to have phased him.

I probably should have self-destructed sooner.  The suit is badly damaged and probably won’t explode with as much force as it would have earlier.

After several seconds, the suit chirped helpfully, “That feature has been disabled by user Slave Dinosaur.  Wouldn’t you prefer a nice game of chess?”

“Hahaha.  Fuck you Ahmed.  If you can play with me a little faster, I’d appreciate it.”

The suit announced a target acquisition ping, and I opened my eyes in surprise.

I’m almost dead and now the suit can target him.  Lovely.

As I looked at the sensor information I saw that the suit was apparently using echolocation in the rain to detect Ahmed’s position based on where the rain wasn’t present, he hadn’t become visible.  I watched, helpless as the suit managed to actually dodge and strike Ahmed several times, finally even making him cry out once.  The echolocation system dropped offline immediately after that.

Hell, I was hoping I’d be able to see him during the fight.

I still haven’t seen a Svartalve.

Oh, wait.  Where did they put that file?

Oh, heh, it’s right on the desktop.

Might as well see a picture before I die, since they were kind enough to give me one.

As I opened the file, a high definition image of a strange looking biped formed on screen.  The first thing I noticed was the incredible colors and patterns on the skin.  I marveled at the colors, before realizing they had to be artificial, probably painted on.  The markings were still impressive and beautiful.  The second thing I noticed was that the Svartalve was staring at the camera with a very unhappy look on his face.

He doesn’t have lips.

Maybe that’s him smiling for the camera.

I couldn’t help but chuckle.

The thing looks like a cross between a Velociraptor, a parrot, and a rainbow.

With almost human looking hands and arms.

My eyes travelled down to the legs, examining the lower parts of the photo.

Good lord, look at those claws.

They must not touch the ground when it’s running.

I didn’t see tracks from claws like that when Valsom ran.

That’s what is tearing up the armor so easily.

I zoomed in on the closer dewclaw.  It was sheathed in some sort of metal.

I realized that the armor hadn’t moved from a ready combat position, and I hadn’t been hit, in probably fifteen seconds.

Cool, now I know what killed me.

Are you going to fucking end it, Ahmed?

There was no answer of any kind in my mind or out loud.  No thumping sound of him charging.  The suit was indicating Ahmed’s last confirmed position as about fifteen feet into the thick ferns to my right.  I staggered in that direction.

Maybe the sick bastard gods that did this to Ahmed are making him play with me more.

Not that I ever had a chance.

As I stumbled into the ferns, pushing them out of the way, scanning for Ahmed, I tripped over a rock.

I heard a breathy whistle, and then a barely audible voice. “Kill me.  Quickly.  I will recover when you die, if you die before me.”

What the fuck?

I’m hallucinating.

Or Ahmed is fucking with my mind.

“Not funny, Ahmed.  I don’t appreciate having to chase after you to ask you to kill me.”

“Haha, Mr. Collins.  That ‘ancient historical image’ Valsom gave you.  It must have been me, back before the geas.  I didn’t even consider that possibility.  I didn’t know any images of me as a Svartalve remained.”

I followed the voice back the way I had come a couple feet and found Ahmed laying in a lump on the ground where I had apparently tripped over him.  His crumpled form was mud-covered and not much bigger than a very large turkey, but with a much larger head and neck, and far more leggy.  And teeth.  Lots of teeth.  My legs felt weird in the suit.  I stumbled on the last step and the armor recovered for me.  I couldn’t kneel, but I didn’t feel any pressure of my legs against the armor.  I told the suit to kneel, overriding the adaptive hand to hand systems, since the suit was still in combat mode.

I blacked out and was woken by an alarm.  The suit had just dropped a substantial volume of adrenaline into my system to wake me.  I had apparently only been out for a second or two.

“Mr. Collins. Now.  Strike me as hard as you can on the back of my neck where the skull attaches to the spine.  Before you go unconscious and your suit can’t wake you.”

The armor had recognized Ahmed’s shape as the shape of the attacker, but it had never seen his coloration and couldn’t positively identify him.  It was asking me if this was an example of the enemy’s race, or the actual enemy.

“Can’t I just keep watching you, and you won’t recover?  I have a hard time believing Ali won’t find his way back in here.”

“No, Zeke, you’re dying too.  You’ve lost too much blood, and I can’t restore either your pain receptors or your ability to intentionally become the soul well without my magic.  As for either Matty or Ali finding a way in, that won’t happen.  I specifically keyed this place against both of them after I kicked them out.  You never saw her, but Matty was here too, trying to figure out what was going on, because Ali had mentioned to her what you were doing to infuriate him.  I cannot coddle them forever, they must become adult at some point, but there’s no way I would allow even the slightest preventable chance that my children might discover my geas.  I’d have to kill them.”  He paused and his head moved slightly.  “I know what my children can do.  Stop trying to find a way to avoid killing me.  Do it.”

The suit was sluggishly taking sensor readings of the skeleton, muscles and feathers, and indicating points on the body that were potential weak points.  The point Ahmed suggested seemed to be the computer’s highest priority strike point as well.

“Ahmed, do you have a message for your children?”

“Tell them I’m sorry, and that I loved them.”

“I will, Ahmed.”

I couldn’t move my arms to hit Ahmed hard enough to kill him.

“Prone biped is actual enemy”

The suit did it for me.

Prior Chapter      Next Chapter

Arc 3, Balance 16

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I hadn’t wanted to send Anne back to the Enclave apartment, but, unfortunately, there weren’t any viable choices otherwise. The Enclave had been very clear to Anne that my trips to the apartment should be brief, and I should never sleep there.

Lots of good reasons for that.

Stubbing my toe might cause the residents from dozens of apartments to attack me.  Utter chaos in what should be a safe building.

We hadn’t talked about it, but I suspected that the conversations Anne had had with Enclave representatives about my limited visitation had been more heated than Anne had told me, but I had to admit that the Enclave was right.  Anne was a little biased in that argument.

I’m surprised they let me in at all.

I had asked Ali to check and see if they were being mentally coerced, and he said no. He did tell me there had been suggestions implanted that they follow Enclave rules and obey Enclave leaders, but they were suggestions, not compulsions.  If they tried to disobey rules or leaders, the suggestions would give them a bit of guilt and trigger them to reconsider their decisions to disobey rules or leadership.  If they were able to maintain doubts or disobedience despite reconsideration, there was another suggestion buried a little deeper that they make arrangements to take their concerns directly to an Enclave open meeting of voting members.  That secondary suggestion would be extremely difficult to resist.

My first instinct had been to tell Ali to remove the suggestions.  Anne and Danny would probably do exactly what the suggestions wanted anyway, but Ali had advised that I should not have him remove the suggestions.  His reasoning was that it was virtually certain the Enclave would check on the suggestions now and then, to be sure they were still present. Removing them would almost certainly put my family on a tighter security requirement, or make me completely unwelcome in the facility.

It’s still mind-fuckery. On my family.

I clenched my jaw, but forced myself to think of why they did it. I didn’t have all the details, but Gorgon had apparently created quite a mess when he had broken ranks with the Enclave years ago.  I could easily see the institutional attraction of a little more security at the cost of a little freedom.

That’s a damn slippery slope.

And I have to say that at this point, I’m in agreement with it.

I shoved aside the well-worn track of irritation. Every time I thought about spending time with Danny or Anne, the irritation with the Enclave surfaced.  Every time I had to leave Danny and Anne there, and come back here, alone, the irritation grew.

As I managed to push those thoughts away, others crowded forward, demanding attention.

Anne was right that permanently harming or killing me, physically, was hard, maybe impossible. Even though I wasn’t foolish enough to voice the concern to Anne, I was honest enough with myself to recognize that magic could kill me.  I had wondered several times if I had come close to dying next to Trainwreck when the Jotunn shaman had attacked us with whatever had forced Trainwreck back into his human body.

The body isn’t what I’m worried about though.

I would potentially live a very long time. How long that might be, I had no idea.  Various beings had hinted that I might even live forever unless killed by some magical being’s direct action.  My family wouldn’t live more than a normal lifespan.  If Danny had children, they would only live a few more years than he would, even in a perfect world.  Even practitioners seemed to only live for lifetimes measured in centuries, or thousands of years at best.  If I could live forever, I would end up like Jinn and Jiniri, over time.  Tired and bored.  They could sleep centuries, and might peacefully just drift off into nothingness.

I don’t think that will be an option for me.

How long will my sanity last like that?

When I go, it probably won’t be pleasant.

It was hard to not think about mortality when I was considering my plans. I still needed to ask for one more bit of help from Valsom’s crew.  I hoped what I was asking for would be possible.  I spoke out loud. “If a Svartalve could please examine this request and tell me if it is possible, and if possible, how long it would take to implement.”

I finished writing down my request and set the paper aside, putting Danny’s clay car paperweight on it, leaned back in my chair, and, as I expected, Ali spoke.

“That’s a dangerous thing you’re asking for, Zeke. It might force someone to escalate in response once they realize what you’ve done.”

“I recognize that, Ali. I think it’s necessary though.  Once I start what I’m planning, there’s a very good chance that people will not want to hear what I have to say, and try to stop me from saying it.”

People that probably can kill me, if they want to.

Why in the hell am I doing this?

Not doing it would guilt trip me forever.

Ali edged around so I could see him. He knew I didn’t like him talking to me from behind my back.  All of a sudden, he slapped his hand on the sheet of paper.  I felt something inside me changing, but was able to prevent the actual change from happening.

I stared at Ali, a bit angry.  “Not funny, Ali.”

