Somewhere Under the Rainbow - Igor Ljubuncic

Updated: October 19, 2020

He is walking, barefoot, on rime and black ice. He can hear the song, at the edge of hearing, the lament of a girl. She is crying and singing at the same time, two distinct tones, one urgent and loud, one soft and painful, a strange madness to her words. They echo, weaving over and over, but there are no mountains to bounce the sound. The world has no edge. Only the blur of a searing, blinding light that makes the eye water and the mind screech...

The ground is hard, sharp, making his toes bleed. But the dark, sticky blood oozing out is burned away by the sizzling heat, sealing his wounds with blackness. The cracked rock glows red and gold. He can hear the chittering, the nervous patter of leathery feet as they follow him. He can hear the claws scrabbling and slipping on shattered obsidian. Whenever he looks behind, they are gone, hiding in the shadows, in the ponds of brimstone, in the slimy, bubbling mud. The pain is immense. But he cannot stop. He must not stop...

The cave smells of decay. Is it his own flesh? He does not know. The walls are narrow and covered in runes. He has read them a thousand thousand times, they had long lost their meaning. And so have his own memories. He cannot recall anything except the story etched into the wet, filthy stone. A nightmare he has lived a thousand thousand times. He is stooped low, bent, broken, chains fused into his skin. Every now and then, an old voice speaks. Somber, solemn, sad. Then, there's the cackle. It makes his nose bleed. He tries to move, but the chains only get tighter, crushing his bones. No, those are not chains. Those are the entrails of his dead son. And the snake, coiled round his neck. It spits venom in his face. He screams.

And wakes up...

The prison cell smelled of decay. Mold and cabbage and foul, unwashed mouths. The walls pressed on both sides, making him suck in a ragged, panicky breath. He looked at the elaborate drawing opposite the bunk bed, at the images and words he had scribed from his failing memory.

Defeat is not the end. It's the beginning of a lifetime of misery.

"Lyosha, what is it?" Sergei, his cell mate asked, playing with an ancient Bulgarian radio. He had been trying to repair it for the last decade, to no avail.

I could make it work, he thought, like every morning. I could fix it instantly. But then, even he wasn't that cruel. He could not rob his friend of his favorite pastime, devoid him of the only real entertainment he had in this miserable place—his sanity.

Sanity that he had lost a long time ago.

In ancient times, they had called him Loki.

Now he went with a more practical, contemporary name.

No one would believe the truth anyway.

Sergei grinned, a toothless grin. "Your last day, Lyosha. Are you happy?"

Loki sat up, stretching corded, lean muscles covered in tattoos; more blue ink than skin. While most inmates had snakes, churches, skulls, and stars needled into their bodies, his art told a different story. One that people would not know or remember.

They can't know. The legends. The books. A lie.

"My friend, I enjoyed our time together."

Sergei nodded bashfully. He was quite timid for such a dangerous criminal. "You will remember—"

Loki nodded. "I will keep my promise." Sergei's family would be rich.

Sergei put the radio aside. "I hope you find your dream."

Loki blinked. "What do you mean?" A black, shiny cockroach dropped from the ceiling lamp and landed on his arm. Loki let it slide between his fingers.

Sergei pointed with a shaky finger. "You know, Lyosha, that dream you've been having all these years. Every night, I hear you mumble and weep. Sometimes you do it in languages I don't know. Sometimes in Russian. You know, Lyosha, I can help."

Help. How often have I cried that word. Spat blood from my burning throat, shrieked as poison ate my cheeks and tongue.

Loki steadied his breath. Closed his fist. Just enough to trap the insect. It was wriggling, helpless, just like he had been in that cave eons ago. "Help?"

Sergei smiled. "You were always nice to me. Always protected me. I know some people who can help you with... magic."

Magic, magic, magic, magic, magic...

Loki opened his hand, and the cockroach flew away.

Impossible.

The next instant, Loki was standing close to the cell bars, looking out carefully. There were no guards in the vicinity, and no one in the adjacent cells seemed to be listening. A dangerous word, even in a prison cell. "Magic?"

After thousands of years, I discover hope in a pit of hatred and despair.

