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The SSSSynesthesia Project

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The Arena

Too long.

If there was one thing she'd learned in this city, and learned fast, her hands tied above her head, mouth parched for water, sun pounding down mercilessly against her bare skin, and her back all one big ache of throbbing agony, it was that there was no such thing as mercy in this world, and that the gods had better things to worry about than whether a lone unproven warrior lived or died.

Sigrun had told herself a true Viking warrior did not scream or cry. She'd made it through about five lashes before giving in to both.

That, as it turned out, was her introduction to the city known as Rome.

She called it that not because it was the first time she'd seen the city—as a matter of fact, she'd already been there a while—but because it was the first point where she'd truly understood a few things about the sort of situation she was in. Captured on a raid—her first raid, as it had turned out, and from the way things had ended it would probably be her last—that had ended badly, she'd been separated from her fellows and stripped of everything she'd ever been able to call hers, crammed into a mass of people and dragged home by a man whose clipped instructions she could not understand.

Some of the other slaves had tried to help her out. They'd shown her what to do with gestures and demonstrations. One of them had even tried to teach her a few words, pointing at various objects and saying their names slowly and clearly. Still, it was impossible to keep her completely separated from her owners, and as it turned out the master's wife was even more impatient than he was.

Sigrun had very little patience for being ordered about by someone who'd probably never worked a day in her life, nor for being snapped at in a language she couldn't understand. When someone tried to hit her, she hit back.

In retrospect, it was lucky for her that the woman had gotten away with little more than a bruise—though to Sigrun's gratification, half of her face was discolored for nearly a month. She probably would have been able to enjoy it a bit more if not for the punishment that she'd received in return.

Once she was able to walk again, she'd retaliated by trying to kill the man who'd bought her.

Which, in turn, had ended up landing her here.

She was under no illusions that they intended to do anything but let her die here. Even if she didn't bleed out, it would be thirst, or blood poisoning, or the fits of cold shaking that sometimes took warriors who'd been left too long in the field without care. Therefore when someone touched her, her first reaction was to lash out, because even if she could only headbutt him she'd rather die fighting than endure any more of what these barbarians had in store for her.

What he said to her in turn, she'd never be able to recall—but she did understand what he said, and the shock of that alone was enough to put a halt to her struggles, right before she slumped forward in a dead faint.


It was a boy, as it turned out—about her age, maybe a couple of years older. Not one of the group she'd been captured with—but still the first person she'd been able to talk to ever since she'd landed in this horrible city.

"Why?" she asked him after he'd made her sip at some water, just enough to get her throat working.

"My master has refused to pay for you unless you live long enough to heal from your injuries," he said bluntly. "He does, however, have quite the lucrative use for you—therefore it is within everyone's best interests to ensure that you do live."

The last of what he'd told her barely registered—she was already half-conscious again, and burning up everywhere it seemed. He made her finish the water before he would let her rest.

She was several months recovering. Mikkel—who she got to know very well as he changed bandages or flushed out wounds with stinging liquid or made her drink concoctions that prompted her to ask whether his ministrations were part of the Romans' idea of torture—spent that time filling her in.

Fighting, as it turned out. She was going to be kept to fight.

Sigrun nearly laughed, when he told her. Captured, enslaved, beaten, and for what? So they could force her to do something she had been doing for free.

When the bandages finally came off for good and she was released to the training grounds with nothing to show for her ordeal but a set of new scars, it was not hard to fall into the routine. She still didn't understand any of the orders that were shouted at her—Mikkel had attempted to teach her a bit of Latin while she was lying around on her stomach unable to sleep but still too hurt to do anything else, but he hadn't even managed to finish explaining the concept of declensions before she'd pressed her hands over her ears and asked him why he hadn't just let them keep whipping her—but the accompanying gestures, and watching the reactions of the others, made the intentions as clear as she needed. Finally, Sigrun felt as if she were regaining a bit of equilibrium.

Her first attempts in the training ring were clumsy: the time she'd needed to spend healing had weakened her, and worse yet she seemed to have had a growth spurt during her convalescence that made her feel uncomfortably lanky and her limbs too long. Still, this was hardly the first time she'd held a sword, and it all came back to her quickly enough. She trained hard: not only because they were telling her to, either.

She was a Viking warrior, not some Romans' battle fodder. One day, she would manage to get out of here, and reunite with her own people.

The first time she tried prodding the walls for an escape route, she was caught and punished. The second time she tried it, she was also caught. The third time, Mikkel took full advantage of the opportunity to lecture her on Roman concepts of mercy.

"This time, at least, I can assure you that it feels worse than it is. Your feet will heal fully, provided you do not attempt to put any weight on them before I've told you it's okay."

In response, she turned her head away with a slight nod. She had been so close that time. Freedom had been within her grasp; she'd almost been able to taste it. If only the guards hadn't—

Mikkel sighed, and released her foot after tying off the last bandage, and crossed his arms in a way that said he was about to deliver one of his speeches. "You must realize that there's only so much of this our masters are willing to tolerate. If you continue to test their limits, your potential value to them as a source of entertainment will no longer be enough to make up for the trouble you're causing."

"I'd rather die escaping than live as a slave."

Mikkel looked at her for a long, long moment then, before shaking his head. "No. If they catch you attempting escape again, they will not kill you immediately—but what they'll do to you instead will make you beg for death long before they decide to grant it." He looked at her for a few moments longer, saw that she still would not meet his eyes, and let out another sigh. "Come with me."

She didn't know what he ended up telling the master—probably the only reason Mikkel managed to talk him into it was that she couldn't have run right then even if she'd tried. Or maybe it had been the master's idea in the first place; she didn't know. Either way, the end result was the same.

Mikkel carried her on his back—the man really was insanely strong. Sigrun wasn't sure how long they had walked—it couldn't have been far—but she noticed the smell long before she saw what Mikkel had been intending to show her.

People. All along the road in front of her, tall frames and crosses made of wood, and nailed or tied to every one of them, people. Some had been impaled by sharpened spears of wood. Some bled from wounds other than the nails driven through their hands and feet. Their limbs had been pulled painfully rigid, forced into positions they were never meant to hold. All of them were alive. All of them were moaning in pain.

Only a brief survey and she was forced to close her eyes, burying her face in Mikkel's hair. "Have you seen enough?" he asked. Sigrun only nodded in turn, knowing he would feel it—she was afraid that if she opened her mouth, she'd lose not only her last several meals but most of her insides as well.

Neither of them said a word the whole way back.

From that point on, she stopped trying to escape. Call her a coward, but at least a death in the ring was a death with honor.


The Awakening

Once she set foot in the Coliseum, Sigrun's rise to fame was quick.

Mikkel told her she had a knack for showmanship. He said in the same breath she had a knack for showing off.

Much as his previous attempts to teach her Latin had all ended in failure, this phrase at least he had drilled into her head, again and again until she could repeat it back clearly in the ring without a single error:

"Ave, Imperator, morituri te salutant!"

When he told her what it meant, she snorted, and the laugh was not entirely humorous.

"Well, at least they're honest about it."

He looked at her for a few moments. In the end, however, he only shook his head.

Killing her first man was something that Sigrun had been braced for. It wasn't easy, but she was ready when the time came. All she had to do was remind herself of the fate she was saving the both of them from.

She hoped, as she wiped the blood from her sword, that at least his own gods would receive him well.

From the very beginning, she'd known better than to try to make friends. Hard enough anyway, when you couldn't even talk to any of the people you trained with. Add in the fact that any one of them might end up having to die by your hand, or you by theirs, and it wasn't hard to justify keeping one's distance. Still, there were a few who were… different.

There was the man who'd taken charge of most of her training when she'd first arrived. He'd been impatient, and gruff, and had had a nasty habit of smacking her back or limbs with the flat of his blade every time she did something wrong. Still, he was one of the few who'd never attempted to get an order through by barking out gibberish, instead tapping her knees and feet into place and showing her a technique in slow motion before having her imitate, and rewarding her with a crisp nod of approval whenever she managed to make it through a session without a single mistake. Sigrun didn't know for sure what had happened to him, but she could guess well enough: one day he'd been there, the next morning he wasn't. She hoped at least he'd managed to die well.

Then there was Antonia, who was only a few years older than Sigrun and stood out because she was one of only the handful of other women who trained for the ring. By necessity they'd had very little to say to one another, but they had often sat together at mealtimes, and as it turned out Antonia had been a huge help when it came to dealing with the sorts of things that only women had to deal with, when she felt as if she couldn't even ask Mikkel for help.

Sigrun actually did get to see it this time. At least she had the reassurance of knowing how loudly the crowd had screamed.

Still, somehow, Sigrun continued to live.

There were times when she came close. Once, she could feel the hair's-breadth difference between the scratch that she actually got and her life's blood spilling from her throat to color the sand of the arena. Another time, her leg was sliced open so deeply that for a time she feared she would never walk again, and it was only the combined ministrations of not only Mikkel, but several well-trained Roman physicians, that managed to put her back on her feet.

"Thank your fans in the Senate," Mikkel informed her as he helped her to hobble about the room, one arm wrapped firmly around her waist as she leaned heavily on his shoulder in turn. "The people do not want to lose their champion."

For once, however, Sigrun was not in a talking mood. The exchange of blows that had put her out of commission had also ended the life of yet another person she'd almost been getting to like.

Then, yet another surprise walked into her life.

"A piece of news that might interest you."

"Ah?" She did not get up from where she was lounging against the wall of her cell, did not even look up, instead keeping her gaze on the coin she was rolling across her knuckles.

"A new trainee was brought in today." Mikkel sounded irritated, though to someone who didn't know him so well, his voice would only have the same flat affect that it always did. "A young man."

"That so." The coin did not stop its motion.

"I have not met him yet myself." The irritation in Mikkel's voice increased, and Sigrun could not quite hide a grin. "But those who have say that when he speaks, nobody is able to understand his words."

"Wait, what!?" Coin forgotten, she was on her feet in a flash. "Where!"

"I thought you might be interested," Mikkel said smugly, stepping aside to allow her through the door.

He was young. And even though some of his words were strange, he did speak a tongue that she could understand.

Emil. He said his name was Emil.

Even before they met, it was already a given that she was going to train him. After all, it only made sense: out of all of the other gladiators, Sigrun was the only one who could even talk to him. None of her fellows so much as tried to lay a claim on him before she got there.

She might have been… a bit overenthusiastic at first. Emil, fellow Viking though he might be, was not nearly as hardened as Sigrun might have expected for someone his age, and she was struck by his naked horror when she told him the trade. His idealism was a puzzle to her: she didn't know whether to envy or pity the fact that he clearly had no idea how much worse things could get.