There was a furious-sounding hiss from very close to me.

Ali turned his head towards a section of what looked to me to be an empty space in the floor.

“I apologize for interfering, but I have Zeke’s safety in mind here. He’s stubborn enough that you’re probably going to be able to see this in a few seconds, but I want to make sure he understands what this modification might mean, before I let you see his request.”

There was no further noise that I could detect, and after Ali looked at the spot in the floor where the Svartalve was apparently standing for another second, he turned back to me.

Time to see if this last piece of the puzzle fits like I think it does, if he’ll answer in a way that gives me the information I need.

“Ali, I have a semi-personal question for you, if you don’t mind.”

Ali’s eyes narrowed. “You’re fishing again, all this is related to whatever it is you’re planning.”

It wasn’t a question. I didn’t pretend he was wrong. “Sure is.  No offense intended, but it seems to me that other than a rather amazing memory, and lots of experience to draw from, most magical beings or even gods aren’t that much smarter than humans.  Magical beings also have some different senses that make it possible to simply detect things that a human would normally have to intuit from less obvious clues.  Would that be a fair assessment of Jinn, Jiniri, Elementals, Gods, other magical beings, and maybe even Svartalves?”

Ali stood there, staring at me, holding his hand over the note I had written for the Svartalves. “You are drawing this conclusion because I have not yet been able to intuit what your plans are?”

I nodded. “That, amongst other things.  Remember, Ali, one more day.”

Please keep your promise.

“Seeing what you’ve written here, I’m not sure you’re going to survive what you are planning tomorrow.” Ali paused a moment. “You aren’t sure either.  That was part of the reason for your date with Anne last night, wasn’t it?”

“Don’t go there, Ali. Don’t even think about trying to use Anne against me.  You don’t know what I’m planning, and that would seriously piss me off and endanger our ability to work together.  I would like to think that if Anne knew what I know, she would agree with what I’m doing.”

Ali wasn’t having any of it, and stared me in the eyes. “If you get yourself killed tomorrow because you think you know what you’re doing, but don’t – which is extremely likely – then I’ll have no chance to work together with you.  Why should I not go get Anne right now, tell her what I know, and let her work you over for a bit until you tell us what you’re planning?”

I couldn’t help but twitch at the thought, which, based on the quirk of his lips, Ali clearly recognized as a point in his favor.

That would probably work too.

He won’t do it though.

“I think I know you well enough by now to guess that you would far rather solve the puzzle on your own, as opposed to getting outside help. What I’m planning doesn’t endanger you.  It endangers a path to accelerated development that you certainly would like to have access to, but I’m presenting you with a puzzle.  You are clearly captivated by the puzzle.”

“There’s something else you might not be considering, Zeke.” Ali said, quietly.

“Ali, there are certainly many things I’m not considering. What are you referring to?”

“Maybe I believe you to be a friend, not just a meal ticket. Perhaps my concern about your life isn’t just me being interested in myself.  I’ve enjoyed most of my experiences with you.  You’ve taught me things.  Watching you take actions which seem to have a high likelihood of leading to your death might be just as painful for me in as it would be for you to watch a friend do something that you know will kill them.  Oh, say, like watching a family member die of lung cancer because they wouldn’t stop smoking.  Despite, or perhaps even because of, your risk-taking and stubbornness, I like you.  As you said, magical beings aren’t that much smarter than humans.”

Fuck. That was a blow below the belt.

I couldn’t stop the images of Uncle Oswald with dozens of tubes in him for the last week of his life in the hospital.  My father’s older brother refused to stop smoking, even after he beat lung cancer the first time.  The second time, he lost.

When did Ali learn about Uncle Oswald?

There was a hiss. It sounded annoyed.

Ali turned to the sound of the hiss. “Do you argue that Zeke wouldn’t be as capable as us, if he had our lifespan, memory, experiences, senses, and natural abilities?  He’s been developing his mind for less time than I spent in gestation.”

There was a long hiss, followed by a pause, before a high pitched voice started to speak. “Perhapsss… Nearly sssso.  He’sss certainly smarter than most non-Svartalves I have met.” came the response.  The English enunciation was very strange and sibilant at the beginning of the statement, but clarified by the end.

Ali grinned. “That’s quite a compliment from a Svartalve, Zeke, and he managed to insult me while he did it too.  Svartalves really don’t like being wrong.  This one’s young though.  Younger than me.  He’ll learn that he doesn’t know everything, eventually.”

I raised my hand, towards the space between Ali and the Svartalve. “Don’t start a fight, please, Ali.”

Ali turned back to me. “As a friend, will you tell me what you are planning?”

Dammit, Ali.

“I can’t. Sorry.  You will understand tomorrow, I hope.”

Ali looked angry.

I raised both hands to shoulder level, palms out, fingers straightened, and looked him straight in the eyes. “Please, Ali.  I won’t lie.  I consider you to be a friend as well.  If you feel the same, please understand that I have reasons for keeping this to myself.”  I lowered my hands again.

Ali stared at me for a second, sighed, closed his eyes, and then took his hand off the paper. “It’s far more likely that you are going to get yourself killed because you were ignorant of something important.”  He turned away from me.

I took a deep breath, blew it out slowly, and then took another breath and started speaking. “I don’t think so, Ali, at least in this case.  I could be wrong, but I don’t think that’s likely.”

Still looking away from me, Ali looked up at the ceiling. “It’s a very uncommon person who can believe with any real conviction that they might be wrong about something they believe, Zeke.  Those people are almost always self-doubters and you are certainly not a self-doubter.”

I didn’t have any more arguments that wouldn’t give him clues that might allow him to figure out what I was planning.

“Thank you for caring, Ali. That really does mean something to me.”

“I know. I can see that much.  I can also see that, somehow, this conversation has deepened your conviction that you are right in whatever the hell it is you are planning.”

I couldn’t help but poke him about his nature. “Fun, isn’t it?  For you.”

He turned back to me with a serious face. “Other than the fact that you’re putting your life on the line, yes, I won’t deny it.  Even if you get yourself killed tomorrow, you’ve given me some fine memories.”

“It appears that your answer has been provided, Zeke.” Ali pointed at a new sheet of paper on my desk, under Danny’s clay car.  I hadn’t even noticed it arriving.

“Modification of armor to implement option for severe pain generation upon mental intrusion is trivial. Modification of armor to implement option for severe pain generation on failure or unexpected modification of any suit function is trivial.  Implementation of enhanced cryptographic operating system and firmware security is trivial.  Implementation of combined requests possible within three hours.  Proceed Yes or No?”

I picked up a pen from the cup of writing implements on my desk, and wrote “Yes”

I spoke out loud. “I have answered.”  After speaking, I looked away, intentionally, for several seconds.  When I looked back, the paper was gone.

Ali spoke nonchalantly. “It just occurred to me that part of your plan must require my ignorance.  It’s not just that you are keeping it secret, is it?”

I winced.

That could lead him in directions I don’t want him going.

Ali nodded before disappearing.

I stared at where Ali had been standing, hoping he wouldn’t figure it out.

I still had a lot of work to do before tomorrow. My will needed to be updated.  Same for my living will.  There were letters to write, that would be delivered if I were to die.  I would want to put on the armor after the modifications were completed, and make sure I understood how to turn the new features on and off.

I turned to my computer, and began working, connecting to my electronic document repository, updating various documents and providing biometric verification. It was slow going.  After a few minutes, despite myself, I couldn’t help but smile as I realized that for once in my adult life, I was hoping that everything I was doing was a waste of time.

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Arc 3, Balance 15

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I lifted my leg and grabbed my knee. Now it was a little too binding.  “Can you adjust this seam a little, Ali?  It needs to loosen up.”

“It is not in the contract that I should be your personal Valet, Zeke.” Ali sounded bored.

“I know, Ali. If you’re tired of helping me make the tux fit right, it’s good enough.”  I paused.  “It must be nice to be able to adjust your own clothing so easily.”

I felt the fabric of the pants leg adjust slightly, and it was no longer binding. “Thank you Ali.  That’s the end of it.  I didn’t realize I had lost weight.”

The tux had been wearable after the first adjustment, but I would have had difficulty dancing in it, even formal dancing. I had guessed wrong on how much needed to be taken in at first, and the tux had been too tight in several places.  After putting on the entire assembly, I started doing stretches and formal dance motions to find where the pants and jacket were binding.  Ali would then make minor adjustments and I’d start again, watching in the mirror to be sure the loosening didn’t create any strange appearance issues.  Ali was no expert on formalwear, but after I showed him how an adjustment to the inseam made the cuff of the pants uneven, he seemed interested.  That interest hadn’t lasted long.  If I hadn’t given Anne an extra hour above and beyond what I expected I would need, I would be the one in a rush at this point.  As it was, it had taken thirty minutes to get the fit right.

Ali’s mouth quirked in a half smile. “The soul well doesn’t draw on you and force your body to a higher metabolic state, but you have been a bit forgetful about eating recently, Zeke.”

“I normally have coworkers or family to remind me to eat. You don’t exactly require regular meals.” I wasn’t going to ask him to start reminding me to eat, but if he volunteered, I wouldn’t object.

Ali looked at me, and smiled. “It won’t become a problem, Zeke.  The weight you lost wasn’t harmful, or you would have regenerated it when you last shifted.”

“Wait, are you telling me that I don’t really need to eat at all, that the regeneration is powered from a source other than my body?”

“Exactly. The soul well’s passive energy levels are maintained by ley line proximity.  You’re tapped into that in a rather odd fashion.  Your biology still works the same though.  You will get hungry, you will lose weight.”