Oblivious, Sergei shrugged, but he did lower his soft voice ever further. "Lyosha, I know you can do magic. I can tell. My grandmother was a kaldovshitza. She taught me tricks."

Loki sat on the lower bunk, next to his friend—the only friend he had known in a long time. He suppressed a nervous giggle. I am mad. I am imagining things.

He may not recall too many memories, but he did know his nightmares all too well.

This was no dream.

"I'm listening..."

When the guard came over to summon Aleksei Kuznetsov to a parole committee, Loki did his best to keep the deranged smirk of excitement from his ancient face. If they saw anything, they must have thought he was simply happy to be released.

Loki frowned. He looked up at the building. Looked at the piece of paper in his hand. Looked up again. Down.

The facade had that sooty brown quality of those 70s apartment buildings, which must have looked worn and dirty even when brand new. An eclectic mix of ex-Soviet and modern cars crowded the narrow parking lot. The morning fog, damp and freezing, sure did not help.

The address was correct. The wall sign, bleeding rust from its rivets, clearly said so.

It just didn't look like the Mezhdunarodni Institut imeni Pushkina.

The Pushkin International Institute.

At this point, he wasn't sure what he feared more; that Sergei might have been right—or wrong.

Only one way to find out.

Loki rang the bell.

After a few moments, they buzzed the wire-glass door open.

Following intuition rather than any signs, he found the reception, half a floor up and three turns away, with a stern-looking woman staring impatiently in his direction. She extended her liver-spotted hand and wagged her fingers nervously.

It reminded him of a crab's pincers.

"Yes?"

Loki cleared his throat. He didn't trust his voice. He handed over the invitation. She snatched it with a whip-like motion.

"So you work with colors?" the receptionist said, her expression skeptical and sour.

Aleksei smiled. He wasn't sure if his expression looked feral or confused. He had spent the last seventeen years in a correctional facility.

Be patient. Don't ruin this. Show humility. After prison, it shouldn't be too hard. "I do. I am very—"

"Just wait, please. I am typing."

Clack. Clack. Clack. Her right middle finger was hunting the faded keys with hammer-like insistence. Over the years, the keyboard had yellowed under the fluorescent light—and so did her desk, in fact. Everything had a creamy tinge of dilapidation and neglect, and a fine patina of cigarette ashes.

The receptionist, too.

This can't be the right place.

Clack. Click. Clack. Clack.

He heard something else. A deep, hollow thrum. Rapid, erratic. Nervous.

It was his heart.

Loki licked his lips. Thousands of years lost in pain and desperation, on battlefields long forgotten, in seedy places where they traded life for money, on slave ships and in prisons. Between worlds, on the cusp of despondency, drenched in blood and regrets and anguish that felt as urgent to his immortal soul as it did to any puny human.

And now, a thousand thousand infected scars later, scars that never quite healed, he was here.

A feeble promise of revenge.

Of the end.

Clack... Clack.

The beat intensified.

You are Aleksei Kuznetsov. Remember.

It was excruciatingly painful and yet fascinating watching her work. A human who took pride in deliberate, calculated ignorance. A puny thing that relished in pettiness, in slimy malice. He was convinced she had been there at least as long as the ancient, grease-eaten 101-key spacesaver, and she still hadn't figured out the keyboard layout. She would look down under her spectacles, hit a key, check her monitor, pinch her lips, delete, try again, miss, try again, succeed, hit, check, miss, delete, succeed. Slow, steady, laborious, artfully annoying. This was a clerk who relished in torture.

The image made him lose what little mirth he'd found. His hand shook.

"Third floor," she said suddenly.

Loki smiled again, trying to keep his mind pure. He caught a reflection of his true self in the small window of an office door just behind the receptionist.

He quickly looked away.

Blood thick with puss, sores that hiss and never heal, he chokes on the smoke, gags but never vomits in relief, tries to inhale but never succeeds, tries to shriek but has no air for it. An eternity passes.

"Over there?" he pointed at what looked like a staircase, not looking at her anymore; he didn't want to chance seeing that reflection again.

"Third floor," she repeated, her tone sterner this time.

He climbed the stairs, his heart beating faster with each step.

Off the main hallway, the floor smelling sharply of chlorine, Loki stepped into a large room. It was an easy choice; it was the only one with the door open.

