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Last Laugh

Jamie Lackey lives in Pittsburgh with her husband and their cat. She has over 160 short fiction credits, and has appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Escape Pod. Her new novella, The Forest God, is out now from Air and Nothingness Press. In addition to writing, she spends her time reading, playing tabletop RPGs, baking, and hiking. You can find her online at jamielackey.com.

I have heard no tales about who sealed the gods, or how, or why. No tales about how it happened, how each member of the pantheon, from the greatest to the smallest, was sealed away in a bead of gray stone threaded on a braided leather cord.
The tales all begin later, after the mortals woke one morning to find these simple necklaces fastened around the necks of newly born babies.
There was little impact at first. The children refused to remove them, and the stones sent shooting pain through anyone else who attempted to touch them. But they gave no other uncanny sign. They did not glow or speak or float a few inches above the children's chests. But within five years, each child could name the god that grew like a seed within them.
As they grew up, immortal memories slipped into their dreams. As they grew old, and their mortal bodies began their slow slide into decay, they began to access the faintest sparks of godly power. Telet, the god of time, could see a few days into the past. Mede, the goddess of war, could defeat any challenger in single combat. Aurat, the god of healing, could mend cuts and bruises with a touch.
As time passed, little by little, they tapped into more and more of the god that they carried.
Till they died, as mortals do. And the god necklace passed on to a new baby, and the cycle started anew.
I expected the gods to grow faster in the second generation. They didn't, but I wasn't worried. I told myself that my family had always been a little slow on the uptake.
By the third generation, most cultures simply named the child after the god they wore. As the child grew, the god grew within. There was no separation, no war between two identities. The child was a vessel for the god, but the god could only grow into the shape the vessel allowed.
Some of the gods made requests as their first mortal body withered around them. Some wished to only bond with a girl child or a boy child or a child in between. Some wanted only one race or another.
I swapped two necklaces, put Mede onto a baby boy and Seret, the god of fire, onto a baby girl. I expected them to stay trapped in their stones, to refuse to bond with the wrong child.
They did not. They grew into their new vessels and lived out their mortal lives.
I noticed that they were different, after that.
But then I realized that they were all different. Each mortal life shaped them. They remembered their previous mortal lives more easily than their countless years as gods.
They grew and they changed, and I waited for one of them to finally gain enough strength to free themselves.
After a handful of lives, Telet climbed a mountain as a young man, and sat and meditated on the nature of the universe.
When he finally opened his eyes, nearly a hundred years had passed. He was older than any of the other mortal gods had ever been before, his body more suffused with power.
Mede and Seret stood before him, both young, but brimming with freshly gained immortal memories.
"Are you strong enough to break the seal?" Mede asked. "Can you break this cycle so we can regain our rightful place?"
Telet shook his head. "The power to break the seal is still so far beyond me that I can hardly understand it in my dreams."
"But you're so old!" Seret exclaimed. "If you can't do it now, how will we ever be free?"
"Do you think breaking the seal will grant us freedom?" Telet asked. "I wouldn't want to go back even if I could."
"That's crazy," Mede said. But her voice lacked conviction. It was edged with a wistfulness that I didn't understand.
"Do you really think it would be all right if we stayed this way forever?" Seret asked. "Surely, we're meant to break the seals and be gods again."
Telet shrugged. "If there is still someone with the power to unseal us, then we can't stop them. But I won't do it. I don't remember ever being happy as a god. But I have so many memories of being happy as a mortal." A tiny smile played across his face. "So many." He closed his eyes again. "My body is near death, I think. Would you take my stone down the mountain so I can start again?"
He slumped sideways, and they did as he asked.
A few lifetimes later, he climbed the mountain again.
His eyes shone as he climbed, full of joy as he looked out at a view of the world that lived in his memory, but his eyes had never seen before.
Of course I'm the one who sealed them.
It was a joke. A prank. I am the god of such things, after all. I'd imagined my family living a mortal life, maybe two, while I watched and laughed, before they broke out of the cycle and punished me. Then we would have the tale to tell forever. A new myth, centered around my cleverness.
But there are no tales, because my family hasn't broken the seals, and I don't remember how I managed to seal all of them away. I must have sealed my own memories of the process as well--I couldn't let myself get impatient and ruin the punchline.
I can't unseal them. I've tried countless time. Perhaps without them, my power has waned. Perhaps I broke something that I'm not able to fix on my own.
The more lives they live, the more they grow away from me. I was never meant to be alone, watching the fun from outside. So I sit and hold a bead of gray stone in my hand. I imagine myself folding into it, imagine it locking my powers away, holding my potential in its depths like an acorn consuming an oak tree.
Nothing happens. I am still a god. Still free. Still alone.
And after a long moment, I laugh. It is, after all, a brilliant prank.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, March 5th, 2021
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