I just nodded. “And when I shift, I will regenerate to a healthy state if I’ve lost too much weight.”

“Exactly.”

Something else I’m not equipped to understand.

Time to see if I can tease out some information to support my idea.

I checked my bow tie in the mirror. “How many of you are there, Ali?  Jinn and Jiniri, I mean.”

Ali looked at me for a moment. It was clear that he knew I was fishing for information for a reason, not out of idle curiosity.  That whole intent-reading thing.  “Several hundred thousand.  Most of the elders are inactive, resting, at any given time.”

“That doesn’t seem like a whole lot. Your father is billions of years old, right?  And he’s got two children born in the last couple thousand years.  At that rate, one would think there would be a huge population of Jinn and Jiniri.”

“Father likes to keep busy. He is always interacting with mortals, gods, and other magical beings.  He says he’s never really been comfortable with just going inactive.  Most of the elder Jinn and Jiniri like to get away from the world for a while because when they return to activity, there are typically lots of changes to keep things interesting.  When they start to get bored again, they go inactive for a few decades or centuries.  It’s a lot like mortal sleep.”  He paused.  “Sometimes, Jinn and Jiniri just drift off and don’t wake.  The older they are, the more likely that is.”

I nodded. “I could easily imagine that with a lifespan as long as a Jinn or Jiniri, long periods of rest would be welcome, and depression or sheer boredom might set in.”

Ali looked at me again, thinking. “I think my father is a bit afraid of that.  He’s one of the oldest Jinn remaining.  My sister and I are two of around a dozen children he’s had in the last couple hundred thousand years, the rest are inactive, sleeping, right now.  Matty and I are pretty sure that father is having children so often because he wants strong connections to others in addition to all the interactions he works to create for himself.  He goes out of his way to keep himself busy and connected. He’s told us that he allows the Grey Lodge to command him so he can keep his mind occupied.  In fact the agreement he has with the Grey Lodge specifically requires that they provide him with tasks on a regular basis.”

I somehow doubt your father would appreciate you telling me so much about his motivations and fears.

Time to get off this topic.

“I see. Well, sort of.  As well as a mortal without magic can, I guess.”  I smiled.

Ali looked up at me, seriously. “Don’t think I don’t know this has something to do with your secret, Zeke.  Two days.”

“No peeking, Ali.” I smiled at Ali, and he just stared at me for a moment, clearly thinking hard.

I hope he’s as much like his father as I think he is.

If I keep this interesting to him, he won’t get in the way.

I broke eye contact with Ali and ducked my head to check my boutonniere and its latch. The latch was there.  I wasn’t sure if it had been the Svartalves or Anne that had that fixed it, but I didn’t have to ask Ali to do it, which was probably a good thing.

I checked the jacket pocket, to make sure the white silk handkerchief was there. Then I checked for the second silk handkerchief carefully inserted in the long inner sleeve pocket above the left cuff of my jacket.  It wasn’t visible in the sleeve, except a quarter inch extending out of the pocket, two inches above the cuff.

I could still remember the weird look the tailor gave me when I requested the hidden pocket for the second handkerchief in the sleeve, until I explained that it was so I could show off to my son and get his attention if he started to get cranky at a formal event. That little trick had come in handy a couple times when he was a preteen.  I had never shown Danny where I hid the handkerchief.

“Time to hit the flower shop, Ali.” I gave myself another quick look in the full-length mirror, picked up my hat, and carefully set it in place, tapping it to get it to just the right angle.  Then I picked up the ebony black cane a few inches below its featureless silver topknob, and tucked it under my left armpit.  I almost grabbed my white silk gloves, but Anne had never really liked them.  She said she preferred to hold my hand when she held my hand.  I left them on the dresser.

Ali created a door which took us near to a flower shop in Atlanta.  I made a couple purchases without incident, other than some welcome comments on my outfit.  The florist was happy with my selections.  It wasn’t a wedding or funeral order, but it was a bit out of the ordinary, and her parting comment, ‘I guess romance isn’t quite dead yet.’ made me smile.

A few minutes later, Ali was opening another door, this time outside the Enclave apartment. He entered the hallway before me to make sure I wouldn’t be startled, and immediately gave me the all-clear, so I stepped through.

I tapped the head of my cane against the door very lightly, but loudly enough to get attention, and I heard Anne’s voice. “One moment please.”

A few seconds later, the little peephole in the door went dark, briefly, and Anne’s voice came through. “You, sir, are thirty minutes early.” Her statement was punctuated with the sound of a deadbolt being released and then the door opened.  I handed her the bouquet of two dozen long-stemmed red roses.  She accepted them carefully, checking for thorns before holding them up to her face and breathing in deeply as she backed away from the door to let me in.

I entered the doorway while removing my hat and placing it over the end of my cane, still tucked under my left arm, Anne grinned at me over the top of the roses, still held in front of her. “Looking sharp, Zeke.  No fair though, you’re seeing me before I’m ready.”

“Beautiful lady, I would suggest you go and continue getting ready then, or I’m afraid I’ll lose control, and we’ll miss dinner.”

Anne’s eyes opened a little wider and she chuckled. “Tempting, but no.  We haven’t eaten out in far too long, and you have me desperately curious about the arrangements you’ve made.”  She turned around and walked quickly to the kitchen, and placed the bouquet on the table.  “I’m almost done, just finishing my hair and a bit of makeup.”

As Anne walked back to the bedroom, my eyes followed her. She was wearing a black and white ankle length formal dress.  The black half was to her right, and it was the half with the strap.  The white half was strapless.  The dress was split slightly above the knee, black to one side, white to the other.  She was wearing a pair of ruby solitaire earrings that I recognized as a Christmas present I had given her a few years back.

I growled at her as she walked away, the dividing line between the two halves of her dress made certain assets more noticeable. She looked back at me with a grin, and started exaggerating her walk for the last few feet before she left my sight, crossing her feet a little more in front of her, to make her hips swing.

After Anne left my sight, there was an “Ahem.” from behind me.

Whoops, forgot that Ali can’t just walk in and close the door behind himself.

I thought about how I would word the invitation. Ali had had ample opportunity to prove himself to be a problem, and seemed to be decent.  “For as long as you intend no theft, unfriendly mischief or any sort of harm to me or mine, Ali, you may enter this home until my wife, my son, or I declare otherwise.”

Ali’s face became very serious as he heard the invitation. “Thank you for the invitation, Zeke.” He replied as he stepped through the threshold of the door, carrying a long box from the florist with him.  He closed the door behind himself, locking the deadbolt with his left hand, rather than just waving his fingers like he would typically do for a simple physical task.

“Why don’t I have to give you permission to enter my apartment or the house at the homestead, Ali?” I asked, suddenly curious.

“Typically, man-caves don’t have thresholds worth talking about, Zeke, unless it’s surrounded by the boundaries of a household.  Your apartment in the barn is pretty much a man-cave. Your house there isn’t lived in anymore, and a lot of things that are important to your wife and son have been brought here, weakening that threshold a lot, and making this one more potent.”

I nodded.

That makes sense. I think.

I reached out towards Ali with a grin, and he handed me the florist’s box, which I took to the kitchen and carefully, quietly, placed on the table. I then walked into the living room, and found the antique coat rack, placing the cane in one of the holes at its base, and the hat carefully on top.

Ali had followed me into the living room, but as I turned around from putting my cane and hat on the coat rack, I noticed that he was staring at something. I followed his gaze, and found myself staring at a foot-tall cascade of black and white hair with two eyes and a nose.

“Anne, you’re allergic to dogs, I thought?”

“Oh, has Fifi found you? She’s a cutie, isn’t she?”

‘Fifi’ looked towards Anne’s voice when her name was spoken. After that, the little fuzzball stared at Ali, and then me, before sniffing dismissively and trotting to the doorway into the master bedroom, where she turned around three times before settling in, laying on her belly in the middle of the doorway, staring at Ali and I.

“Zeke?” Anne sounded puzzled.

“Yes, Anne, if Fifi is the black and white Shih Tzu, then she found us.” I paused a second, trying to figure out a polite way to ask the next question.  “How are you even able to breathe?  The last time you were around a dog this hairy just for a couple hours, you could barely breathe for two days.”

“Oh, Matty said she’s hypoallergenic. I haven’t had any problems.”

Matty again.

Stay out of it.

I looked at Fifi again. She was maybe a foot tall.  Her hair was longer than she was tall.  When she had trotted over to the doorway to put herself between us and Anne, I hadn’t even seen her legs moving for all the hair.

There’s no such thing as a hypoallergenic dog with that much hair.

“I see. Does Fifi get along with Danny?”

“Sure, she loves Danny. If I’m not here, she will sit at his feet all day.  She loves running with him in the mornings.  We were surprised she could keep up with him.”

I whispered to Ali. “Ali, did Matty give my wife some sort of hair elemental?”

Ali looked at me and coughed a bit as he clearly tried to prevent himself from laughing.

Fifi yipped, and growled very briefly.

“Fifi stop that.” Anne called from the bathroom.

Fifi whined, very briefly, looking back over her shoulder towards Anne’s voice.

When I looked at the little fur ball, she was staring directly at me. I couldn’t lock eyes with her like I normally would if I was going to try to make a dog back down.  I didn’t feel threatened, but I couldn’t lock eyes with her.

Definitely some magical something going on here.

Ali whispered back to me. “Hair elemental?  Heh. I can’t wait to tell Matty that.  No, Fifi is a temple dog.  A very young one, but still a temple dog.”