Inside, school chairs were arranged in the shape of the Russian letter P, and there were eight people seated at seemingly random places, seven women and an older man. They were all reading something held inside thin, shiny binders.

"Your name?" a woman asked, her hair licked close to her small head.

"Aleksei Vadinovich Kuznetsov."

"Va-di-mo-vich," the woman repeated, writing it down.

Loki did not correct her.

"How did you find us?"

"My friend Sergei mentioned you would—"

"Ah, Sergei. Indeed." It was the older man, looking pleased. "How is he?"

Loki hesitated. He still wasn't sure this was the right place. "Well. He's well."

"So you're looking for a job?" From the far left, a woman with rainbow-painted fingernails asked.

I am looking for revenge. For the nightmare to end. "That would be suitable, yes."

"If you're really good at what you do," the old man spoke, "you will have a very long, comfortable life."

Life... cannot be comfortable. Life is agony. An agony that never ends. "I am very good, yes."

"Show us," a third woman said, tossing a prism at him.

He caught it.

This is it. Now you learn whether this is just mad hope—or hopeful madness.

His heart was no longer beating. It was keening.

He showed them his magic.

"Apprentice. Do you understand the meaning of the word apprentice? Apprentice. Yes?"

Loki wiped sweat off his brows. He abhorred hot places.

Flames so incredibly hot they burn blue. Fire gushing up his nostrils and screaming mouth, down his gullet and into his lungs, making his chest explode, making his ribs burst out. He sees red, incinerated fingers of putrid bone pushing through his peeling skin. The skin is black, and it coils like dry leaves, and the layer underneath is pink and tender and raw and bloody. Then the venom comes, and the howl drowns everything—

He squinted into the glaring sun, only partially obscured by Henry's head. Even though Loki spoke passable French, his tutor insisted they spoke English, less-than-perfect, heavily accented English.

Stay here. Stay here. The past has no end. The end is before you.

"Yes, Henry, I know."

"Good. Master shows. Apprentice learns. Now watch." Henry raised his hand. The hundred-odd mirrors floating in the desert air started moving, wiggling left and right, tilting up and down, creating a ripple of silver shimmers that would look like a dazzling mirage from a distance.

Loki pursed his lips. Henry was talented. He did have a very impressive skill.

"Are you watching, Aleksei? Are you watching?"

"I'm watching, Henry."

"Good. Now show me." The tutor broke his spell, and the floating mirrors went still.

Loki licked his salty, cracked lips. He focused and started weaving the spell. The hundreds of mirrors, each reflecting a different part of the desert landscape, slowly came to life. At first, it felt like a badly tuned orchestra, the instruments not quite in harmony with one another, the notes clashing, jarring. But then, he settled into the rhythm, and soon enough, he had the mastery of all the mirrors under his fingers, creating beautiful reflections.

Desert travelers expected mirages.

The Pushkin Institute provided them to the world, its spell weavers sweating profusely inside their clothes in searing places around the globe.

It was an interesting arrangement.

So little do the common people know. Fools.

But for the first time in ages, he nurtured the tiniest of hopes.

The fear of failing now terrified him more than anything he had ever experienced.

After a brief while, Loki gently released the spell. He glanced at his tutor. Henry was trying to look displeased.

"Was it good?"

"Not bad for an apprentice," Henry muttered.

"So what's the secret?" Loki asked.

Nikita struck a match against his callused palm, lighting the soggy stub of a cigarette. His face exploded orange in the muted Arctic afternoon. "What are you saying, Lyosha?"

Loki waited. In the past three years, he had learned to appreciate the idiosyncrasies of his colleagues. Spell weavers were peculiar people. Like artists, only even more privileged and self-righteous. Never quite happy with their own creations, irritable, indignant, and possessed with a craze that simple human crafts couldn't provide.

"Oh you mean our work?" Nikita said after incinerating half the leftover cigarette in one long pull.

Loki smiled as a gust of wind blasted his cheeks. Cold. He loved cold. It made the searing rot in his flesh and bones hurt less. "Why are we doing this?"

Nikita offered the remaining centimeter of his smoke. Loki shook his head. "Well, it's fun. We get to travel and see places—"

"No, I mean. What's the catch?"