She didn't strip Emil of his illusions as bluntly as Mikkel had done with her. Soft as he was, something told Sigrun that as hard as it had been on her, some of the things she'd gone through might well break him. Fortunately, Mikkel seemed to agree. She let him do all the actual sharing of the horror stories; even in her native language, Sigrun was not good with words. Instead, she let him see what he was up against, and how much worse things could get in return for defiance.

The scarring on her back was usually something she did not show to anyone—save Mikkel, who'd already seen it at its worst yet had never treated her any differently for it. Pity, horror, knowing looks—all of those were reactions that she could live without. Emil, though, was different. Emil needed the warning.

"Sigrun was one of the lucky ones," she overheard Mikkel telling him one night shortly after the fact. "I've seen more than a few die on the spot from the treatment that she endured."

He wasn't going to last very long in the ring. Sigrun knew that from the start. Still, there was something—even if it was just the tenuous connection to the life she had lost—that made her ignore the warning to not get attached, to not get too close, to not get invested in something that was bound to come to a bloody end.

…possibly even by her hand.

In all honesty, she had not expected to face up against him this soon. Maybe, though, it was better this way. Better for it to be her rather than some stranger. Better for him to make an end while still young and defiant and idealistic, before the hard life managed to shatter his spirit. It was even a possibility that this would not be the end for him at all—but Sigrun could not allow herself the luxury of hope.

All it took was the memory of what she'd seen, injured and heartsick, that day atop Mikkel's back, and to picture Emil on the receiving end of it, for her to give it her all.

She'd trained him well, and he managed to hold his own for an impressive length of time. Still, the fact remained that she'd trained him, and as gladiators went, he was still quite green. However valiantly he tried, Emil never had any real hope of beating her.

No hope of keeping his dignity with defeat either, and she knew it. He would scream and cry. He would struggle. He would beg. Therefore Sigrun made sure not to let the crowd see, planting herself on his back, keeping his arms pinned under her knees, pressing his face to the dirt with her free hand, because though Emil might die here, he would not die a coward—and he would be at her mercy, rather than the mercy of the baying mob. If she could give him nothing else, at least she could give him that.

It worked. When Sigrun looked up for her next instructions, overwhelming relief washed over her when she saw the sea of red.

He had survived his first battle. Maybe there was a chance for him after all.

If, she wondered, they'd met under better circumstances, in their own homelands with the freedom to train on their own terms…

Wondered… and did not allow herself to dwell on it further. There was nothing to be gained by going down that path.

Emil might have lasted this time, she reminded herself, but he would not last for long. He was too soft. Even if she managed to train the greenness out of him, he would always be soft. Sooner or later, he would lose his life in the ring.

Somehow, she neglected to consider what would result if he didn't.

She did not reiterate, when he demanded to know what she would have done if their battle had ended differently, the fate that she had been saving the both of them from. She knew that he already knew. Had the crowd demanded a kill, Sigrun would have been left with no choice—but knowing that she would have had no choice did not take the sting out of Emil's anger, because she also knew that it was not unjustified.

Mikkel, she could tell, knew that something was wrong, but she did not choose to talk about it, and he did not ask. After all, Sigrun couldn't remember a single day since she'd been brought to this city where something hadn't been wrong.

"Hey, Mikkel?" she asked instead, slumping against the wall of his quarters because there was only one chair and he was currently in it. She'd been spending more and more time in there lately.

"Hm?" He'd spent the evening fiddling with some of his instruments, and tapped a finger delicately against a piece of metal as he grunted out his response.

"D'you think there are worse things than torture?"

"I'd say that that depends on who you ask." He peered at her over whatever it was that he was in the process of polishing. "Did you have any specific reason in mind for asking?"

"No. No reason."

A few minutes of silence passed. Then:

"I need you to tell the other gladiators a few things for me."

Immediately he looked wary. Carefully, he set down whatever it was he'd been working on, and gave her his full attention. "Sigrun. What are you planning?"

"Something I should have done a long time ago." For the first time in what felt like years, she grinned, and Mikkel looked even more wary. "So, will you help me, or not?"


The Art of War

In her earlier attempts to escape, Sigrun had made two mistakes.

First of all, she'd done it by trying to sneak away in the middle of the night, like a coward—but she was supposed to be a warrior, not some sniveling baby. No wonder her gods had not looked out for her.

The second mistake she'd made was trying to do it alone. She'd thought, at the time, that she had no one to help her: she was a lone prisoner in a city of hostiles, where no warrior, no matter how brave, could stand against an army.

…except that, if she allied with the right people, then she could have an army as well.

She was not the only one here who had suffered. Sigrun knew that. Yet somehow, it had never occurred to her that her fellow gladiators might not enjoy killing their friends any more than she did. It had not occurred to her that Mikkel, staunch and reliable though he was, was also in thrall to the same masters that she served.

"I see. And how can you be sure that I won't simply agree to do as you've requested, and then go straight to the master and report to him exactly what you're planning?"

Sigrun blinked. That… had honestly never even occurred to her.

For a few seconds they only stared at each other. Then, he smiled.

"You are far too trusting. Nevertheless, I will not do that—but neither will I participate in a venture so risky unless I can be sure it has a reasonable chance of success."

"Fair enough." She shrugged, and flashed him a grin across the small room. "So what do you know about the layout of the rest of the city?"

In the end, all she could do was count on him to do as she'd asked. She wasn't worried, though. The gods had guided them to each other for a reason.

…Mikkel wasn't the only one, either.

She knew he wasn't going to forgive her that easily. She also knew he was too green and too sheltered to truly understand her reasons, and what it was he would be risking by always following the high road. Still, she went to him that night, sharpened sword in hand (it really had been far easier than it should have for her to get her hands on a real weapon outside of the ring), to give him the chance to make the decision for himself.

"When?" was the only thing he asked as they released each other's hands.

"Five days from now. Be ready."


"Your young protégé has requested that I advise someone to get out of the city before you put your plan into motion."

"Will you?"

"That's up to you."

Sigrun raised an eyebrow. This wasn't a development that she had expected. "Who is it?" she asked carefully, aware that Emil might be on the brink of doing something exceedingly stupid—he would not intentionally force her to choose between his feelings and their freedom, but she had a feeling the kid was still incapable of making the harder choices.

"Fan of his. A young man, about his age, who's been coming to visit with him on a regular basis. He has no understanding of our language." A pause, as if Mikkel was weighing the merits of sharing the next bit. "They appear," he said at last, "to be lovers."

Sigrun snorted, but then grew serious again. Only Emil… "If you warn him, is there a chance he'll pass it on to anyone else?"

"That, I do not know."

"Well, find out. Tell him if you think it's safe, but if it's not… don't risk our plans."

Mikkel only nodded, once.

She was the one who ended up talking to Emil.

"You would let him die?" It was the same outrage he'd shown when he'd confronted her after that day in the ring.

"Only if he'd do the same to us." She crossed her arms, and did not give. "Do you know that he's not going to betray us if you give him a hint of what's going on?"

"He wouldn't—"

"Oh? And who's to say that he doesn't have someone else here that he wants to warn? And if he tells other people, they'll all have someone else that they want to warn… everybody has somebody they don't want to die, but this is war. Are you really ready to risk all of our lives for the sake of your boy toy?"

Emil's fists clenched at that, but in the end he only turned his back and stormed away.


Morale was not as good as it could have been on the night that they struck. Nevertheless, they still went through with it, because they'd spent so much time building up the will and the energy. If they didn't do it now, they would never have another chance.

Sigrun could not make a rousing speech to the warriors she led. Jabbering away in words they did not know would not do the trick, nor would trying to work her tongue around clunky secondhand Latin. Instead, she simply raised her sword, and led the charge forward with a wordless battle cry.

The biggest mistake the Romans had made was in teaching their slaves how to fight.

The guards were quickly taken by surprise, and then they were out into the city, burning and pillaging and killing as they went. The rich aristocrats and powerful senators who'd once watched impassively as they'd killed each other were dragged from their beds and stabbed to death.

Emil, she kept by her side, both because he couldn't understand the shouted exchanges of her other lieutenants, and because he was inexperienced enough to get himself killed out here if he didn't have someone keeping an eye on him. Plus, he didn't like being on either end of such violence: Sigrun saw his eyes go wide at the vicious pleasure some of the other gladiators took in exacting their revenge, and knew that whatever else he did, he would never truly have mastered the ring.

Still, they managed to find one contribution that Emil would be remembered for.

"I wish I could burn it down," he confessed, looking over at the Colosseum with a hard anger that Sigrun had never seen on his face before.

"Do it."

By the time they reached the city gates, the whole Colosseum was in flames.

By the time the Roman army had managed to mobilize, half of the city was as well.

By that point, they had already torn their way out of the city and to the stronghold they had chosen earlier in which to make their stand (Mikkel had been the one to smuggle her a map, and Sigrun had pored over it for several long minutes before picking her spot.) It was dark. The torches of the approaching army burned against the night.

She could hear Emil's audible swallow beside her as he tightened his grip on his sword.

"Remember," she said to him in an undertone, "what they'll do to us if they take us alive."

Either fight their way to freedom or die trying. That was the pact that they'd made, unspoken, when they'd first laid their plans. Anything less would be far worse than death.

When they clashed in the night, Sigrun could give no orders. Instead, she'd had to relay her plans to some of the older gladiators through Mikkel, and hope that her chosen lieutenants were smart enough and skilled enough to plan their parts of the battle themselves. Mikkel, she'd made to stay well behind the front lines; his skills as a healer and as an interpreter were too valuable to risk his safety. Emil, though, she made sure to keep by her side.

Then, it was all a chaos of steel flashing in torchlight and shouted orders in words she couldn't grasp. Some of the Roman soldiers were hardened men, others scared young boys, yet Sigrun was too raw with her own bloodlust and her own memories to regret killing any of them.

This one is for Antonia, she thought as her blade neatly separated a head from the neck to which it was attached.

And this one is for Emil, as she plunged her blade through a chink in a man's armor and straight through to his heart.

And this—her hilt smashed into a man's nose so hard that it shattered—is—her sword went straight through the underside of a jaw—for—a plunge into an unprotected leg tore open arteries to produce a near-instant kill—me!

When she could spare the attention to glance at Emil, he was paler than snow and looked like he was about to throw up, but his sword arm was admirably steady. Maybe—just maybe—they'd have freedom rather than death after all.

The Roman army was nearly on the retreat when she saw him.

An old commander, grizzled, an ugly scar flashing across a face reddened by the dim torchlight. Mikkel had told her a few things about the leaders of the enemy troops. Which ones they would have to defeat if they were to have any sort of fighting chance. If they could take him down, the rest of the army would break.

Bodies were strewn around her as she fought her way toward him: her own and Romans alike. Before long, she saw that he'd laid eyes on her as well.