Carefully keeping my voice down, I asked a new question. “Does Anne know she’s a magic dog, Ali?”

“How would I know, Zeke? I haven’t seen Anne since the last time we both came here, and Matty hasn’t told me anything.”

Fifi was just staring at the two of us, looking back and forth as we spoke in whispers.

“She can understand us, can’t she?”

“Yes, Zeke, she can. Not all the words, but most of them, and the intent behind them.  Temple dogs are brilliant, for dogs.  About as smart as the average four year old human child.  They are also strongly empathic.” Ali answered.

Fifi stuck her nose in the air and sniffed, giving a very strong appearance of annoyance.

“Sorry to talk about you in front of you like that, Fifi. That was rude.  My ignorance of magic is the reason but it’s not an excuse.  Please forgive me.”

I never imagined I would be having a conversation with an anklebiter.

Fifi cocked her head and looked at Ali, who just nodded, saying nothing. She then nodded to me, and somehow it was clear that she forgave me for my rudeness.

I realized that we had another observer here that might have an answer to one of my earlier questions. “Fifi, does Anne know you are a magic dog?”

Fifi nodded her head, clearly indicating yes.

“Are you here to protect Anne and Danny?”

Another nod from Fifi.

“Thank you, Fifi.”

Fifi waved her tail, briefly.

“Fifi is keyed to this household, Zeke. She will protect anyone with strong ties to it.  You, Danny, or Anne.”

I nodded. If Anne was accepting both advice and gifts from Matty, they were certainly close enough that I could ask about their relationship.  Later.  The last thing I was going to do before going on a dinner date with my wife was ask her about a smoking hot young woman who had expressed sexual interest in me, in front of Anne.

Way too many possibilities to completely break the mood.

Anne called out “OK, close your eyes!”

I closed my eyes and I heard Anne walking closer. She kissed me briefly, on the lips, barely a peck, then pulled away.

“Tease.” I said, with mock irritation.

Anne laughed. “OK, open your eyes.”

I opened my eyes and Anne was there with the same dress and ruby earrings, but she was now wearing a ruby pendant necklace, which hung quite spectacularly between her breasts. Anne wasn’t large-chested, but she’d gone from a B to a C cup when she was pregnant with Danny.  She’d been thrilled with the change – she had been a B cup ever since she was eleven.

“That lucky, lucky pendant.” I muttered, while holding my hands out towards her chest and wriggling my fingers.

“Hands off, Buster!” Anne laughed as she swatted at my hands.

I pouted and took a long step back, so I could look at her better. She had her hair in French braids and was wearing just enough makeup to help contrast her eyes and lips with her skin.  She was wearing black shiny leather flats, with a stripe of white across their tops.  She had a tiny little black cap on her head, and a black lace shawl.  Everything she wore complemented the two tone sleeveless dress, and the dress complemented her “You look incredibly sexy tonight.”

“Flattery will get you everywhere.” Anne put her weight on one leg and belt the other knee and placed her hand closest to me on her hip.

“Keep that up, and we’ll be eating popcorn in bed.” I shook my finger at her.

Anne laughed and walked towards the kitchen. I put my hand around her waist and gently turned her away from the kitchen.  “Ah, not yet.  I need to get your help with something first.”

Anne looked at me with both patience and suspicion as I walked into the kitchen and retrieved the long box, returning and holding it in front of me in both hands.

Anne smiled a big smile, opened the box, and then exclaimed “They’re beautiful, Zeke!” while she carefully picked up one orchid after another from the selection, sniffing each in turn.

I smiled at her obvious enjoyment. Anne always loved orchids.  “I didn’t know what you would be wearing, so I brought a selection.”

“The red one will match the rubies, I think.” She picked up the red orchid, leaving the white, yellow, pink, and blue ones in their cradles in the box, walking over to the half-height mirror on the wall to the right of the coat rack.  She held the red orchid up to the ruby by her right ear and smiled before carefully sticking the long stem of the orchid into the hair above her left ear.  She made a couple minor adjustments, took a step back from the mirror, and then muttered.  “Perfect.”

“I agree. I’m definitely seeing perfection.”

Anne smiled hugely. “Thank you, Zeke.”  She got a worried look on her face.  “I didn’t forget to fix your boutonniere did I?”  She walked over to me and carefully folded over my left lapel to look for the little strap.

“It’s fine, dear. I was hoping you would help me choose the right rose from what I brought.”

“Oh, yes, definitely. I’ll be right back!”  Anne smiled and tapped me on the nose with her right index finger.

I chased her finger with my teeth, briefly, before she walked away.

We haven’t had this much fun in months.

Anne walked carefully to the kitchen. I heard a drawer open and then the sound of silverware jingling, followed by some rustling which had to have been her pulling a rose out of the bundle.  Shortly after that there was the sound of a couple steps and finally the sound of a knife on a cutting board.  Anne returned to the living room with a nice-looking red rose, the stem cut short.

Anne walked over to me and carefully placed the rose in my boutonniere, making sure to put the stem through the strap. She carefully checked the flower’s fit and position, and then folded the lapel back and patted it a couple times.  “I need to put the roses in water, Zeke.  I don’t have a vase unpacked, a water pitcher will do for now.  Be back in two minutes.”

“While you are doing that, think about what you want to eat. Literally anything you want that you’ve ever had in a restaurant.”

Anne stopped as she was walking away from me, and turned halfway around with a thoughtful look on her face. “You’re having food teleported in from somewhere, aren’t you?”

“Hmmm. Maybe.  Think about what you want to eat.” I tried to keep an exaggerated innocent look on my face as I whistled tunelessly for a couple seconds.

Anne chuckled as she turned around and walked into the kitchen. I followed her.  A few minutes later I had cut the roses’ stems back by a couple centimeters, at an angle of course, and Anne had placed them in the water pitcher she had pulled out of the fridge.

Anne was thinking as she carefully washed her hands and checked her nails. “The appetizers should be stuffed mushrooms and bacon wrapped shrimp.”  She paused briefly.  “Garlic bread too.”

“Sounds perfect.” I looked over at Ali, who nodded.  “What about the entrée and dessert?”

Anne looked at me as she dried her hands on a dish towel. “What are you getting?”

“I was thinking about a quarter pound cheeseburger and a milkshake.” I said, managing to keep my face serious.

Anne stopped drying her hands and just stared at me for a second. “I’m one step from the silverware drawer.  There are knives there.  What are you ordering for your entrée and dessert, Zeke?”

I grinned. Anne never liked to order first, conventional etiquette be damned.

We get so many strange looks in high end restaurants.

“I’m going to get a big dry-aged ribeye steak, blackened Cajun style, with asparagus and scalloped potatoes. I’ll have a Bourbon brownie with vanilla ice cream for dessert.”

Anne got a thoughtful expression on her face as she slowly finished drying her hands and checking her fingernails. “I think I’ll have a steampot dinner.  Snow crab legs, shrimp, clams, corn, potatoes, green beans and Italian sausage.  Blackberry cobbler for dessert.”

Oh, steampot seafood.

I almost changed my order, but it had been a long time since I had a good dry-aged cut of beef. “Ali, did you hear that?”

Immediately, Ali responded. “I did.  Should I ask the restaurant to provide wines to match the food?”

“No wine for me, Ali, I’ll have a dark beer or ale, let the owner decide what to send. Ice water as well.” I turned to Anne.  “What about you, Anne?”

“One glass of Chablis to start, let the restaurant decide which one, and ice water with lemon slices.” Anne smiled at Ali, who was dressed in a grey tuxedo with a light blue shirt. It had been a black tuxedo when we left the house.

Must be nice to shift colors and styles to whatever you want, on the fly.

“Anything else, for either of you?” Ali asked.

Anne and I looked at each other. Anne answered.  “That should be it.”

“Do you have everything, Anne? I need to get my hat and cane.”

“Just my touch-up kit. I’ll be right back.”

We both walked into the living room, where I retrieved my cane and top hat, carefully placing the hat on my head and looking in the mirror to angle it just right. As I fitted my hat, Anne kept walking into the bedroom and retrieved a tiny little black packet with a spaghetti string shoulder strap that had room for a tiny mirror, a tube of lipstick, and a very simple makeup and mascara kit.

As Anne emerged from the bedroom, I was waiting, and bowed, taking my hat away with my right hand in a long sweep, and then straightening and reseating the hat by feel. The whole time, my left arm held my cane fast against my chest under my arm.  As I straightened, I released the cane from under my arm and quickly but smoothly touched it to the ground in front of me, taking it from my left hand into my right hand.

After freeing my left arm, I asked. “Would you care to take my arm for a short walk to the establishment where we shall dine, Mrs. Collins?”

“That would be more than welcome, Mr. Collins.” She replied with a smile.

I held my left arm out, elbow extended. Anne slapped my forearm lightly, so I dropped my elbow out of the way.  She then put her right hand on my left and gently twisted my hand around so she could interlock her fingers with mine.

As we walked back to the kitchen, I looked at my hat in the mirror.

Close enough.

Ali was waiting, and clearly was enjoying himself watching us. “In that case then, let me show you to your seats.  Walk this way, please.”  Ali gestured at the wall of the hallway next to the front door, and a duplicate of the apartment’s front door appeared.  Ali unlocked the deadbolt and swung the door open.