"Lyosha, didn't you know?"

Loki waited for the answer. He knew, but he wanted to hear it.

"If we don't practice, we die. Like normal people, fifty, sixty years, hospital, boom, dead. But if you use magic, you can live forever."

The Curse of Odin. "I didn't know that," Loki said.

Nikita punched him on the shoulder. "You joker. How old are you?"

Aleksei contemplated the answer. He thought back, to the earliest nightmare he remembered. He wasn't sure what came before, and he didn't dare grope into the darkness of his soul. "About 11,000 years old."

Nikita bobbed his head. Then, with a delay that was just a little odd, he started laughing. "Good one, Lyosha. Good one." He fished into his pockets and came out with another mangled cigarette. He cursed under his breath. "I'm 95. I got to see some weird shit. Remember Tsar Bomba?" He pointed northeast but did not look; he was focusing on lighting the new cigarette with the dog-end of the last one. "I was not too far when that went off. That was scary."

Novaya Zemlya was a barren, remote location. But it was perfect for creating spells without being bothered by pesky people or animals. Perfect for—

He is walking, barefoot, on rime and black ice. He can hear the song, at the edge of hearing, the lament of a girl. She is crying and singing at the same time, two distinct tones, one urgent and loud, one soft and painful, a strange madness to her words. They echo, weaving over and over, but there are no mountains to bounce the sound. The world has no edge. Only the blur of a searing, blinding light that makes the eye water and the mind screech.

"So, Lyosha..."

Loki buried the terror away. He looked at the landscape. He... had no memory of it. He brushed a finger against his cheek, over the ghost of a wound where Thor had driven a spike of obsidian with his hammer. The skin felt rough, almost like sandpaper.

"On a serious note, how old are you?" Nikita pressed.

"Well, I never got to see Tsar Bomba."

Nikita patted him on the shoulder, the same one he'd punched earlier. "It's okay. You're still young. You'll learn. And you'll get to see some amazing things."

Loki took a deep, shuddering breath. Young... I cannot remember youth. "I hope so."

"Shall we do it?" Nikita mumbled round the cigarette firmly pressed between his lips.

Loki bent down and picked a heavy, long rod. One step closer. "Let us do it then."

Arranged in a circle around them was a handful of buckets, full of glowing, sparkling paint in every color. Balancing the rod upright, the cigarette flaring with ragged breaths, Nikita stepped toward a bucket.

"Lyosha?"

Loki was keeping his own rod quite steady, but it wasn't easy in the biting, gusty wind. "Yes?"

"What colors do we do?"

Anguish and misery? "Greens and yellows?"

Nikita wanted to shrug in agreement, and he almost dropped the rod. "Bl—" Accidentally, he spat the cigarette. It died the moment it touched the frozen ground. His soft, rapid curses made Loki laugh. A simple, absurd moment. There was—

Laughter. A grating cackle that resonates deep behind his eyes. His nose bleeds, and the patter of drops on the cold cave floor sounds like feet. Sad voices. Mad voices. More laughter.

Loki let the beginning of a sob in his throat suffocate, kept his eyes pasted on the spell weaver.

Satisfied with his tirade, Nikita carefully lowered the rod into a bucket. Then he lifted it skyward. To a human observer, it would appear as if something quite impossible had happened. The sky wasn't really a thing; just layers of atmosphere and distant celestial objects.

And yet, it rippled, like a pool of water.

The border between the nine realms. I am close. So very close.

But the ice... the ice has no memory. Like me.

To the bewildered human observer, it would appear as though the rod had extended and prodded against a tense, membrane-like surface that was supposed to be the sky. Like a salamander's foot, touching a forest pond. The view shimmered, and the stars moved. Yellow color bled off the rod and into the sky's liquid fabric, whirling like a cloud of ink, eddied in invisible currents, flowing north toward the pole.

Loki dipped his rod into a green bucket and touched up. The sky wiggled once again, and emerald smoke mixed with the sparkling gold from Nikita's rod, creating a beautiful screen of northern lights. They worked in silence, watching, appraising each other's work, adding new strokes of paint in pink and indigo, softening the shape of the snaking aurora, admiring the pure and simple art that was in this magic.