The clash of their swords threw out sparks in the darkness. For the most part, they were evenly matched: Sigrun taller and more attuned to battle, her opponent fresher and better-armored.

What do you fight for? Not for his freedom: he already had as much of that as he could ever want. Money? Power? In the end, though, it didn't matter: currently he was standing between her and what she wanted.

Her sword had nearly sneaked its way past his guard to bury itself in his throat when something hit her with a blow like a punch to the guts, and she was slammed backward. Looking down, she saw the feathered shaft of the arrow that had buried itself in her shoulder.

Her arm hung limp; she couldn't raise her shield. Letting it drop to the ground, she charged forward… only for another one to bury itself just below her ribs.

No. No. Freedom or death, she'd decided—but not like this. She wasn't going to go out without at least trying. Stumbling forward the last few steps, she caught a glancing blow from his sword—but then another flash of steel from the side distracted him for those few crucial seconds, and she had the gratification of seeing his eyes go wide when she called on her gods for strength, and lifted her own weapon, and used the opening and the last of her strength to open his throat from one ear to the other.

The last thing she saw as her vision faded was Emil, sword and shield alike let go to land on the bloodied ground, hurrying forward to catch her as she fell.


The Awakening

Pain. Her entire world was pain.

She was burning inside and out. The pain was a hot brand deep within her body, burning brightest at the locations of two aching wounds, stabbing through her with every breath.

Long. Too long.

Always, there was someone with her. Sometimes they resolved themselves into Mikkel or Emil or a young red-haired man she didn't know, but most of the time there was no room in her head for anything but agony and fever, and her companions were nothing more than vague blurs.

Mikkel, when she recognized him, was helping her: when he'd unceremoniously lift up her shirt and get to work with his instruments and his stinging liquids and the red-haired kid would hold both of her hands to keep her from reflexively moving them to protect herself, or when he'd tilt up her head and hold a vessel to her lips, and she'd force herself to swallow, whether it be water or more of that poison that he called "medicine". The bad times, though, he was an enemy, and she fought him every time he came too close, and then someone would end up practically sitting on her to keep her from thrashing, and he'd tilt whatever he wanted her to drink into her mouth until he could force her to swallow. She still managed to give him one good boot to the face that cost him a black eye, an incident he was quick enough to explain as soon as she was lucid enough to understand it.

Even so, she didn't feel like she was getting any better.

The more time passed, the hotter she seemed to burn. The pain dulled a bit, but in dulling it only seemed to spread. If you asked her in her more lucid moments, she wasn't sure how much longer she had.

The price she paid for her freedom would be her life. It was a fair trade, and she knew it: she had, from the very beginning, been willing to sacrifice her own life in return for taking that life out of the hands of the Romans. She'd known from the moment she'd first drawn her sword outside of the arena that this was a very real possibility.

Even so… she did not want to die.

What good was freedom if you never got to do anything with it? She'd wanted to go back to the mountains… to find the people that she'd been stolen from… to reunite with her family… She would never have any of that if she let go now.

She couldn't have said whether the tears that rolled down her face were from the fever, or something else entirely.


Reynir's small family farm was everything that Rome wasn't.

It was quiet. The very air didn't stink of garbage and human excrement—there was only the smell of sheep, and compared to the constant stench of unwashed human bodies, Emil couldn't say he minded sheep. The people worked hard—not under the slavers' whips for the gratification of the masses, but to do the necessary preserving and mending to see themselves through the winter.

These were the exact sorts of people that he—and probably Sigrun as well—had been plundering when they'd been captured by Roman legions.

He wasn't sure what Reynir had said to his parents and siblings to keep them from turning the three of them in. Maybe it was simply that there was no one left to turn them in to: the last they'd heard of Rome, it was in chaos, the slaves revolting and the populace collapsing with most of their leadership dead in the night and the bulk of their army chasing a group of rebel gladiators.

"Is anyone going to notice we're gone?" he'd asked Mikkel, when they'd broken away from the rebel group in search of somewhere, anywhere, where they could be safe long enough to see to Sigrun's wounds.

"Doubtful. Sigrun might have been the spark to galvanize this rebellion, but there are many other skilled commanders among the Roman gladiators, as well as other healers among the escaped slaves. My greatest use was as an interpreter, and with Sigrun no longer giving the orders there is no more need for such a position."

Sigrun… it was impossible not to think about Sigrun.

"How is she?" was the first question out of his mouth as soon as Mikkel had come outside, hands bloodied. Emil had lasted right up until Mikkel had turned to Reynir and said something in Latin that he'd later deduced translated to "Hold her down," at which point he hadn't been able to take any more.

Mikkel looked at him for a long, long moment then. "Unconscious," he said at last. "In addition to a likely infection. Those arrows she was shot with were unclean, and I can't tell whether they might have hit anything vital. If you have anything particularly important you wish to say to her, I suggest you do so soon."

"Wh-what?" Emil felt cold all over. Mikkel couldn't have just implied… "But it was only a couple of arrows!" he protested weakly. "Sigrun's been hurt before…" gods, he'd seen up close how many scars she had, "she survived all of that—"

"She survived with quality medical care, and the aid of Rome's not inconsiderable resources. I have very little to work with in this environment. That she has sustained so many injuries in the past is also part of the problem—especially at her age."

"What do you mean, 'at her age'? Sigrun's not that old…"

"Sigrun is twenty-eight," Mikkel interrupted. "Most gladiators consider themselves lucky if they live to see twenty-five. Even if one doesn't die violently, healing from so many injuries on top of such a strenuous lifestyle is a strain on the body—I have seen it again and again. Eventually, one will sustain an injury that causes the body to simply give out."

"But… you…" He was running out of protests. "You'll be able to do something… right?"

"I am doing everything I can. Just keep in mind that it may not be enough."

Emil didn't know what he wanted to say to her, provided he had the chance.

For all that she'd protested, she had seen to it that Reynir was warned—if she hadn't, they wouldn't be here right now, they'd be huddling under some rock, and Sigrun would probably already be dead. She'd also taken him under her wing, and taken the time to train him rather than dismiss him as being hopeless as so many others had, and saved his life several times over both in and out of the ring. Still, she would have killed him if the crowd had told her to, and if not for him, she would have let Reynir die when they'd sacked the city. He couldn't exactly say he was sorry for the things that he'd said.

Footsteps behind him prompted him to turn. It was Reynir, watching, shepherd's crook in hand.

He looked so right here. Against the rolling hills grazed by a small flock of fluffy white sheep, he seemed to be at home in a way Emil now realized he never had in Rome. At that thought, a burning envy and despair bubbled up within his chest, accompanied by a smoldering fury at what had been taken from them—on Sigrun's behalf as well as his own.

There was an awkwardness between them now that hadn't been there before. Before, they'd been peers, differing in privilege it was true, but Reynir had been a much-needed friendly face during a time of unrelenting terror and despair. Now, every time they looked at each other, it was with the knowledge that one was us, and the other was one of them—and he could tell when he met Reynir's eyes that he felt it as well.

They approached each other slowly, cautiously. Reynir might not have personally enslaved them, but he was still a part of the system that had. Emil might have taken a few risks in order to protect him personally, but he and his fellows had still slaughtered Reynir's people. How could any relationship recover from something like that?

Reynir was speaking. Despite both his and Mikkel's best efforts, Emil had never managed to learn more than two words of Latin—the language was just too slippery, too weird and changing and out of order. Still, he could have gotten Mikkel… but some things, he thought, were best kept private, and some things were simply best left unsaid.

Instead, Emil answered: but in his own language, and in the non-verbal gestures that needed no translation at all.

They talked like that well into the night.


Her eyes were so crusty she could barely pry them open.

She'd woken so drenched in sweat it felt as if she'd just taken a swim, and feeling so weak she could barely lift her head. She was parched—the inside of her mouth felt like she'd been eating arena dust—but the punches of pain whenever she shifted told her that wandering off on her own in search of water would not be the greatest idea.

Instead, Sigrun assessed her surroundings. She was in a bed, in a largely unadorned room in what looked to be some sort of peasant's house. Further, she saw that Emil had fallen asleep slumped up against the wall.

"Hey." She stretched out her foot, and poked him in the thigh.

He snapped awake immediately, his face doing an impressive dance from panic to incredulity to unadulterated delight. "You're awake!" he exclaimed, jolting up fully with all signs of sleepiness now gone from his eyes.

"And thirsty," she rasped, her voice coming out a croak. "There any water around here?"

"Mikkel said you might not make it," he went on, ignoring her request for water.

"Yeah, well, guess Mikkel doesn't know me as well as he thinks he does. I'm not going to go through all that to earn my freedom and then just die." She gave a slight cough. "Now, about that water…"

"Oh! Right!" Emil jumped to his feet, and was gone.

She'd made it. Sigrun might have been ready to lose her life, but she still wasn't ready to give it up, and when given a chance she'd fight for it all the way. That was just another part of being a true warrior… and from now on, she'd finally be fighting not only for her right to base survival, but for her right to live.

Chapter Text

At first, it had been terrifying: an unfamiliar place, too many unfamiliar people, too many customs and niceties he didn't understand. Now, though, it was just another part of everyday life.

It was a good life. He had a routine. Nobody he cared about was going to die.

Cold… but then again, it was usually cold. That didn't matter either, because someone like him was well used to cold.

One could survive here, if one was willing to learn how. Warm clothes were a given; he'd had those already, thankfully. Shelter, too: while there were plenty of places one wasn't supposed to sleep, he'd also learned that most people ignored those rules anyway. So getting out of the cold wasn't a problem when even the clothes ceased to be enough.

Food… now that was a somewhat trickier proposition.

If you wanted to get food, you needed to have money. If you wanted to get money, you needed to have a job. If you wanted to get a job, you needed to be not-filthy and not-homeless and not-half-starving, and most of those things also required money. So it usually came down to getting enough money for food—or just getting food—in whatever ways were available that didn't require a job.

Some among his fellows only counted on others to have pity on them, to give them the things that they needed. Lalli, though, had long ago learned that you couldn't rely on other people, not even for the most basic of needs. Sooner or later, they would let you down. So, though he did take the occasional handout whenever one was offered, for the most part he made his own way.

Lalli had always been fast, and he had always been sneaky. In the busiest places, it was always easy enough to slip a hand into someone's pocket and be rewarded with a wallet, or a wad of cash. Even when that got tough, people here still threw away a lot of good food. No matter what happened, he had the wits and the resources that were necessary to survive.

All in all, it was not a bad life.


Whenever anyone asked him about his parents, he said that he had none.

"That's nonsense," his teachers and his friends' parents would all say. "Everyone has parents."

"I don't"—and that was the only answer that Lalli would give.

"I'm his legal guardian," his cousin would say when asked the same question. "His parents died when he was very young."

People always believed Onni when he told them he didn't have parents—so why didn't anyone ever believe him?