I had already seen the room and its surroundings but it was still breathtaking. The room we entered was enormous and circular, with a single large dark wooden table with two chairs in the center of the room.  The table and chairs themselves were incredible, a wood so dark it was nearly black, but so reflective it was hard to look at in the setting sun.  The walls and ceiling seemed to be entirely glass.  The columns supporting the ceiling were a combination of materials that looked like braided glass and mother of pearl.  The floor was an amazing white marble with a golden hue in the setting sunlight.

Outside the windows was a dense, dark green foliage, stretching for hundreds of yards in each direction. Beyond the greenery, there was a ring of yellow sand, and then crystal clear water with hints of submerged rocks and reefs in the water at the edge of vision.  We were elevated at least a couple hundred feet above the beach, standing in a room of decadent opulence and looking down at pure beauty.

After we walked through the door, Anne was speechless for the first two steps before she stopped walking. I stopped with her, moving as she turned, so she would not need to rotate around me to see beyond me.  “Zeke, where is this?” Anne asked in a hushed voice.  “It’s spectacular.”

As Ali was closing the door behind us, I saw a pile of black and white fur run through the door with a surprising turn of speed, almost a blur.

Fifi stopped right next to the door and turned around three times before she settled onto her haunches and became nearly motionless. Ali just stared at the mobile pile of fur for a moment, and then shrugged and finished closing the door.  “This is one of my father’s places, much like my room that I showed you, Anne.  He’s had this one a lot longer than I’ve had mine.  He has many more, but this is one of his favorites to show off.  Zeke requested permission to use the room for dining and dancing tonight.  My father agreed, and here we are.”

Anne did another slow turn, her eyes scanning up, down, left and right, taking in everything. “More than spectacular. Exquisite.  Ali, please thank your father for allowing us the opportunity to see this place.  I will never forget this.”

“I agree, Ali. Your father has impeccable taste, it seems.”

Ali was clearly happy with the praise. “I will tell him what you have said. I’m certain he will be pleased.”

Anne and I continued walking to the table which was set for two. There were candles in candle holders, but they were not lit.

“Should I take your hat and cane, sir?” Ali said with a grin after I pulled back Anne’s seat and she had been seated.

“That would be excellent. Thank you, young man.”  Ali wrinkled his nose at me and I laughed a little as I handed him my hat and cane.

“I will be back shortly with your appetizers, ice water, and lemon wedges.” Ali announced, and then disappeared with my hat and cane.

Anne put her hand across the small table, holding it out, clearly expecting me to put my hand in hers. I did so, wordlessly.  “Zeke, this is really above and beyond anything I expected.  Thank you so much.  I thought you were arranging to have food teleported into the house, and that would have been fine.”

“I’ve been neglecting you, Anne, and this is one way to try to apologize for that. Danny is starting to make his own way, he has Jane.  You have lots of friends on the internet, I know, but I’ve spent the last four years relearning how to be a good husband, and forgot all of it after my powers developed.”

Anne smiled “You’re so sweet, Zeke.” She raised my hand to her lips and kissed it.  “I have it easier than many other spouses of powered people.  Most supers bleed and can die.  You don’t seem to have that problem as your powered self.”  She looked away a moment.  “A lot of the Enclave spouses got together to comfort and support each other during the invasion.  There were some people with relatives in Columbia, where the breakout happened.  A lot of their spouses were hurt.  One Enclave super died; she was killed by one of the flying assault robots, like the ones that buried themselves in you, and it happened right in front of a camera feed.  Her husband had to be restrained and removed from the room.”

“I can’t even imagine how much that must have hurt the man, Anne. I couldn’t imagine losing you.  Life would have no meaning.  I love Danny too, but we’ve spent the last couple decades teaching him how to grow up, and grow apart, eventually.  In that same time, we’ve grown together.”  I rubbed my thumb across her hand.

Anne said nothing for a few seconds, just looking me in the eyes. “Everyone says you can’t die.  I might have to worry about you getting lost in your work, and I might feel lonely now and then, but you are doing things that need doing.  What’s my loneliness against the lives of the kids at that burning orphanage, or the safety of everyone in Atlanta?  Even whatever happened with that Australian cape, Trainwreck.  I don’t really understand what happened there, but I know that the Canberra team thanked you for it, and the man’s brother has thanked you publicly as well.”  Anne paused.  “What am I to that?”

I looked at her, and squeezed her hand slightly for emphasis. “Anne, you are my rock.  You are everything.”

Anne gripped my hand tighter, raising her other hand to mine, and I brought my second hand to meet her two hands. We just held hands, silently for almost a minute, looking into each other’s eyes.  I was leaking around the eyeballs a bit, and so was she.

All of a sudden, Anne reached into my left sleeve with her right hand, and whipped out the handkerchief there with a flourish. “You, sir, have caused me to need to touch up my makeup.  There will be a price to pay for that later.” She forced herself to laugh.

After Anne dabbed her cheeks dry, she stretched across the table and did the same for me. After both of our eyes were dry, she then folded the handkerchief and put it in front of her, to her left on the table before pulling out her little makeup kit and starting to repair damage done..

I reached out and lifted her chin up as she was looking down into the small kit mirror. “Anne, I’ll pay any price for you.”

Anne froze. “If I asked you to keep doing good things, and try to spend a little time with me now and then?”

“Your wish is my command, beautiful one. However, I think some of our…” I made air quotes.  “‘nights out’ will be at the house, I wouldn’t impose on Ali’s father to borrow this place often.”

There was a knock from one of the nearby pillars. Ali was standing there with the appetizers, water, and a small bowl of lemon slices balanced on a large server’s medallion he was holding over his head. “I know I am interrupting, but I’m afraid the shrimp and mushrooms lose a great deal of flavor if allowed to cool, even if reheated.”

Anne waved him over. “Please, Ali, bring the food.  I’m starving, and I would hate to let the food become mediocre in such an incredibly scenic place.”

Anne and I spent the next six hours eating and drinking, and then dancing, and drinking. After that, we returned, not to the apartment, but to the house, because Anne refused to let me sleep alone.

I woke up the next morning to someone whispering my name so softly I could barely hear it. “Zeke. Zeke. Zeke.”

When I opened my eyes, I was looking into my wife’s open eyes, and she touched her finger to my lips.

There was a brief flash of black and white fur at the foot of the bed on Anne’s side. Fifi had apparently been sleeping or just lying there until we both woke up.  Anne laughed as I jumped a little bit, reacting to the fur comet hurtling off the bed.  “She’s fast, isn’t she?”

I nodded, and then reached out and tickled Anne under her right side floating rib, and growled. “Round two.”

Prior Chapter      Next Chapter

Arc 3, Balance 14

Prior Chapter      Next Chapter

Ali showed up shortly after the raven left. An hour after that, I finished talking through some plans with Ali, making some minor concessions to him as he pretended to give me a hard time haggling. He left, grinning, and returned a couple minutes later.  “My father agreed, Zeke.”

I grinned right back, happily. “Any last minute problems you can think of, Ali?”

“No. I think we covered all the bases, Zeke.”

I nodded. “Time for Phase two then.”  I picked up my phone off the desk, and looked at the time.  A bit after one o’clock in the afternoon.  Plenty of time.

I dialed Anne’s new phone number, and after two rings, she picked up.

“This is Anne.”

“Hello, most beautiful one!”

Anne hesitated, briefly, “Hello forgetful one!”

I deserved that. At least she doesn’t sound mad.  Yet.

“Anne, it’s been too long since we had a night out. Do you think you could be ready for a formal dinner in about four hours, and maybe a little music and slow dancing afterwards?”  I grinned as I asked the question, because I knew what her answer was going to be, even if the words might not be what I imagined.

“Just us, and you’ve planned it responsibly? I don’t want the band chasing you around, trying to beat you to death with their instruments.  Again.”  She chuckled.  “I have to admit, it’s funny after the fact, but the bill for those instruments wasn’t cheap, and we’re fortunate none of them hurt their hands.  It’s the only time I’ve ever been part of a band.”

I couldn’t help but laugh a little. My surprise birthday party the prior year had been a surprise for everyone.  Including Danny, Anne, and the five piece band Anne had hired because they knew some of my favorite music.

“Just us. Table for two in a nice, secluded place.  The music won’t be live, but I’m sure we can put up with a recording.”

“Hmmm, sounds good. What will we be eating?”

“Whatever you want.”

“Now I’m curious enough to want to go, just to see the kitchen. We are going to be eating real food, right, not conjured food from Ali, right?  Matty said eating conjured food is a really bad idea.”

I looked over at Ali, who nodded, and mouthed, silently, “She’s right.”

Then I realized who Anne had just told me she’d been talking to.

Matty? She’s already talking to Matty after the other day?

I considered asking questions to find out how Matty had managed to get Anne to talk to her so soon, but quickly discarded that idea. If Anne wanted to tell me about it, she would.  I wasn’t going to interfere in any way between those two after the other day.  The wrong word at the wrong time might be disastrous.

Maybe she was just lonely.

It’s not like I’ve been around much.

“Real food is the plan. Anything you want, as long as you don’t start asking for moonbeam casserole.”

“But moonbeam casserole is my favorite!” Anne chuckled. “Did you Elvis a restaurant, Zeke?”

Did I what?

Oh, right, Elvis used to rent entire restaurants so he could eat in peace when he wasn’t at home or in a hotel with private dining.

“No, I’ve been given access to a private dining area. Very high class, with an amazing selection of cuisine.  Ali and I will be by in a bit more than four hours, at six PM, if that’s OK?”

“Should I ask Danny?”

I made sure to pitch my voice so it would carry.  “Adults only tonight, I think.”

Danny’s voice piped up. “I heard that!”