The world was quiet, pristine, frozen, the expanse of heaven sharp and clear like a razor, the hues of a slow day slowly giving way to nighttime shades. Whenever the aurora looked too wild, too aggressive, Nikita and Loki added more dusk.

"Now that's an impressive show of lights," Nikita said. He tapped his pocket and realized he had no more cigarettes. He inhaled, preparing for a lengthy outburst of swearwords.

"Here." Loki handed him a pristine roll; he always kept a spare pack when working with Nikita. He had indeed learned all their habits and needs.

"Many thanks," Nikita said, beaming. "What do you say?"

The world was one big crystal bruise. It was bitterly cold, shimmering madness lurked whenever he blinked, and yet, he was oddly calm. "I think we did well." He wasn't just admiring the aurora. He was searching, searching for the cracks in the texture of the world, searching for that blinding, scalding light that would show him the way.

But it wasn't there. Not yet.

Nikita nodded. "Time to go back."

Loki glanced at the icy, wind-whipped ridges. Soon. He sighed. "Let's head back."

"This looks like a good place," Zhana said.

Loki frowned. Years of waiting, and now he was impatient. Terrified. He found breathing difficult, words coarse. He stomach cramped, and he wanted to heave.

He is on his knees and elbows, arms and legs broken in so many places, he looks like a spider. I can be a spider, he thinks, but he cannot change. Not here. The runes on the walls will not let him. The ground is searing hot, and every time he tries to move to alleviate the pain in his limbs, he leaves an imprint of his purulent skin engrafted in the rock. He cries, but his tears don't have time to hit the cave floor as they disappear sizzling.

He banished the vision. "Are you certain?"

They were in Novaya Zemlya again, but this time, only a few kilometers from Belushya Guba. The place had a large military presence, and Loki didn't like working magic next to trigger-happy soldiers in remote locations.

He is lying prone in a puddle of leaves, straw and horse manure, the uneven cobbles pushing into his back. He tries to laugh. Instead, he sneezes a bubble of blood, and another hisses out through a hole in his chest. He lifts his head, his neck a mangle of lead and sinew, and looks down at his ruined body. A dozen holes pulsate life out of him. He tries to laugh. If only death could be so simple. The constables are confused, standing there, watching him die and not-die. He jeers them in the Old Language, and their stupid reaction makes him laugh even more. He closes his eyes. He is tired, he wants to rest. They lug his body away, dragging blood everywhere. They bury him. He wakes in complete darkness, to the sound of worms wriggling into his mouth and ears. Inch by inch, he crawls free, and life starts again.

"Best on the whole island," Zhana argued.

"If Zhana says so, this is where we do it," Viktor said, already setting up.

Loki glanced toward the settlement. Trust her. You wanted this. He had come too far to stop. Time may have lost its meaning, but the newfound urgency made him feverous. "All right."

It was a bright if short late autumn midday, with a light snow powder shimmering against the setting sun. Perfect conditions for an unforgettable pair of rainbows. The soldiers in the city ought to be pleased.

Unless they see a bunch of strangers with some stranger equipment milling in a no-go valley...

But Loki wasn't going to argue or disobey. Not now.

Weirdly, he liked Zhana, even though—and maybe because—she was rather insane. If her stories could be trusted, she had been creating rainbows all over northern Europe and Asia for the last nine hundred years. That made her one of the oldest spell weavers. And that meant a lot of stories.

Old stories.

Frankly, she scared him.

Loki was never comfortable with the way she looked at him, with that lopsided glare, one eyebrow pushing up to the middle of her forehead. She never told him what she was thinking when she did that, and he never asked. He did not feel like prodding into the depths of her soul. Or his own.

What does she know? What does she see?

He wanted to kill her, but he needed her skill.

Zhana was on her knees, crawling, sniffing the snow and ice. Apparently, she could feel the cracks in the ground, and find the best spot to anchor a rainbow.

Yes, yes. Find it. Find it for me.

Viktor was walking to the far side of the valley, where he expected to catch the other end of the rainbow.

Loki glanced left and right. After so much time spent on the island, the clash and crease of ice-dappled mountains and dips, windswept ridges and sharp rock wasn't just rugged, hostile terrain. He knew every glacier, every crag, every flower. He needed to know. To remember.