These people believed him when he said he had no family.

When they asked at all, that was. Nobody here ever asked him too many questions, and Lalli liked it that way. It meant he never had to give out answers that wouldn't be believed.

Occasionally, though, someone else who wasn't one of his people, who didn't understand, would still try to talk to him.

"Why do you live like this?" the young man demanded—he'd been determined to strike up a conversation, for reasons that Lalli couldn't fathom.

Lalli looked at him. He was round-faced and clearly well-fed. His clothes were almost brand-new. His hair was so well-groomed it very nearly sparkled.

Of course. He was one of the ones who wouldn't understand, no matter how many times Lalli explained it. So Lalli didn't even try to explain it, and stayed silent instead.

"I mean… why do you live here? It's kind of…" He reached out as if to touch the subway wall, but then recoiled as if afraid of contamination. "…really disgusting."

Lalli shrugged. "Didn't have anywhere else to go."

"Really? But… don't you have a family or anything—"

"No." Lalli walked away.

No one could understand.


Once, he'd almost managed to convince himself that it was safe.

It had taken a long time, after the first time he'd lost almost everyone. He was brought to a different city, put in a different school. He knew no one. Tuuri, it seemed, had bounced back within weeks—but for whatever reason, Lalli couldn't find it in him to do the same.

Everything was strange. Grandmother was gone. His parents were gone. Instead, he was now living with his cousins who he'd met maybe once a month prior to It happening, and Onni tried to be in charge of him like his parents had before, and Tuuri was too chatty and too loud, and he just didn't know what to do!

Eventually, he got used to it. It didn't get better, but he got used to it. He had a routine. He had a family. He had almost been ready to call it a good life. Then, though…

Then, it had happened all over again. Lalli had lost everything, and he'd finally managed to learn that the only way to avoid losing the people he cared about was not to care about anyone at all.

He hadn't had much: the clothes on his back, a bit of money in his pocket. He hadn't finished enough schooling to find a real job and he didn't know how to look for a real job anyway, but still, he had enough. This time, at least, he had managed to remember the lessons that life had taught him, and not try to dream of things that could never be.

This was a good thing he had going here. He needed to learn to be content with that.


The tradeoff to not caring about anyone was that nobody else ever cared about him.

That would be fine, he'd thought. He'd simply survive until he didn't anymore. However cold and hungry he might be, he was young and healthy, and that would be enough to ensure that he survived for a very long time.

Until one day, it wasn't anymore.

The patch of ice was not unexpected at this time of year, but still in exactly the wrong place. When he fell, he did manage to get back up on his feet—but it was only one of his feet, and the other screamed spikes of agony up and down his leg whenever he tried to entrust it with his weight.

No good. This was not good at all. If he could not walk, then he could not get food.

Somehow, he managed to drag himself back down to someplace warm. Ankles healed. He could wait it out. A day or two without food wasn't going to kill him, and after that much time had passed he ought to be able to at least limp to the nearest garbage can.


After that much time had passed, he still could not put weight on his bad foot.

He did try. He clenched his teeth and pushed himself up on his good leg, bracing himself against the wall. Then, ever so slowly, he lowered the injured foot to the floor, and slowly put his weight on it, and tried to take a step—

—only for spikes of agony to shoot once again all the way up to his hip, leaving him huddled on the floor in a heap of gasping pain.

It was at that moment that Lalli started to feel the first creeping hints of fear.

Right now, his survival depended entirely upon his ability to take care of himself. If he could not take care of himself… if he could not even stand up…

…but there was nothing he could do about it, except collapse back down onto the heap of rags that served as his bed and hope to get better.


As time passed and his stomach grew ever more hollow, he found himself thinking more and more of the home that he had lost.

It wasn't perfect, but it had still been his home. Whenever he was sick or hurt, his mother and father would take him to the doctor if they couldn't fix it themselves. Whenever he needed guidance, his grandmother would tell him what to do.

Now, he had no one, so nobody cared about him. Once in a while someone would toss him a coin, but money would no longer do him any good—not if he couldn't get up and get to anywhere he could spend it.

Cold. He felt so cold. He was going to die here and nobody would know. Lalli shivered. If only… if only.

His stomach was a gnawing hole in the middle of his body. His ankle was a dull throb of swollen pain. No peace for him—no rest, and no one else.

With a breath that sounded suspiciously like a sob, he curled around himself, and closed his eyes.


When he got the phone call, it was not in the voice that he had hoped.

"I'm sorry, Mr. Hotakainen." Onni did not reply. His eyes were dry as he hung up the phone.

The morgue was far too cold—colder even it seemed than the winter outside. When they rolled out the body, naked and stick-thin, Onni only nodded, once, and looked away. "That's him."

"Would you be willing to answer a few questions?" the police asked after he'd come out.

Yes, he'd had custody of his cousin ever since the deaths of their parents and grandmother. Yes, his sister had committed suicide less than a year ago. Yes, that was about the time that Lalli had disappeared. No, he didn't know why Lalli ran off. Yes, he'd been doing everything he could in order to find him.

"A full report will have to wait for the autopsy, of course. But just at first glance, it looks as if he injured himself and was unable to move from that spot for an extended time. All indications are that he starved or froze to death. There are no suspicions of foul play."

Once again, Onni only nodded. His last surviving family member was dead; as far as he was concerned, it didn't matter how. None of that information would change the fact itself.

"We are truly sorry for your loss." A hand squeezed his shoulder, and he was left alone.

Completely and utterly alone.

He should have known better. He really, really should have known better. Again and again he'd allowed himself to care, and again and again his life had been shattered to pieces.

From now on, all he'd have to do was not care.

Onni's face was hard as he left the police station. If he could avoid getting attached to anyone, he would never be hurt again.

Chapter Text

The sky was clear and blue above them. The water at their backs was clear and deep. Every breath filled the lungs with the scent of earth, of growing things, of spring.

Hunting season had begun.

It had taken them a few years to figure a few things out. Basics: who was immune and who wasn't. Firing too many rifle shots would not only attract trolls, it would cause you to run out of bullets, fast. Sometimes, it wasn't enough just keeping the trolls out of the village, and you had to take the fight to them and cut down their numbers to ensure that they stayed out.

Hel, even calling them "trolls" was a fairly new development. One day Ingrid had made mention of some mythological connection, the next, it seemed, everyone was using the words "trolls" and "giants" and "beasts" as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

Some (read: Sigrun) took to fighting more readily than others (read: Aksel), but the truth was that none of them were trained, and they all had to learn from the basics on up how to use their weapons without killing themselves, or one another. Luckily old Berit Eide was a crack shot and would teach how to fire and maintain a rifle to anyone who asked, but the knives, they had to figure out on their own.

By the end of the first year, there wasn't a single person in Dalsnes who hadn't heard the story of how Sigrun, warned by the hissing of a cat, had caught the Beast that had somehow managed to get past their defenses and into the street, sat on it, and stabbed it to death with the kitchen knife that she'd grabbed on the way out because her gun was disassembled for cleaning. Amid the spreading gossip, the witnesses managed to put together that the fatal blow had been the one that had gone through its head.

After that everyone, it seemed, was sharpening up their knives.

They had a machine shop in town. Some things were hard to find nearby, far out of the range of Gunnar and his boat. Eventually, they would have to make a few adjustments when the fuel in their generators ran out, but for now, they could put it to work making weapons.

The first time, it was a ragtag group of immune residents who trekked out to flush out a nest that a few others had found on their explorations.

Everyone was armed with a gun and a knife, but that was it. Their charge was disorganized. Though they managed to take care of the nest on that outing, they nearly lost a few of their own as well.

"You didn't think this through at all, did you?" Berit asked Sigrun later that day while binding her arm up into a sling.

"What's there to think through?" Sigrun rolled her shoulders impatiently. "We found it, we killed it. Simple as that."

Berit clicked her tongue. "Your team was also heavily injured. A little bit more organization could make a surprisingly large difference in the damage that gets done to the trolls in proportion to yourselves."

She paused. She thought it over. Finally, she nodded stiffly.

Come winter, the town had an organized militia doing drills in the courtyard.

They used a whole lot of junk to build an obstacle course—mostly tires poached from cars whose engines had all been siphoned off to feed the generators. More than a few people ended up falling on their butts their first few rounds. More than a few still treated it as a game.

Of course, the next summer when they were scrambling over slippery rocks and belly-crawling into trolls' hidey-holes and noting with surprise how much easier this was than it had been the year before, they started to take note of the value of the extra training.

By the fifth year, they had the beginnings of what could respectfully be called an army and navy.

Another summer, another Hunt.

They took it more seriously now. They had finally reached the point where everyone had realized that things were never going to go back to the way that they were.

Once, they'd been students, merchants, artists and writers. Now, they were Hunters.

The sky was clear and blue above them. The sea was clear and deep at their backs.

Sigrun's fingers tightened around the hilt of her shortsword—no more kitchen knives, not for something like this. Her eyes traveled upward, following the winding path that would take them up, and up, to rid Dalsnes of potential threats before returning at the end of the season—or not.

Enough of them would find their way home. They always did. They were people of the mountains, after all.

"Are you ready?" Though she did not speak loudly, her voice carried.

The answer she received was a resounding roar.

She could not suppress a smile. The mountains were calling to them—and they would answer.

Chapter Text

The Devil In I

Sigrun had never been trained for this.

In her training for the Hunters, they'd taught her how to fight trolls. Blade before bullets, don't backtrack if you can help it, target the head. One thing that had been very clear to her, though, right from the beginning: you could always, always trust the members of your team.

They might not always know what they were doing, but they would never betray you. They would never try to undermine your trust in anyone else, and they certainly wouldn't withhold help when you needed it most to prove a point, because your lives literally depended on each other out there, and a team that couldn't trust itself was a dead team.

The back of her neck prickled at the thought. From the second they'd set foot in the Silent World, all of them had been walking dead.

All because one of them had proven untrustworthy…

"Nothing to say?" The voice coming from behind the door was mild and devoid of emotion in just the right way to put her completely on edge. "That's quite unlike you—I know how much you love to listen to yourself talk."

Sigrun gritted her teeth, and said nothing. After everything she'd been through already, she wasn't going to give him the satisfaction. Emil, beside her, looked at her with concern but followed her lead.

"Of course, quantity is no indicator of quality, as I know all too well. After all, had you chosen to say some of the things you should have, you might not be in the position that you're in now."

Almost unconsciously, her uninjured arm rose up as if to brush against the one that rested in a sling against her chest, and still ached and throbbed with heat… but she let it drop again without following through on the motion. No satisfaction. No letting him know that he was getting to her.

"Tell me, Sigrun." Behind the door, there was the sound of a body shifting, and even though she tensed it seemed he was only changing position, because there was no further motion nor any follow-through that suggested he was about to make a break for it. "What sort of grudge did you have against me?"