I spoke a little louder. “No offense Danny, but your mother and I haven’t had a night out in a long time.”

“I imagine I can find something else to occupy my time – other than improving my skills at getting in the way.” I could hear the smile in Danny’s voice.  “Mom and I were just going over some of the qualifications of the prospective board members.  I had no idea how much experience you needed to be an executive.”

“I picked people with strong track records and paid them very well, Danny. I could have gotten some pretty good people with a lot of promise for much less, but I paid substantially more to get highly qualified people with strong, proven ability.”

I don’t want to get bogged down in business talk.

“I’ll be happy to talk to you more about hiring strategies later, Danny. Right now though, I suspect your mother is probably getting ready to poke you in the nose, because you and I are now talking business after she and I were beginning to talk about a night out.  You are there, I’m not.  Therefore you have certainly become the default target.”

I heard Anne growl a mock growl.

Danny laughed.  “Yes. Yes she is.  I believe I’ll take that as my cue to retreat to the safety of my room, and see if any of the grandparents would like to spend some time with their poor, neglected grandson.”  He chuckled, but the chuckle ended with him speaking in a serious tone.  “I’ve been meaning to introduce them to Jane, and I’m going to need to plan that out fairly carefully.  I’ve asked her if we can meet with her mother.  I think I’ll learn a bit more about Jane’s needs in semi-public places from watching how she and her mother interact.  That should help me plan the visits with the grandparents.”

I heard the sound of a chair dragging across a hard floor. They must have been sitting at the kitchen table.

“That’s probably a good idea, Danny.” I thought for a second and decided to give a little warning.  “When you talk to my parents, make sure you don’t make it obvious that you two are sleeping together already.  Don’t lie, but don’t throw it in their faces either.  Anne’s parents probably won’t get upset about it as long as you aren’t blatant, but you will get under my parents’ skin pretty quickly if you force them to recognize you’re having sex outside marriage.  They will think you are, probably, but if they don’t know you are, they won’t have to acknowledge it.”

Anne spoke up, a bit of humor in her voice. “I already warned him, Zeke.”

Introducing Jane to mom and dad will be a bit of a trick.

Should I speak to them first, to head off any surprises?

I shook my head and decided to stay out of it. While I did need to talk to my parents again soon, because I hadn’t spoken to them in more than a week, I wouldn’t do it just to go behind Danny’s back.  I would help him if he asked, but he hadn’t asked.

I also hadn’t spoken to Miss Perfect since I told her I had accidentally let Anne know who her father was. I wasn’t sure any help from me would be appreciated by either Jane or Danny, even if it was a good idea.

For that matter, mom and dad would probably think I was being weird and overly protective if I tried to insert myself into the process of Danny introducing Jane to them.

They would be right. Definitely hands off, unless asked.  If it’s a disaster, it’s a disaster.  They have been together for years, I can’t imagine they would intentionally set themselves up for failure.

“Earth to Zeke. Hello Zeke.” Anne repeated.

Shaking my head to clear my thoughts, I realized that Anne had been trying to talk to me for a few seconds. “Oh, sorry Anne, I was thinking about a couple things, what were you saying?”

Anne paused. “Small talk, not important.  I think I know what you were thinking, but I’m not sure what decision you made.”  She paused a moment, and I could clearly imagine her tapping her teeth with her index finger a couple times while she figured out how to say what she wanted to say.  “Stay out of the way.  Danny’s a big boy.  We’ve both given him clues and warnings about our parents, and he’s certainly aware of the challenges involved in introducing Jane as something more than a picture.”  She paused.  “We can be there if he needs us but if we try to be there when he doesn’t, we won’t be welcome long.”

I chuckled a bit as I answered. “I agree.  I had to think it through for a few seconds, like you guessed I was doing, but I agree.”

“There you go, thinking for yourself again, when all you had to do was ask me. When will you learn, Mighty Hunter?”

“Once again, I bow to the superior instincts of the Domestic Goddess.”

We both laughed.

After a brief moment of silence, I asked, “I don’t know if you are set for formalwear, after the move. Should I make a trip over there early and bring anything?”

“Hmm, no. I’ll be ready, Zeke.  Six PM then, and you will come here?”

“Indeed, Tux, top hat and cane.”

“That hat and cane make you look like the snack peanut.” Anne giggled.

“Nah, he doesn’t wear snakeskin boots.  Besides, I like being nearly seven feet tall in the hat, it’s fun.”

“I’ll be ready at six PM then. I’ll match you, as long as your tux is the black one.  Right?  Your hat and cane are the same ones?”

“Same outfit as our last time out, Anne. I wouldn’t try to sneak something like that past you.”  I paused.  “Sometimes I do learn after the first time I make a mistake.”  I had tried to surprise her once with my formalwear choice on a night out.  It had not been a pleasant evening for either of us.

“I know Zeke, but you’ve had a lot on your mind recently, and…” Anne started to choke up a little bit.

“…and I’ve been away too much.” I broke in.

“Yeah, that.” Anne sniffed. “See you at six.  Love you, Zeke, but I need to start getting ready!”

“Love you too, Anne. I’ll see you at six!”

Anne hung up.

I locked my phone, set it on my desk, and then removed the teleport belt. I had spent a little time reading the manual for it.  I looked up the code for unavailable and the secondary code for twelve hours, programmed the belt using the codes, and then set the belt on the desk next to my phone.  I needed to go to the main house for my formalwear, so I stood up from my seat, picked up my phone, and headed to the door.

Ali looked at me, tilting his head slightly, and stepped between me and the door. “Zeke, it’s in the contract that you have to wear the teleporter, even if you set it to disabled.  If something critically bad happens, they might need you.”

Figured he might object.

“What about if I want there to be no chance of my being interrupted, Ali?”

“I’m afraid you can’t turn the teleporter off completely, Zeke, and you have to keep it on you at all times.”

“Fine, Ali, I’ll wear it, and I won’t turn it off completely.”

Ali sighed. “Good.”

I spoke out loud. “Please ask that Valsom attend me at his earliest convenience.”

There was a short, barely audible whistle, and then my hair raised on end, very briefly. Ali, spun quickly to face the corner of the apartment where the whistling noise came from, sniffed, looked closely at the corner, and then looked closely at me.

“Zeke, the relational connections between you and the Svartalves are far stronger than they should be. I’m going to try to give you the benefit of the doubt here, but I know you’ve been dabbling with them.  In this situation, I’m very close to just taking what I need to know out of your mind.”

Ali looked upset.  Even a bit angry.

“Give me two days, Ali? I will not speak to them again, without your presence, for those two days.  I need to think and talk to some people, and Valsom is consulting about an idea I spoke about with him.  I am not planning on doing anything without getting permission.”

“I should say no, but I think it will be more interesting if I agree.” He paused and said a few words I didn’t understand, which faded from my mind seconds after he uttered them.  “I am not reading your mind, but I will know if you are telling me the truth.  Sorry.  I’ll give you the two days before poking around in your mind, but I can’t afford to not be sure, especially since it’s pretty clear that you’re about to use the Svartalves to disable the belt and violate the spirit of our contract.”

“That’s fine, Ali. Ask away.”

“Are you trying to find a way to remove, replace, or significantly alter the existing Svartalve geas?”

“No.” I smiled.

Ali just stared at me for a second. “Are you trying to find a way to allow Svartalves to interact with humans, with fewer restrictions?”

“No, definitely not.” I smiled, again, making sure to show teeth in a big grin.

Ali tilted his head at me, genuinely curious, apparently. “Are you talking to the Svartalves and making plans that they are enthusiastic about?”

“Yes, I am.”

Ali swiped his right hand over his eyes and then made a throwing away motion with that hand. “OK.  I’ll stop there.  You’ve got me curious.  You’re treading on thin ice to work with the Svartalves at all, especially as a mortal, but if you aren’t going to agitate for their freedom or try to reduce their restrictions on how they can deal with humans, it probably won’t get you killed out of hand.  Probably.”  He looked at me, clearly not entirely confident in what he had just said.

“Ali, I certainly hope not. Even though my life has gone to hell over the last few months, I don’t want to check out just yet.”

Then why am I risking this?

After he stared at me a few more seconds, Ali shook his head. “I don’t understand why you are doing this then.”  He looked at me again before shaking his head some more.  “In two days, if you don’t tell me something that makes sense, I’m going to get it out of your head.  If you do tell me something that makes sense, I’m going to make sure it’s the truth, by verifying it in your head.  I know you don’t like that, but you clearly do not understand just how serious the magical community is about keeping the Svartalves from killing off a second race of sentients.”

Ali’s eyes darted right, and he turned away from me, to the right. A moment later, a familiar high-pitched voice spoke.  “While this is a fascinating conversation, I suspect that witnessing it was not why you requested my presence, Mr. Collins.  How may I assist?”

“Valsom, can you modify this teleporter so that when I have it in disabled mode, it cannot teleport me? Additionally, please alter the function of the device so that when it is disabled, remote control of the device is also disabled?”

“Mr. Collins, of course I can.” He paused a moment.  “Next time, feel free to ask the Svartalve who is attending you if they can perform a task.  This particular request for modification of a few binary logic circuits and some firmware code is easily within the capabilities of almost any Svartalve that you will ever meet.”

I thought they were just all over the place.  I didn’t realize they were attending me.

“Sorry Valsom, I will remember.” He didn’t sound angry, but he was a supervisor or leader of some sort, and I’d pulled him away from other things to perform a routine task that I should have asked someone else to do.  I held the belt out in my right hand.