It was beautiful. Deceptively serene. And impossibly brutal.

I don't remember this land. It wasn't here. But Zhana...

It also hid people from view, and you could suddenly end up face to face with a startled Russian soldier.

Blood never looks so red as when it spurts from your veins.

"Nervous?" Sveta teased. She was a new recruit, hard-working, eager.

Loki glanced around. "A little."

"Me, too."

Ignoring the girl, Loki stepped away from their camp, and walked up onto a short moraine, looking toward the black, gravely coast. Fat seals were lazing on the beach, ignoring the spell weavers just a few hundred meters away. His eyes wandered toward the city, the harbor, the patrol boat making a lazy circle in the icy water.

None of this looks familiar.

"Lyosha!" Zhana hissed. "Come. It's time."

Time will never end for you, Trickster.

The laughter. They are all there. His nose bleeds.

He touched a finger to his nostrils. They were dry. He took a deep breath to steady his nerves and joined the group.

Viktor was waving from the distance. Zhana waved back. Then she stabbed the ground with a violet glass knife.

Loki flinched.

The world has no beginning, no end. But if you look down, hard, hard, and your eyes start to tick, and lightning fills the corners of your vision, you can see the realms touching. You may try to cross, but beware Gullintanni. If he sees you, he will catch you and chain you.

The hard ground shattered like a brittle shard of pottery, and the knife sunk deep in. A crack formed, branching like tree roots. A violent, blinding arrow of deep blue shot out in a beautiful arc. It traced its perfect trajectory across the sky, and landed right before Viktor's feet, sinking into the hard, frozen ground.

Loki stared at the light. He couldn't see it.

"Aleksei!" Sveta snapped.

Loki remembered his task. Together, they worked their magic, keeping the rainbow steady.

Zhana repeated her action, with indigo. Quickly, deftly, she anchored all seven colors, and the people in Belushya Guba could enjoy a magnificent rainbow. She nodded, satisfied.

"Magnificent," Sveta gushed.

Loki stared, through the rainbow, into the frosty heaven, searching, searching.

There...

There!

Zhana made that eyebrow climb up again. "You do not—"

A tremor.

It subsided quickly, but it was enough to color her face a pasty shade of terrified.

Loki felt something warm on his upper lip. He touched.

It was blood. Dark, carmine blood. The purest of reds he had ever seen.

Zhana dropped to the ground, her trembling fingers running over the frozen loam and the serrated, coarse sheets of dirty icy, probing, searching herself. The cracks were spreading, widening.

"It can't be..." she whispered. "It can't be!"

Another tremor.

Loki backed away from the widening chasm, crab-walking back to the ridge. The ground rumbled, a steady, deep roar. The seals were gone. He looked toward the city. A snow front was moving in, sudden, fierce, like a boiling fist of steam. The pale sun had vanished, leaving behind a lurid smudge of jaundice, but then it, too, was gone, erased by the flurry of sharp, heavy flakes.

It begins.

Loki could see a handful of men milling in front of a sturdy, squat heating accumulator building, so far only curious. Tremors were not unusual on the island for a variety of reasons; military experiments, seasonal glacial movement. But at the moment, there shouldn't be any.

For the first time in 11,000 years, time matters.

Just a few more moments...

Zhana was digging hard, trying to figure out what had gone wrong. She would, very soon, Loki realized. She was too smart, too old, not to.

The rainbow was wavering, the colors blurring, losing cohesion. Then, like brittle glass, the arcs shattered and were swept away by the wind.

"Aleksei!" Sveta called.

The tremor returned, longer, more violent this time. The ground groaned more loudly. The fissure had become too wide to jump across.

"Aleksei!"

Zhana was growling, spitting as she tore the frozen ground apart, hurling chunks of hard black soil about, her skin grazed and gouged in a dozen places by the knife-sharp ice. Viktor was coming over at a trot, bent down against the snowfall. Belushya Guba was getting harder to see, and soon, it disappeared completely, veiled away by fog and blizzard.

Nothing more to see.

Humans could not interfere now.

Loki let out a shuddering breath and wiped fresh blood from his nose. He could hear the girl's lament in his head. His wife.

Shaking with anticipation, Loki came over to the camp site.