Satisfaction or not, that was a step too far, and a challenge she couldn't leave unanswered. "I'd like to ask you the same thing."

"Really?" She might not have been looking at him directly, but the raised eyebrow was there in his voice. "I shouldn't be surprised, that you're claiming I am to blame." A slight chuckle emanated from behind the door, before his voice grew serious once more. "I tried to work with you, Sigrun. You were the one who did not care to listen, who assumed that you and you alone had the right to make important decisions…"

That was her right, earned through years of hard experience. She was the captain of this team, responsible for everyone's safety, and no medic, no noncombatant, no matter how smart or how physically strong, could possibly know the ins and outs of how things worked in the Silent World the same way an officer with nearly two decades in the field did.

…but Sigrun couldn't say any of that out loud, now could she? Mikkel knew damn well what sort of falsehoods he was spouting. To answer him would be to tell him—and everyone else within hearing distance—that he had something worth saying. That his attacks were good enough to be worth defending against.

Beside her, Emil shifted uncomfortably. Sigrun laid her hand on his shoulder.

The touch was both a reassurance, and a warning. We talked about this. Don't let yourself get sucked in again.

Briefly, Emil started, but then snapped to attention and stood upright again, giving her a brief nod in turn. His face said that he was steeling himself—reminding himself of what was at stake and that even lies could be dipped in honey—and Sigrun gave him a nod of approval.

Good man.

"You do realize that we would be in a much better position right now if you had simply been reasonable. Had you followed the advice of those better informed," so much smarter and more sophisticated than a dumb brute like you, she heard under his words, "we would have been home by now, with money in our pockets and a welcome fit for heroes. But no, you had to take it further, had to insist on take a reckless path just to build up your glory—"

It had been getting harder and harder to avoid answering him, and that, she could not let stand. "Going after the cure was your idea," she reminded him—though really, the reminder was more for herself and Emil, because once again she knew that Mikkel should damn well know better. "Not mine."

Another soft laugh from behind the door. "Then why did you not put a stop to it? You were the one who insisted on being in charge—if you failed to take charge, the responsibility is still yours. Had I been in your position, I would never have let things go so far."

By the time her shift ended, and Lalli slipped into the room to take her place, her head was pounding, and Sigrun wanted nothing more than to go and lie down.

She did at least make herself check up on the others before giving in to the demands of her own ill body and overwhelmed mind. Reynir was at the stove, tending something that smelled much better than Mikkel's slop but in which Sigrun currently had very little interest thanks to the pounding in her head. Tuuri sat beside him, and the two of them were jabbering away in Icelandic, a fact which Reynir looked surprisingly unhappy about. Still, that wasn't Sigrun's problem, and unless one of them came to her (or, a dark voice whispered in her mind, unless things started to get out of hand with one of them like they had with Mikkel), she would not attempt to intervene.

Finding the bunkroom empty—if there was one advantage in having made it to the base, it was that they had that much more personal space—she closed the door, kicked off her boots, drew the shutters, and collapsed into the nearest bed.

Even worse than the headache was the fact that Mikkel had had her halfway convinced that he was right.

Had things actually been that bad? Negligence, she did share some of the blame for—had she spoken up about her arm, maybe not to Mikkel but to someone, she might not have gotten so sick—but at the time, Odense had seemed worth it… sure, she knew they were taking a risk, but for something as huge as a cure for the Rash… her crew had been with her… and even their bosses had all seemed so eager…

Sigrun wasn't quite sure when she drifted off, her exhaustion and the need to close her eyes overwhelming the mandate to stay awake. Only when she heard a light tapping on the door did she realize she'd fallen asleep at all. She grunted to show that she had heard, and the door creaked open.

Reynir, a steaming bowl in his hands and Mikkel's medic's bad slung over his shoulder. Of course.

Another time, she might have asked him, with a whole lot of pantomiming and the repetition of her name, why he had not brought Tuuri along to translate. Right now, though, she was just too tired, and it wasn't as if they would need to do a whole lot of conversing anyway. Instead, she sat up, and let him undo her sling.

It was… harder than she expected, to trust this kid with her health. Granted, she might have said that it was because she had no idea whether or not he knew what he was doing—but no. That would have been too easy. After all, she'd trusted Mikkel, and he hadn't given her any credentials at all.

…that was the problem, right there. She'd trusted Mikkel.

A part of her wanted to grit her teeth and force herself to watch, just to make sure that Reynir was doing the job right. Still, there was another part of her that really didn't. There would have been no point, anyway, trust or not: she'd never truly known why even the doctors back home had done some of the things that they had, only that it was necessary to do them. All she could do now was remind herself that she probably wouldn't still be alive if Reynir had not already proven himself trustworthy.

Once her arm was in a new sling, with Sigrun feeling only slightly better for a change of dressings, Reynir pointed at the bowl, and babbled something that sounded like a question. He was telling her that she should eat.

She was still feeling too hot and too cold both at once, and even if not for that the pounding in her head made it hard to work up an appetite, but Reynir wasn't wrong: she needed to keep up her strength. With a nod of dismissal, she picked up the bowl, and started forcing down as much as she could manage. On a Hunt, they said, there was no way of knowing what was going to happen next… but this was truly uncharted territory. Whatever happened, she needed to be ready.


The Devil's Bleeding Crown

"Sigrun."

She opened her eyes. The ship had docked—she'd been able to tell from its motion.

She'd also been able to tell from the group of armed soldiers that had appeared in the med bay from almost the second they'd dropped anchor, never mind that at the moment she was probably incapable of holding her own against an angry kitten, much less the Known World's finest.

Her mother's hand was cool on her forehead. At least she wasn't that sick anymore—the fever at least was down, even if she could still barely muster the strength to sit up—but the weeks of infection and wounds gone bad had still taken their toll, and she'd spent the entirety of the journey back to civilization down in the med bay, being drip fed antibiotics and fluids while the others were all taken off to their own separate quarters. She hadn't seen a single one of them since.

Neither of her parents looked happy, and that was definitely not good.

They must have seen the same message that she'd had read to her shortly before they docked. Apparently, someone getting wise to him and taking the appropriate measures was a possibility that Mikkel had planned for. In his escape, while the rest of them were still trying to get their act together and make sure Emil wasn't about to bleed out inside of his own skull, he'd stolen away to the tank to use the radio, claiming that he was being held prisoner, telling the military that Sigrun was everything that he was in fact, and that if something happened to him, they probably need look no further than her.

Something had happened—thanks to his own foolish choices. Unfortunately for Sigrun, that meant that those responsible for justice currently had nothing but his words against hers.

"We know what was in the reports," her mother said right away, confirming her suspicions. "Now, it's time for the truth." There was no anger or disappointment in her mother's voice—only a command that brooked no argument. Nevertheless, she still said it gently.

"It's a long story," Sigrun returned—not to delay, but because it was fact.

"We have time."

So they did. Mikkel hadn't just left them in the lurch in hostile territory, he'd left them in a huge legal mess when they got back. This went beyond just Norway and Denmark; literally every single country in the Known World had a stake in the outcome, and the Nordic Council itself was apparently getting involved. Proceedings would take some time to arrange.

At least they did not chuck her in jail the second she got home. Still, she was stripped of her weapons and grounded from the military until this mess got sorted out, cooling her heels first in a military hospital, then at her parents' home, with the promise that it would only stay that way so long as she did not display any violent tendencies or attempt to leave Dalsnes. Right at the moment, there wasn't a whole lot for Sigrun to do but talk.

What had happened?, they asked. This was a question too big for Sigrun to answer; she had no words for what had been done to her or to the others. At least, they understood that her failure to speak was because she had difficulty answering, not because she was being belligerent. So they changed the questions, and started smaller, just as they had when she was struggling to learn how to read and her mother had sat with her night after night and taken her through the alphabet one letter at a time.

Was it true you were holding him prisoner?

Yes.

Why?

Did you believe it was necessary for the safety of the crew?

Yes.

He harmed some of you during the mission?

Yes… no… I don't know… he did but… not… physically…

What happened to your arm?

Got bit by a troll.

We can see that for ourselves. That's not what I was asking.

Did the bite happen before or after you effectively jailed your medic?

… … …before. A couple of weeks before.

"Why do you think that he did it?" they asked at last.

"I don't know." Sigrun rubbed her forehead. "I think he just enjoyed messing with other people. I think that he had some sort of grudge against me because he wasn't the one in charge. But I don't know."

They accepted that answer—and that was the last question they asked. They were satisfied with what she had told them, and they had not found her decisions wanting.

Sigrun could not have said whether she felt better.

Mostly, she felt wrung out, as if more than the prolonged illness had left her limp and weak. It was a relief to know she had her parents' support: though it was not often they expressed true disapproval for her actions, when they did, the sting of it was keenly felt. Still, though, that last question would not leave her alone, and she kept running it around and around in her head when she should have been sleeping, but couldn't because she'd jolted awake in the middle of the night in a cold sweat and couldn't get back to sleep, and had no other means to relieve her stress:

Why?


"I see you've met my brother."

Sigrun twitched—forced her arm to relax, her hand to hang limp at her side rather than grasping for a dagger that wasn't there. She was not armed, she reminded herself, a thought that never failed to leave her feeling naked and vulnerable. One was not allowed to carry deadly weapons while under military arrest. It would be stupid to start a fight right now.

Now that she looked at him, all the while trying to force her racing heart to calm, she could see the differences. Though this guy had Mikkel's strong build and Mikkel's thick wavy hair and Mikkel's hazel eyes, he lacked the distinctive sideburns and the forever dour expression. That was what really gave it away, she thought: this was the face of an actual human being, not a cold mask.

Sigrun relaxed. Marginally.

"What do you want?" she asked instead. An important question: even if he did know what Mikkel was, they'd still been family—twins, if the resemblance was anything to go by—and she was still the one who was about to go on trial for his death.

"To talk." He held up his empty hands, his posture unthreatening. Not exactly a good reassurance: if he was even half as strong as Mikkel was he'd be able to take her in a straight fight if she let him get too close, unarmed as she was.

"Aw, c'mon." He flashed her a mischievous grin. "We're probably not supposed to talk to each other right now, but I always said that rules are more like suggestions, right?"

His easygoing manner caught her off-guard—in a good way, and Sigrun found herself giving a small unexpected snort of a laugh. In the end, she thought, it was the smile that did it, that prompted her to shrug, to leave the door open and wave him in. Still, she did not take her eyes off of him as he moved into the room—carefully, as if he were surrounded by shelves full of ceramic (though her quarters at the moment were actually quite bare) and he was afraid of breaking something.

"Michael Madsen." He held out a hand. "I'm… well, I guess you've already figured it out."