“I’ll be back in a moment.” The belt was plucked out of my hand, and there was a puff of displaced air.

A looked at Ali.  “Svartalves are rather magically gifted, it seems.”

Ali just stared at me for a moment. “Yes, they are, for mortals.  In some ways they are more potent magically than I am.  Especially their elders.”

“Like Valsom?”

“Yes, like Valsom, Zeke.”

I leaned against the wall, next to the door out of the apartment. “The Svartalves seem able to move around more freely now.  They don’t need your door.”

“That’s because you are creating connections with them. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, provided you don’t engage in activities with them that will get you killed.”  Ali crossed his arms, looking a bit worried.  “At first I was confident that you would understand how dangerous dealing with the Svartalves might be.  You still have all your fingers and toes, and have been working with tools for your whole life, so you clearly respect danger.  You even grew up on a working farm, with all those associated dangers, some of which you couldn’t simply avoid by refusing to do the work.”  His eyes narrowed.  “Then I leave you alone for a few minutes and you have a discussion with Svartalves when I can’t be there to make sure you aren’t taking actions that will get you killed.”

There was a puff of air with the scent of cinnamon, and Valsom started to speak.  “I see a lot of tension between you two, and it’s clear why.  We have great hopes for Mr. Collins, young Jinn, so we will try to prevent him from taking actions on our behalf which would certainly lead to his death. While it is certainly possible that some beings might take offense at what we are planning, it is not an attack on the geas or an attempt to facilitate Human-Svartalve interactions.”  The teleportation belt was carefully placed on my desk, and Valsom began speaking again.  “The alterations you requested have been completed, Mr. Collins.”

“Am I really the first person to think of the idea and mention it to you, Valsom? What we were discussing earlier, that is.”

“No, Mr. Collins. We have several thousand records of similar ideas.  However none of them have been initiated by a human before.  They have all been internally generated by Svartalves in contingency planning or brainstorming sessions, just in case any non-Svartalve ever did mention it.”

“Oh.” I couldn’t help but feel a little upset.  Based on his reaction earlier, I thought I might have come up with something new.

I was apparently telegraphing my thoughts with my facial expressions or body language, or perhaps he was reading intent in some way. There was an amused whistling laugh.  “Remember, Mr. Collins, my race has had millions of years to consider our fate, and we are both very thorough and highly dedicated when the task is important.  I was pleasantly surprised that you thought about it, startled, even.  Most others are only concerned about what Svartalves can do for them.”

With a slight bow in the direction of his voice I said, “Thank You, Valsom, for the adjustment to the belt, and the knowledge.”

“It was my pleasure, Mr. Collins. I must now say good bye, however, as I need to return to conference.  I and several of my colleagues are still working to determine what the top ten options are for working with your idea, we’re down to the best eighty-seven now.”

Svartalves are scary in several ways, that’s for certain.

Ali simply stared at me. Not angry anymore.  Curious.  When he saw me looking at him, he simply said “Two days, Zeke.”

Prior Chapter      Next Chapter

Arc 3, Balance 13

Prior Chapter      Next Chapter

As I stepped out of the shower, I realized that I hadn’t spoken to Anne for at least two days.

She’ll be worried sick.

I looked at the drone with the recorded data, sitting next to the sink.

I paused as I brushed my teeth. Letting Anne and Danny see the video would give me an idea how others would react to its contents.  I still hadn’t seen the edited version.

Who am I fooling?

I know it’s going to scare Anne, badly.

I considered not releasing the video, or asking Ali to edit me out of it.

No. No need to play games like that.

Anne’s not stupid. She knows that if I’m not calling her, I’m busy.

That brought me up short.  Some bad memories of our relationship before I got my priorities straight between family and Exactitude bubbled up.

I promised that I would stop burying myself in work, four years ago.

This is the same, just a different work.

Is it?

I sat there, staring at the mirror, both hands on the edge of the counter next to the sink and my toothbrush sticking out of my mouth for several seconds, before I realized what I was doing.

How long has it been since I shaved?

Staring at myself isn’t going to fix anything.

I shook my head and spit out the toothpaste foam in my mouth, gargled with a bit of mouthwash, and then turned the hot water on and reached for the shaving cream.

I need to spend some time with the family.

Or at least with Anne, if Danny is off with Miss Perfect.

It struck me, again, how bad of a situation Anne was in. Danny’s attention was turning towards Miss Perfect, and I had been burying myself in my ‘work’, like I had promised I would stop doing.  I couldn’t even spend as much time with her as a normal super could spend with their spouse, because of my powers.

I really need to make more time for family.

I looked at my hands, at the razor I held. Anne had given me the fancy tinker-made self-sharpening shaving razor three years ago.  I had never seen another like it.  I had always suspected that Miss Perfect helped her get it, but never asked.

I spent a couple minutes intermittently shaving and planning, thinking about options. It was a little after ten in the morning, so there were a few hours to arrange things.  I finished the last bits of shaving and made sure I hadn’t missed anything, splashed on a bit of aftershave, and took care of the rest of a typical morning’s bathroom needs before picking up the drone from the counter and walking to the computer desk.

As I sat down, I noticed two stacks of paper next to the keyboard, one much thicker than the other. Both were held in place by paperweights.  One of the paperweights I recognized from years ago, and it shouldn’t have been there.  I picked up the small crudely-painted clay racecar shape that Danny had made for me in early grade school.

The Svartalves really have outdone themselves fixing things.

I didn’t even know we still had this.

I carefully turned the car around in my hands, not really looking at it, just remembering it, and thinking.

Anne must have stored it away somewhere.

I remember the day Danny gave it to me.

Memories of that Father’s Day scrolled through my mind for a few seconds before I shook my head.

This was the first thing Danny ever made for me. The second thing he made with his own hands for us.  Anne got a coffee bowl before I got the car.

I grinned. Danny hadn’t been able to make a cup with a handle, so he made a bowl.  Anne used it for years before she put it into a little glass-doored display cabinet that ended up collecting a lot of Danny’s gifts.

I also remember the day he broke the car.

I carefully lifted the car closer to my eyes, looking for damage. I clearly remembered Danny knocking the little clay car off my desk years, ago by accident.  He had been highly upset and picked up the car pieces, declaring he would fix it.  He had then immediately gone to Anne and I heard him ask her for help.  I had never seen it again.  I hadn’t wanted to hurt Danny by asking about it.  He clearly wasn’t going to be able to fix it neatly at nine years old, though I would have been happy with a crudely-glued-together fix.

I wonder how many other random, broken things in the house the Svartalves might have fixed. Anne had a few antiques that were decorative, and hadn’t worked in decades, a couple were well over a hundred years old.  An old pedal-powered sewing machine, the dry-wash basin with the broken inner shelf.  The chip on the back edge of one of the marble-top end tables.  The little porcelain dolls with yellowed fabric dresses and cracked faces that Anne’s great-grandmother had played with as a child at the turn of the last century.

A lot of that is probably at the Enclave apartment by now.  I know Anne marked her most sentimental items.

What puzzled me more than the fact that they had found the car, and fixed it, was that they had brought it to my desk and put it where I couldn’t possibly miss it.  They clearly somehow understood it was more than just a paperweight.  If all they wanted was a paperweight, they could have far more easily just brought a rock out of the driveway or an old socket out of a toolbox.  There was a reason for the perfectly-repaired clay racecar to be on my desk.

Why?  Bribe, promise… bait?

I had a sneaky suspicion that my tools that had seen better days, were now in perfect repair.

I could get used to this.

Another thought struck me, seconds later.

How many others have gotten used to this, during the course of the Svartalves’ history after the geas was forced on their race?

I carefully set the car down on my desk next to the keyboard, and picked up the stack of papers it had been holding in place, it was the shorter stack. The top page had a hand-written phrase.  “Improvements possible with existing commercial human technology.”  I scanned through the pages.  The report was entirely written by hand, in ink, with no apparent mistakes.  It was easy to navigate, and there was almost nothing ambiguous about it.  The little bits and pieces that I didn’t fully understand felt right.  I wasn’t an IT guy, but I had been working fairly close to cutting edge technology for so long that a lot of it had seeped in by association.  People like Anne, Dan with IT, and Ben at the datacenter, and Miss Perfect, of course.  Trying to keep up with modern gadgets so I could get Danny gifts he would appreciate had played a large part in my continuing technology education as well.

I turned my attention back to the report.  The Svartalves had broken the report down by metrics several ways. I looked through the choices and turned to the page for “Greatest performance improvement per dollar spent at average standard pricing.”

The upgrades listed were only a few hundred dollars, and the improvement would, indeed, be substantial. I picked up a pen out of the pen-holder and wrote “Do this”, then tossed the rest of the report in the trash, setting the remaining sheet to the side, and putting the clay racecar on it.

I paused, then reached out and wrote another comment, without moving the car. “Don’t take anything without paying for it.  Tell me if you need funds.  That goes for anything you do for me.”

I hope that doesn’t insult them, somehow.

The other stack was much thicker, with a familiar quartz stone paperweight on top of it. The quartz paperweight belonged on this desk.  The title sheet read “Improvements possible beyond existing commercial human technology.”

I hesitated. Did I really want to be tempted?

Yes.  I’m damn well at least going to peek.

I started looking through the table of contents, seeing things like “quantum processors”, “elemental infused”, and “artificial intelligence”

OK.  I’ve been tempted.  Enough.

Don’t need a computer that’s smarter than I am.