There were only the four of them, wrapped in a furious white blanket. The world had become a gray wall, everywhere. No sky, no horizon, just the mad, sudden storm.

A fierce cold sank in. The land tingled as it cooled rapidly. Rocks exploded as the icy vise snagged them. Blankets of frost, undisturbed for centuries, creased and shattered. The deep fissure kept on expanding, sprouting black veins into the pale world.

Loki watched with fascination.

"This makes no sense." Zhana said, sitting on her heels, looking defeated, face and arms smeared in dirt and blood. "How?"

"What is happening?" Viktor shouted.

"I don't understand. I've destroyed something. Some kind of a magical boundary. Light. Light is leaking from the sky, and there are these...lines. It makes no sense."

"You didn't see it?" Viktor wailed.

Zhana sagged. But then, she raised her head and looked at Loki. Her dichromatic eyes locked with his, kindled with something akin to sudden recollection. That eyebrow.

She understands now.

Zhana reached for a knife. Her words were framing curses in a language only he understood.

He grunted with terror and excitement.

He was—

Loki fell as the ground violently slid sideways. He staggered up as a fist of ancient rock, buried deep under ice for untold ages, pushed into the air. The fist was steaming, bleeding tar and gold, burning, boiling, as wisps of blue fire shot from its oily surface where melted snow touched it.

The smell of ancient times made Loki whimper.

Wolf and rat hides worn by undead soldiers. Brimstone, rivers of it, and they wade through knee deep. There is no pain in their ethereal forms. The battlefield is alive, but there are no men among the living. A blanket of far ravens, feathers more red than jet, pecking on the suppurating flesh. A spy, every one them. They see everything, and He knows. He knows.

But it wasn't a dream anymore.

It was a memory.

Glee, fear, expectation of impossible pain, and the promise of a final relief.

Sveta screamed as a jagged stone stabbed through her leg, and lifted her into the air.

Viktor was holding his head and retreating.

Zhana tried to stand up, holding the blade in her hand.

Higher and higher, the rock pushed, broke, lost half its height in a lazy sideways tumble, but the movement continued, a slow groan. With a hiss of steam, the peak sheared off, sliding toward the old spell weaver. She did not see it.

And now she dies.

But even as the thought formed in his head, amidst a thunder of splitting headache and blinding images of past life crashing into the leftovers of his sanity, he dove and pushed her out of the way, just before the rock crushed her.

Zhana was dazed, her temple gushing blood. She tried to mutter something, but her words were drowned in the thunderous rumble. The wind was screaming, and so was Sveta, impaled on that shard. Viktor had vanished, lost in the blizzard.

Loki's hair had frosted over. It was stiff like old, salted rope. He imagined his skin was blue and probably peeling in bloody stripes. If only he could feel the pain.

Zhana was reeling, trying to roll over, get up, fingers still stubbornly coiled round the hilt of the blade.

Why did I save her life? Loki wondered, prying the dangerous knife from her weak grip. He tossed it into the chasm.

Because your son will be hungry.

There was another avalanche from the fist, but now Loki could see a shape forming under that crumbling rock. A heavy, muscular shape.

Long, powerful legs. Sharp claws.

A shaggy head, covered in dark fur, the color of midnight mist.

Sveta had stopped screaming.

Loki did not know how much time passed, but after a while, the thunderous tremors subsided, and the wind died, and the storm became a mild, gentle snowfall. It was still bitterly cold, and a strange fog veiled, obscuring the world outside their small circle.

Standing in a pool of molten gold, tar and old rock was Fenrir, his son.

Waiting.

Zhana groaned. She finally rolled over and vomited on the bloody ice. "You fooled us," she rasped, threads of bile stuck to her lips turning to icicles. "You tricked us."

Thousands of years of waiting finally ended. "It was necessary. I couldn't see the border between the realms myself."

No more doubts. No more madness. It's over.

"You are a cursed thing, Loki."

No one will ever know the truth. It makes no difference. The twilight of the gods is here. Ragnarok begins.

Zhana spat at him. "You will not win."

In the chasm, through the rising steam, he could see tiny, distant shapes climbing up. The Jotnar. His army.

"I don't intend to." Now, I can finally die.

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