"Sigrun Eide." She took his hand, grasping with just enough force to show him she meant business before letting go. "Now, what do you want?"

At that, his expression grew serious. "I don't believe that you murdered my brother."

"You and about two other people who weren't actually there." She crossed her arms, but still cocked her head at him curiously. "You're trying to tell me that you want to help?"

"I know what my brother was," he continued, and now there was no trace of humor left in his eyes. "I'm not surprised at all that he's haunting you from beyond the grave—he's certainly never stopped haunting me."

Sigrun nodded, though cold dread was once again clenching her stomach. "I'll tell you if you tell me."


What Michael's childhood had been like made what she'd gone through seem like a day in bed.

"Do you know why?" she asked, shakily, after they were both done. The absolute worst part wasn't the things that he'd said, but rather the things that he hadn't.

"I don't know," he confessed with a shrug. "I never did. You'd think, being twins…"

He trailed off there, though, and did not continue.

"You're going to be in court, then." It wasn't a question.

As expected, he nodded.

"And you're going to tell them that?" Hard enough to vocalize what she'd been through even to a handful of people she trusted unconditionally. To tell it to the whole of the Known World…

"As much as I need to." He smiled again, though sadly. "Hopefully it will help."

Long after he had left, when Sigrun was still sitting curled in a chair with her arms wrapped around herself trying to stop the shaking, she came to a realization:

Mikkel was never going to go away.

He might have been dead, but even if she got through this, even if she was absolved in the public eye, no matter how much time passed or how much better things got, he was still going to haunt her until the end of her days. She would always have spells of shaking and fear. She would always wake in a cold sweat in the middle of the night. She would never not wonder, every time she met a new teammate, how much that person could really be trusted.

Her life was broken, irreparably, and she was never going to be fixed.


The Dying of the Light

It was over.

She was innocent. Free. She had her weapons back. Finally, Sigrun was going home.

Home.

By the time that summer rolled around, she was going to be on active duty once more. She was going to be back in Norway, among her own people, in the familiar territory of the mountains and fjords. It should have felt right. Instead, everything felt wrong and uncomfortable.

Instead of going home, she felt as if she were stepping into a world that didn't know her.

With a sigh, she closed her eyes and leaned against the side of the train. Sigrun was used to acting, not thinking… but from the moment this whole mess had started, she hadn't been able to do anything but think, and now that she'd started it seemed that she wouldn't ever be able to stop.

Was she going to be able to fulfill her duties, like this? Sigrun had been born to Hunt. There was nothing else she'd ever even considered doing with her life. Now, though, if it turned out that even the Hunt held no joy…

She was shaking again, she realized. She was also cold, a chill she'd never felt before even during the coldest of winter patrols but which now seemed to seep straight into her bones in spite of her warm clothes. A cold she'd never before endured until she was deathly ill, attempting to tough out the winter with a neglected wound and bad food and all medical care deliberately withheld…

"Are you okay?" The voice was coming from directly beside her seat, and it sounded concerned, but Sigrun did not turn her head to look.

"Fine," she growled instead, through gritted teeth. Thankfully, they did not stick around to ask more, and she tried to be glad about that even though she felt an almost immediate pang upon once again being left alone with only her thoughts for company.

How was she going to lead soldiers into battle, when she couldn't seem to go five minutes without breaking down? What if this happened in the field? What if it happened while she was fighting a troll? What if she was wounded again (and that was a matter of when, not if), and needed attention from a medic she didn't know?

Trust was important in the Hunters. No team that wanted to come out of the field alive could function without it, and now, Sigrun knew why. Even so, the thought of leaving was far worse. If she was no longer fit for duty, there would be nothing left for her but her own dark thoughts and the ghost that still haunted her.

Since her world had slowly broken, she'd barely aged at all. That didn't change the fact that she felt so much older now.

Things had been so much clearer, before. She'd been so confident… she'd felt so powerful… now, she didn't feel like anything but a dried-out husk.

When she got home, she would be welcomed with a feast. Her comrades would slap her on the back. Her parents would embrace her.

She was going to be a stranger in her own hometown.

Slowly, she turned to look out the window. Flat, frosty hills rolled by her under a clouded winter sky.

What if, instead of boarding the ship like she'd planned, she got off at the port, and simply walked into the sea, and…

No. Sigrun forced herself to stop right there. She was a warrior, not a coward.

…that didn't change the fact that she no longer felt like a warrior.

Was this how it felt, she wondered as she stepped off the train and was hit by the cold air and the scent of brine and fish, not to be immune? To live the entirety of one's life in a constant state of fear?

The last rays of the setting sun slanted over the sea as Sigrun stepped onto the boat. She would go home. She would try to put her life back together. No matter what she did, though, she would never be free.

The rays of the sun made one last glint on the ocean before sinking for good.

Chapter Text

Lalli's first memory of the house was of a dark, looming shape that almost seemed to stare down at the three of them, as his elder cousin clenched his hand on one side and Tuuri's on the other. Onni's palm was sweaty, and Lalli tried to tug his hand away, but in response he only gripped tighter.

"Remember," Onni said, as he'd said again and again ever since they'd first boarded the train. "We are servants in this household. We are only here on the masters' good graces. You are both to be on your best behavior. You are not to raise your voices. You are not to speak to the masters unless they speak to you first. When you do, you are to address them as Sir and Ma'am, or as Master and Mistress Västerström. You are to…"

As Onni continued, Lalli stopped paying attention. He didn't need to hear Onni's speech again; he'd remembered it the first time, and assumed that it was mostly for Tuuri at this point. Instead, he looked up at the house.

He'd always known the rich liked their things new and shiny, and this was no exception. That first time, though, it had seemed so dark. It was tall, taller than any of the simple single-floor cabins they'd lived in back on the lake. There was actual glass in the windows, which must have cost a fortune. There were gargoyles on the roof. As Lalli watched, one of them shifted and paced to the other side in a scrape of metal.

A side door opened, and a servant beckoned them in. "Well, come on, then," and Onni tugged them forward, and Lalli had to start paying attention primarily to him again.

It took Tuuri no time at all to begin charming the masters, and within the year she was getting away with liberties that no other servant would dare. Onni didn't have the same charm, but he was a good servant: steady, reliable, did as he was told and did it with no complaints.

Nobody seemed to know what to do with Lalli.

Onni might have instructed him on when he was allowed to speak, and how he was to address them, but he never understood what he was supposed to say to the masters. He understood well enough that he had given offense, and that Onni had apologized for him again and again—"Please don't be too hard on my cousin, he's always been strange, I swear he didn't mean anything by it"—but nobody ever seemed to want to tell him exactly what he'd done wrong, so he couldn't even correct it. Tuuri, when he asked, would only huff and say, "You're really telling me you don't know?", and then when he told her he didn't, she acted offended, as if he were trying to pull some trick on her that he didn't understand. Onni would only sigh and shake his head sadly.

"It's been decided that you are to be a companion to the young master," Onni announced one day, suddenly.

Lalli did not answer; he did not know what he was supposed to say. The young master, he knew, was the son of the masters they served, but the two of them had never met; Lalli was hardly ever allowed to meet anyone, anymore, and he did not know what a "companion" was supposed to do.

Onni sighed. "The young master is in need of a playmate, Lalli. Can you do that? Can you try to be friends with him?"

For a few moments, Lalli stared. He'd never been ordered to make friends with someone before. Still, it was work, and Onni was always telling them how important it was to make oneself useful, and if this was a way for Lalli to be useful, then he was going to do it even if he didn't understand it. "Okay."

After breakfast the next morning, he was sent not back to his quarters, but directly up to the young master's room.

The room was… a lot bigger than Lalli's was. It had a lot more things in it too.

The boy who waited for him behind the door was dressed exactly like Master Västerström, his clothes meticulously pressed and his golden hair meticulously groomed, with not a single lock out of place. He stood stiffly, one hand extended toward Lalli, while Lalli looked around at the room, the canopied bed that could have swallowed all three of them whole, and the various toys that were scattered around on the floor.

"Lalli!" the maid who'd escorted him hissed from behind him. "Shake hands with the young master!"

Oh. He had given offense again, without realizing what it was he'd done. Imitating the boy in front of him, hoping he was doing it right, Lalli extended his hand.

The other boy closed his hand around Lalli's, pumped his arm up and down a few times, and then let go. "Emil Västerström," he said formally.

Lalli did not know what to do, and so only stood there awkwardly. Was he supposed to say something or, like Onni had told him so many times, was he supposed to keep his mouth shut? Was he supposed to keep holding the other boy's hand or let go?

Behind him, the maid coughed. "This is Lalli Hotakainen. Let me know if he's any trouble, now."

"Well come on then." Dismissing the maid with a nod, he took Lalli by the hand and pulled him into the room.

That, as it turned out, was how he met Emil.

Emil… paid attention to him. Tuuri had never paid attention to him—even when she was dragging him along with her on one of her explorations of places she wasn't supposed to go, she had better things to look at. He might as well have been a piece of furniture for all the masters cared—except when he offended them, in which case they would summon Onni rather than chastise him directly. Onni paid attention to him, but he was always fretting and fussing and worrying over whether one of Lalli's quirks had upset one of the masters. Emil was… different.

On the first day, Emil didn't tell him to keep quiet or do a chore or to remember his place. Instead, he said, "Your hair is a mess."

So he sat when Emil told him to, and even though he was surprised at first he allowed Emil to brush out his hair. Why Emil wanted to brush out his hair, he couldn't have guessed, but this was his assignment and as Onni had made clear again and again, Lalli's job was to do as he was told. What he wanted or didn't want had no place in this relationship.

There were times, however, when even Lalli sometimes managed to forget that.

It had been a bad day for him. He'd been ill, and had lain in bed for two days with a fever, and had felt overwhelmed from the moment he'd woken up. Tuuri hadn't seemed to care. Onni, after ascertaining that he was on his feet again, had only taken a brief moment to make sure he ate breakfast. Then, the maid had immediately shown up to bring him upstairs.

Lalli didn't want to have anyone talking at him to day, he didn't want to play, and he didn't want to have his hair brushed. He wanted for someone, anyone, to show that they cared whether he lived or died. Emil didn't do that, though. Emil wanted him to sit here, wind this, stand over there and pick up and move whatever Emil told him to pick up and move. After a few minutes of this, Lalli couldn't take it anymore, and he lashed out.

Lalli spent the rest of the day curled up in a ball in a corner. He didn't know what made him more miserable: the fact that he just wanted to get out of there, or knowing that he'd truly crossed a line this time, that his family was once again going to be destitute because of him. There was nothing to be done, though, but wait for Emil to summon Onni or even just call the masters directly. So, he waited.