I, reluctantly, tossed the entire second report into the trash. It took two tries to force myself to let go of the thick stack of paper.  I stared at the trash can for at least ten seconds, before finally dragging my eyes away.  So much potential in those sheets of paper, but I could easily imagine my personal computer as some sort of “gateway drug” to increased reliance on Svartalve advanced technology.  Always wanting more.

The first taste is always free.

The armor is already a first taste.

I hesitated, looking back at the trash can.

The armor is important.

Is it?  Really?

Shaking my head, I made sure the Ethernet cable was disconnected before starting the computer.

Seventy-five million years of slavery.

Granted, humans have only been around for a tiny fraction of that time.

I can’t believe they don’t hate us.

An unwelcome thought struck me.

Or maybe they do.

A couple minutes later, my computer had finished booting and all the security measures had been enabled. I cabled the drone to the machine and watched the footage.  Loki was now an indistinguishable shadowy image, and some of his dialog had changed.  Most of the rest was as I remembered it.  At the end, Trainwreck called out to someone, without naming them, rather than to Jaxr.  I was visible in a few frames, mostly trying to avoid being stepped on.  Not always successfully.  I viewed the video again, stopping and starting at the three points where Trainwreck stepped on me.

Definitely doesn’t do much for my dignity.

This isn’t for me though.

Ali never appeared in the camera, except at the very beginning when he was clearly being held immobile by the shadowy figure.

I connected the Ethernet cable to the router, opened a browser and did some searching for information about Trainwreck that was new in the last two days, throwing my own codename in as well. There were a few press reports.  Mirrormaid and Chicken Little had apparently gone straight to the authorities with some sort of pardon or amnesty arrangement that Trainwreck had arranged for them, which had all sorts of parole agreements and legal requirements associated with it.  There was quite a bit of controversy about that, especially coming from the financial industry representatives who were understandably extremely irritated that the two wouldn’t see a severe punishment for their past misdeeds.

I scrolled through that, looking for what they had said about the encounter with Loki. Their account matched what was in my video.  Elsewhere, Lyrebird, and several other supers and government representatives commented on the scenario.  They all agreed that Trainwreck had been looking to go out with a bang, doing something heroic.

Bioboffin, in a recorded statement sent down from the Moon, explained one of the things that had puzzled me about Trainwreck’s self-destructive fixation. “Every time he transformed, his power grew slightly, but the metabolic cost increased.  The last time he shifted, four months ago, it cost him nearly three hundred kilos of mass.  I could have helped him keep growing larger, to be better able to afford the metabolic cost, but he was simply getting too big, and he absolutely refused to consider biomedical implants, not knowing how they would interfere with his power.  The last time I was present when he weighed himself, he was four hundred twenty kilos.  In another year, he wouldn’t be able to walk if he still wanted to use his power.  As it was, in the last year, whenever he activated his power, it nearly killed him.”  The image of the recorded man was clearly crying, tears streaming out from under the mask, his voice finally broke. “Full steam ahead, mate, wherever you are.”

Everyone is assuming he’s dead.

I was barely mentioned at all, except that I had been present in the restaurant, and neither of us were found in the wreckage.

Apparently, his parents were deceased. I didn’t need to be worried about that.  He had had a secret identity, but his brother was upset, not knowing how he died, so he came out and begged anyone who knew more, to speak up, providing an email address and phone number.

This all just seems too… wholesome to have been put in place by Loki.

I froze the video, stared at my phone a few seconds, and then looked up the country code for Australia, +61, and wrote down the complete number and email address.

I’m not just going to send an email for something like this.

I thought about it for a minute. Bioboffin had it right, I couldn’t think of any better.

I created a new TheTube account, and uploaded the video in the highest possible resolution that they would accept, and viewed it. It looked good, even at full screen.

After making sure everything was in order, I created an email and dialed Trainwreck’s brother, it was answered on the second ring.

“Hello, this is Albert.”

“Hello, Albert, my name is Zeke. I got your email and phone number on the news.  Are you able to receive email and watch a video?”

There was a pause. “If this is another prank, please just hang up.  I’ve been Rick Rolled twice already.”

I could only stare at the phone in shock for a second.

How could someone do that?

Fucking internet trolls.

Even if the song is sort of appropriate, if you look at it the right way.

“It’s not a prank. I’m sending the login information now for the private account where I’ve deposited video of your brother’s last fight.  That account belongs to you.  The video belongs to you.”

“Who are you?”

“I’m Zeke, but the media calls me ‘Strangest’.”

“Strangest. The heroes said you were there.  Did you…”  He choked up.

“I witnessed it. Nothing more.”  I clicked send on the email.  “Check your email.”

There was a pause, and I heard typing.

“Can you. Can you stay on the line while I watch it?”

I swallowed. “Yea, Albert, I can do that.” Then I sniffled a bit.

Hesitantly, he spoke. “I’m logging into the account now.”  His voice was raw.  “I’m starting the video now. He didn’t die horribly, did he?”

“No, he…”

Albert’s voice cracked. “No.  Don’t say anything else.  Just let me watch.”

I stayed silent. Albert muttered to himself and was clearly shocked by some of the video.  Knowing roughly what he was seeing, I was able to tell by his barely audible comments what parts he was watching.

At the end, he was muttering “no, no, no”, and then shouted “Yes!” before he went silent again. A few seconds later, he said, subdued.  “Shit.  Chris.” Then he was silent.  A few seconds later there were some sobs and more silence; the intermittent anguished sounds and silence alternated for about a minute.

I sniffled a few times myself, and had to rub my eyes a couple times.

“Strangest, why was he burning at the end, even though he was on the ice? Who was the woman that rode up on the horse, in armor?”

They left it in the video, I decided I would tell the truth as well as I could without using Jaxr and Loki’s name. “Your brother made a couple deals and asked a favor before he died.  That was…”  I couldn’t say Hildr’s name.  “…the woman was someone who was taking him to his final reward.  He earned it in that fight.”

Interesting that I was allowed to mention an afterlife, but not Hildr.

There was a long silence. “Thank you, Strangest.  No, you said your name was Zeke, right?”

“Yes, Albert, my name is Zeke. And you’re welcome.”  I swallowed and sniffed. “Excuse me.  Little bit of a sniffle there, I’m sure you understand.”

“Yeah.” He snuffled too “I think I do. I really appreciate this.  I know this is real.  I can feel it.  Chris was always larger than life, and not just because of the giantism.  That was something Bioboffin did so he could use his power, you know?”

“No, I didn’t know the giantism wasn’t natural. I’ll agree that he was larger than life, though, a hero.”

“Yeah.” More silence.  “You said the account with the video was mine?”

“I did. It’s yours.  Change the password.  I have a copy of the video myself still, but I won’t distribute it to the public if this channel stays private.”

I heard typing.

“You can share the video if you want, Zeke. I just changed the password and made it public.  I don’t think Chris would ever forgive me if I didn’t let people see this.  He told me months ago that he was looking to go out with a bang, and wanted to give people something to remember him by.”  He was silent again, then croaked out.  “This qualifies, I think.  I don’t even know what those giants were that he was fighting, but they certainly didn’t act like they were very nice.”

I think people would have remembered you, even without the last battle, Trainwreck.

I heard a raucous “CAW” over the phone, and Albert almost screamed “Shit!” There was a loud clatter.  “Sorry.  Dropped my phone.  That’s a big bird.  Never had a raven on my windowsill before.  It’s just standing there, looking at me.  Shoo. Get off my window, bird.”

“You can call me or email me if you want to talk again, Albert, but I’ll warn you that I get a little bit busy from time to time.”

“Doing the whole super thing, I imagine so. I might call you, Zeke, but I doubt it.  I wouldn’t feel comfortable.  I appreciate the video, but I have family I can turn to for the emotional stuff.”

“Fair enough, Albert.”

“Thanks again, mate.”

“No worries, Albert.”

He chuckled weakly and hung up the phone.

I sat in my seat and watched the video again, this time from its public link.

I’m not sure it’s possible for him to be larger than life.

I grinned and sniffled. I had only talked to Trainwreck and watched him fight for a few minutes before he died, and it felt like I’d lost a piece of myself.  I couldn’t even imagine what his team must be feeling right now.  It almost made me feel bad that I had imagined him as some sort of loser basement-dweller with no social life when he was first described by Elsewhere and Lyrebird.

By the time I had finished watching the video, the hit count was up to over a thousand, with fifty comments, only half a dozen from trolls. I just refreshed the page a few times and marveled as the numbers started to skyrocket, and the trolls started to get clubbed down by people with respectful things to say.

I looked up to the title of the video, which Albert had apparently chosen to leave as it was.

Full Steam Ahead, Mate.

“CAW” I damn near fell out of my seat as the bird in the window screamed its call.

At least I didn’t shift.

The bird wasn’t watching me, it was watching the computer screen.

“CAW” This time a little less loud, and it stopped watching my computer monitor and turned to fix its gaze on me with both beady eyes.

“That’s a damn big crow.” I muttered to myself. “Shoo. Nothing in here for you.”  I waved my arms at it.

The damn thing bounced it’s head and ruffled it’s wings, clearly laughing at me in some birdlike fashion, and then threw itself off my window sill and flew off.

It hit me, all of a sudden. Albert had had the same thing happen to him, but he had said the bird was a raven.  The bird in my window looked a lot like a really big crow but ravens were large black birds too – bigger than crows if I remembered right.

Two ravens. It didn’t take a genius to figure out that maybe Loki wasn’t the only one sticking his finger in and stirring the pot here.

That might explain why the edits of memories weren’t darker.

How long was the raven watching me?

Did it see me talking with Valsom?

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