…and waited, and waited, and waited, until the lunch that a servant had brought to them turned cold and was taken away uneaten, then until the maid came to fetch him so he could be returned to his quarters, then until the next day when he was summoned again, and Emil was right there as aways, but standing back this time, giving him his space, waiting to see what sort of move Lalli made before he did anything himself.

This… Lalli had no idea what to think of this.

So, he spent the morning sitting by himself in a corner, and Emil let him, playing by himself and only shooting Lalli the occasional cursory glance. When lunch was brought to them, Emil took his portion and went to the corner table to eat it, leaving the rest sitting out for Lalli to eat or not eat as he would. Eventually, he approached, and grabbed the food as if afraid it might be snatched away from him, and retreated to his own corner to eat.

Several days passed like that. Emil didn't tell on him, and he didn't push him. After a few more days of silence, a ball rolled past his feet.

Emil did have a handful of clockwork toys, but this was an ordinary ball; it could not have moved on its own. Looking up, he saw Emil at the other end of the room, watching him with a shy smile, but then he turned away as if still wanting to give Lalli his space.

It went on like that. One small step closer, always showing a willingness to back off if Lalli got upset, but eventually, they were playing together again just like they always had.

It stayed that way. For a very, very long time it stayed that way.

Still, they got older. And even if they hadn't changed, the world around them was.

Lalli might still be Emil's companion, but he was no longer a playmate. Instead, shortly after he'd turned thirteen he learned that Emil had asked the masters to make Lalli his personal servant.

He knew that was different from a playmate. Still, he was in uncharted territory again, unsure of what he was supposed to do.

"Don't worry about it," Emil said when he asked. He was currently elbow-deep in grease: he was taking apart a clockwork soldier, once one of their playthings but which, now that Emil had decided that he would make an excellent mechanic, had fallen unfortunate victim to his screwdriver and pliers. "Be a good lad and pass me that bolt, would you?"

Lalli did so and watched, fascinated, as yet more of the soldier's innards spilled out while Emil, tongue sticking out from his mouth as he uttered curses under his breath, struggled to fix her. Lalli recognized this particular soldier: she was an old plaything of Emil's, and Emil used to have him gather the dust bunnies leftover from Onni's cleaning, and shape them into formless blobs that he insisted were monsters, before winding her up and unleashing her. Emil had always taken a great delight in watching her enthusiastically take her sword to whatever he put her up against, a delight which was emphatically not shared by the maid who then had to clean things up.

Emil managed to keep working for about five more minutes before he got bored, and swept everything aside.

"It's no good," he said with a dramatic sigh, flopping back in his chair as he pushed his hair out of his face. "I was hoping to get that running again, but as things stand…"

"You're not going to fix her?" Lalli was baffled. Emil had been working for all of five minutes. He'd been studying mechanics for maybe a week. Surely he wasn't going to give up after only one attempt…?

Emil cracked open one eye, his expression making it clear that he thought Lalli was being ridiculous. "Lalli, if I can't get that fixed, then it's not fixable. Take that away with you on your way out, would you?"

So Lalli shrugged, and swept the broken body and the nuts and bolts up into a dirty cloth, which he took with him when he left to return to his quarters—no longer escorted by a maid, he was old enough and had been with the family long enough to be trusted on his own, now. Rather than throwing the soldier away as Emil had said, though, he brought her to Tuuri. His cousin had been expressing an interest in mechanics herself, lately; maybe she would be able to make the repairs.

He did feel a twinge of guilt when he handed the bundle over, and Tuuri's wrinkled nose transformed to an expression of unfettered delight when she saw what was inside, for not having done as Emil had asked and thrown everything away—he hadn't even asked Emil whether he would be allowed to keep anything for himself. But… Emil had told him to throw it all away, not to do anything more specific with the parts. Thrown-away things shouldn't matter; nobody had cared when he'd taken dust bunnies from the rubbish as a child, so nobody should care about this either.

He was caught completely off-guard when Tuuri hugged him. "I've always wanted one of these!" she squealed, so high-pitched he could barely make out the words. He wriggled out of her grasp as soon as he was able, fairly certain that she'd cracked a few ribs.

"No," he found himself saying later, to Onni, when he wanted to know whether Lalli had taken anything from the young master's room without his explicit permission. "He told me to throw it away. Nobody cares about anything after it's thrown away."

Onni only looked at him for a long time then, almost long enough for Lalli to be convinced that he had done something wrong. "Don't make a habit of giving her the master's expensive broken toys," he said at last. "We can't have her expecting to get a clockwork gadget every time there's a holiday." Then, though, he cracked a rare smile, and reached out to pat Lalli's shoulder. "Still, good job finding her something she likes."

Lalli knew what he was talking about: even though Onni said that it was important for family to give each other gifts on special occasions, and even though he said that what it was shouldn't matter, that it was the thought that counted, he could tell that Tuuri hardly ever liked anything he gave her. Maybe he should try handing over scraps more often, since she never seemed to want anything he tried to put actual thought into.

The next morning, he was awakened by a tapping at his door.

When he opened it, there was no one outside, but when something tapped his ankle he looked down, bleary-eyed, to see the repaired soldier enthusiastically doing her job, and leading a valiant yet doomed charge against a much larger "enemy".

Yawning, he bent down, deftly dodging the thrusts of her sword, grabbed her by the collar of her uniform, and plucked her weapon out of her hand before lifting her up to eye level. She swung her tiny fists a few times in retaliation before going limp and slumping forward, her bright red hair falling over her face—in need of another wind-up, it looked like.

Now that he no longer had an overenthusiastic clockwork soldier to deal with, Lalli looked up. Tuuri stood down the hall from him, still in her nightshirt; though there were shadows under her eyes that said she probably hadn't slept all night, she looked exceedingly pleased with herself.

"Fixed it," she said smugly—and unnecessarily, as Lalli had clearly seen that for himself.

Instead, he looked down once more at the limp soldier in his hand. If his untrained cousin had been able to do this in one night, then why had Emil, with all of his expensive classes and tutors, given up after five minutes?

…maybe it was just a rich people thing. Onni had told them before never to think too hard about the things rich people did, lest they go mad trying to figure it out. They lived so much in their own world they were barely even the same species, Onni had said. Let it be.

Besides, they soon had much more important things to deal with… like Tuuri's ambitions.

As it turned out, her ability to fix a broken toy had not been a fluke. Somehow, she'd managed to start charming her way into being assigned to clean the room where Emil had his lessons. There were a lot of books in there, and demonstrations that had been set up for the purposes of teaching. And if she just so happened to be the one who brought in refreshments during the lesson, well then, she was only doing her job, now wasn't she?

…except now, she'd finally had a taste of actual hands-on experience, and she was starting to dream beyond their means. Now, she wanted to go to university and become a mechanic.

"We don't have the money for that," Onni told her, over and over again. "Besides, no university would accept anyone of our background. Just be glad for what we have."

Before long, the arguments turned to fights, and Lalli found himself unable to sleep for the upset.

Emil didn't seem to notice, even if he did notice that something was bothering Lalli.

"Cheer up!" he said, all too cheerfully, when Lalli once more brought him his breakfast with shadows under his eyes. "Hey, I know something that'll make you feel better. I've been accepted to university!"

In return, Lalli could only stare. He might work for the family, but he was Emil's servant. What was he going to do, if Emil left for some university and Lalli was once more stuck trying not to offend his parents…

"You'll be coming with me, of course," and Emil had answered his unspoken question almost immediately, and was now prattling on about how now he would finally be recognized for the genius he was, while Lalli felt his guts twist with nerves. Any change in his experience was a bad one, and while being separated from Emil would have been bad, the thought of being separated from his entire family…

"It's the young master's wish, therefore you must follow it," Onni told him when he got the news. "It really is the best possible outcome that you stay with someone who understands you." He peered at Lalli carefully. "Emil is your friend, right?"

It was the first time that Lalli could ever remember Onni referring to Emil by name—he was always "the young master".

"Maybe. I think so. Yes."

Was Emil his friend?

Lalli had never really had a friend before—not back in the village, and not since coming here either. In all honesty, he had only the vaguest idea of what a friend was. Tuuri wasn't a friend; family members didn't count. Other than that, though… all he knew was that it was supposed to be someone your own age and that you liked each other. He supposed he liked Emil, and Emil wouldn't have wanted Lalli to accompany him to the university if he didn't like Lalli, so he supposed that Emil counted as a friend.

Tuuri, of course, was jealous.

"How come you get to go to university?" she demanded when they shared the news, at breakfast, that he would be leaving. "You don't even care about mechanics!"

Somehow, he didn't think it would be very useful to point out that Emil would be the one who was learning mechanics, not him. So he didn't answer at all, and concentrated instead on his breakfast.

Nobody was in a good mood by the time Lalli left.

"Don't worry about Tuuri," Onni reassured him as they said goodbye as the train station, after Lalli had passed Emil's two huge suitcases on to the porter and hefted his own single small pack more securely against his back. "She'll get over it."

Somehow, Lalli doubted that, but once again he said nothing. Whether Tuuri would get over it or not, that wouldn't change reality: Emil's family was rich and influential, and theirs wasn't. They were doing as well as they could hope for. Better to do the best they could, and be grateful to have as much as they did, rather than go about envying the masters who'd made that possible.

The university was… big. And loud. And had far too many people.

Fortunately the university had its own servants, clockwork and human alike; Lalli didn't think he'd have managed alone, otherwise, as the rich students were certainly not expected to cook their own meals or to set up their own experiments, and certainly not to clean their own common spaces. Still, looking after Emil's personal effects was entirely up to him, and if Emil's shoes had not been shined, or his clothes had not been taken down to the laundry at the end of the week, then that was the fault of a lazy servant rather than a lazy master. Most days, he was up and moving well before Emil had even opened his eyes, and working by lamplight well after Emil had gone to bed, tiptoeing around his own cloistered alcove with practiced stealth while Emil slept soundly in the much larger room only a floor above his.

He'd assumed, for the most part, that Emil's studies were going well. Granted, there were some truths that Lalli had understood well before Tuuri had—that money mattered far more than talent, for one. Still, Emil's every scribble had been praised when he was still learning from private tutors, and Emil's family was not any less rich now than they had been before, therefore Lalli had assumed that things would be the same at the university. Somewhere, though, he'd miscalculated, and the rules had been changed on him again without him being aware.

"What does she have against me?" Emil demanded to himself, pacing back and forth, when Lalli entered his room with a stack of laundry, cleaned, starched, and folded.

Lalli blinked. He knew Emil's schedule, because it was his business to know—he'd been bringing in the laundry because Emil was supposed to be attending a lecture.

Slowly, he started to back out the door—he wasn't supposed to be doing chores while Emil was in the room. Before he could finish fleeing, though, Emil saw, and waved him in.

"No, no, go ahead and set that down." He promptly went back to his pacing and to talking to himself. "Failed her class—failed her class! Me! After excelling in everything I ever studied… thinks she can kick me out…"

"Oh, Västerström?" Lalli overheard one of the other servants saying when he went to get his own dinner, later that night. "Real failure of a spoiled prince that one is, or so my master says at least. Still, his family is too rich for them to ever kick him out. I wonder how long it'll take him to realize what an ignoramus he is, and leave on his own."

Lalli gripped his tray and headed for his own dark corner without waiting to hear any more. He'd always suspected, of course, that Emil was not nearly as smart as he thought he was, but… Lalli was Emil's servant. That meant, according to Onni, that he was not ever to say anything unflattering about any of the masters, even if it was out of the masters' hearing and even—especially—if it was true. Whenever any of the other servants talked to him, they always seemed to want to ask about Emil, and when Lalli would not answer, they didn't want to talk to him anymore.

Loyalty, however, was quickly driven from his mind the next time he got a letter from Onni: Tuuri had fallen ill.

Lalli's chest tightened as he reread the letter, splashed with tears. It had come on so suddenly, Onni said. Now, she was barely clinging to life.

…he had to go home.

Getting a leave was more difficult than he'd expected, even to visit a desperately ill family member. "Who will see to your master's needs while you're gone?" the dean scoffed when approached. "You might consider how it will reflect on him to have to come to class with unwashed clothes and unshined shoes while you take your vacation."

Lalli, in his turn, could only stare. He needed to go because his cousin was dying. Surely—surely—that was more important than the state of his master's shoes.

...wasn't it?

Never, ever try to understand the rich...

Because he had no other choice, Lalli did something he'd never done before, and went to the matron who oversaw the servants to ask for help. After a long round of prodding questions he didn't understand the point of—did his cousins work for the Västerström family as well, were they the only family he had, how bad exactly was Tuuri's illness—she agreed to arrange for several of the university servants to cover his tasks while he was gone, in return for Lalli taking on extra chores in the common spaces for a few months after he got back.

It was not a good deal, but it was this or nothing. Lalli accepted.

Emil didn't say anything when he packed his things, or when he boarded the train that would take him back to his family. He'd very nearly panicked when Lalli told him, out of nowhere, that he had to go—but when Lalli informed him that everything would be taken care of in his absence, he seemed to be mollified, if not fully satisfied with the answer. So, Lalli took a deep breath, and rushed home as fast as he could.

He was too late.

Between the negotiations he'd needed to do and the extra few days Emil had insisted he'd stay in order to see to it that his substitutes were doing everything exactly right, by the time Lalli got back, Tuuri's room was already empty, her bed stripped and her sheets burned as if she'd never been there at all. Onni, who he'd expected to be a mess of blubbering and crying, was instead almost supernaturally calm, speaking only when spoken to and saying only what was necessary to answer what was asked, and that was somehow even worse.

Lalli couldn't even do that much. He could only do his duties mechanically, because that was the only thing that he knew how to do, and answer questions as best he was able. This… the world didn't make sense anymore! Tuuri had always been there, the one constant of his life. She'd been so mad when he'd been sent off to the university, even if it was only as a servant, and she'd had to stay at home because they'd never be able to afford the tuition. Now…

Now, she was never going to get that chance, not even in her own wildest dreams.

Right before he'd left, Onni had pressed a cloth bundle into his hands. Now, opening it on the train that was taking him back to the university and back to Emil, he saw that it was the clockwork soldier that Tuuri had once fixed.

Emil's old plaything, broken by his own carelessness and only made worse by his clumsy attempts to make repairs…

Slowly, not caring a bit how ridiculous he looked, Lalli pulled the soldier to his chest and clutched her like a lifeline, as if Tuuri had somehow left some part of herself behind in that small, slack body.


When he got back, Emil said nothing.

At first, Lalli was grateful. He didn't know what he would have wanted Emil to say, even if he had spoken. He needed his space.

As day after day passed, though, and Emil continued to act exactly the same as he always had, complaining only of bad grades and teachers who hated him, Lalli grew increasingly more hurt. Didn't he notice? Didn't he care?

"Hey? Lalli?"

Lalli looked up. This was the first time Emil had ever come to the servants' quarters.

"Would you come out with me? Just for a walk around campus."

Lalli didn't want to take a walk around campus. Lalli didn't want to shine Emil's shoes, or fold Emil's clothes, or clean Emil's floor every time Emil had spilled something. Then again, it had never mattered to anyone what Lalli wanted. Lalli sighed, and reached for his jacket.

Emil, as soon as he was ready, grabbed him by the hand and dragged him outside, across the grounds.

"See?" Emil said, pointing, after he had stopped at last. "Isn't it gorgeous?"

Lalli blinked. He looked where Emil had told him to look.

Emil had brought him to a wide, spacious hall—the lanterns unlit at this time of night when it was not in use. Instead, moonlight streamed down from the glass skylights, illuminating the crystal chandelier overhead in a waterfall of diamond, the sparkling light hovering hauntingly about the room and reflecting from the polished bronze skins and gears of various automatons.

Tuuri would have loved this…

"Dance with me?"

Lalli didn't want to dance. He wanted to curl up in a corner and cry.

Still, it had never mattered to anyone what Lalli wanted, so of course it didn't matter now. It was what Emil wanted that was important, so he reached out and took Emil's hand.

"You know," Emil started as they twirled around the floor, "I know that things have been… difficult… for us lately. But it's going to be okay. I mean… we're at the university! Even if we're hitting a rough patch, things have never been better, really. As long as we're here, and we have each other…"

Lalli dropped Emil's hand, and stepped away from him.

Emil didn't seem to get it. He only looked confused, and hurt. "Lalli…?"

"You don't understand. You don't understand anything."

All this time, Lalli had been thinking that he was the one who didn't understand. Emil, though… Emil knew nothing of loss, or poverty, or having to arrange his life around someone else's whims. Emil knew nothing of what he was going through now, or how to make it better—that it couldn't be made better.

Lalli had thought he didn't understand friendship—in truth, he still wasn't sure he understood friendship. One thing he did understand now, though, was that he had never truly been Emil's friend. Friends were equals, and as far as Emil was concerned no one was his equal. Lalli was no more a friend to Emil than that toy soldier that he had once broken.

He handed in his resignation the next day.

It was hard, for a servant who'd left his previous position to find a new one. People tended to ask questions: Did he have trouble taking orders? Did he think the work beneath him? Still, Lalli thought that he would somehow manage. All these years, he had been getting paid, and he had spent almost nothing on himself—after all, what could he possibly want? He had enough saved away to survive until he found something else to do.

All his life, he'd watched deserving people be passed over in favor of those who possessed only wealth and a family name. Tuuri had deserved a place at the university far more than Emil ever would. Lalli might not have had her gift for mechanics, but if he at least tried putting himself first rather than living only to serve others, he hoped that someday, he might find a drive of his own, because from now on, he was just going to have to live for both of them.

The toy soldier, which Emil had thrown away so carelessly because she no longer functioned the way Emil wanted her to, sat on his shoulder as he boarded the train, her sword held aloft in triumph.

Chapter Text

The place was completely empty.

…well, empty at least save for the trolls.

Now he knew why Sigrun had always been so against backtracking, or against splitting the party. The others' passage through this area before them must have stirred up something, something that had been too groggy to leap out at the group that had passed through when it was still broad daylight but that was now roused and hungry and ready to snag any more tasty morsels that just happened to pass by.

…of course, now that he understood that, it was already too late.

Emil shivered against the cold, but the holes in his jacket let the icy winter in to soak straight through his skin. He struggled against his captor, but his limbs were so thoroughly entangled that his thrashing produced only the slightest vibration against the spider's web of tentacles. Finally, his energy was sapped, and all that was left for him to do was groan in pain, but the multiple appendages buried in his flesh were not merciful, did not relent, in fact only seemed to dig deeper as if feeding on the agony itself.

He'd long ago given up hope that Lalli was going to find him.

Lalli… he hoped at least that Lalli had gotten away. Lalli was a night scout; he was good at that sort of thing. Emil, on the other hand, wasn't. He should never have volunteered to stay behind… he should've talked Sigrun into letting Lalli stay behind by himself, or waiting for Lalli to finish whatever he needed to finish… he should've worked harder at Finnish so that he could pass on orders…

Too late for any of that now, though. He was here, and he was caught.

They'd tried to sneak past… but the trolls had already been aroused, and they were hungry. They'd tried to run, but those things were fast and the sun was already setting. Inevitably, Emil had tripped, and fallen… and that was all it had taken for one of them to wrap around his ankle and drag him back into its lair.

Lalli had been locked in his own pursuit… Lalli hadn't seen…

Once again, he tried to shift. In response, the tentacle burrowed even deeper into his side, and Emil cried out in agony.

He had been keeping silent: out of habit, out of some lingering sense of self-preservation. There was no point in that anymore, was there? He was done for. If Lalli was smart, he would already be well out of hearing range. The others were already past, well out of reach of anything he might wake up. And if it came for him directly… well, better to go quickly than slowly.

Knowing that, he took the only solace that was left to him, and screamed.

Later, what felt like much later, his throat was raw, he was still freezing and still in agony, and nothing had come to finish him off. Defeated, he slumped against his restraints, and resigned himself to whatever was in store for him.

Shortly after accepting his fate, he mercifully passed out.

When he awoke, it took him a few minutes to realize the tentacles binding his limbs had gone slack.

Not a whole lot of good that would do him now—he was so weak he could barely even lift his limbs, let alone run or even crawl away. Nevertheless, he forced his eyes open, and was met with another pair of silvery eyes hovering above his own.

Lalli. Lalli had come back for him.

"S-sorry." He couldn't tell whether that was Lalli's shaky Swedish, or if his voice was just shaking.

"Glad… you came." When Emil tried to speak, his own voice came out as a croak.

Lalli's hands were on his face. Their foreheads were brushing together. Emil did not ask why he was not doing anything: his entire body pulsed with pain. He was beyond help. Lalli did not have the know-how to fix him, was not strong enough to carry him, and even if he ran for help, fast as he was, Emil would still be either frozen or eaten by the time he got back. There was nothing he could do but be there, and wait it out.

Emil flexed his fingers. In turn, Lalli's fingers curled around his hands, warming them. His vision was fading. It would not be much longer now.

"Thank you," he whispered as he drifted off for the last time.

Chapter Text

For many generations now, they'd been sleeping. For many generations, they'd heard only whispers.

It was almost without warning that the whispers became screams of terror, before turning into something that they had not heard for a long, long time: cries for help.

The Swan noticed it when the usual trickle of souls flooded without warning into a deluge, the old and sickly now accompanied by many, many who were young… too many… not torn up in accidents but dead, they said, of an illness, something new that was sweeping the world and which their new One God either could not or would not protect them against…

Hoisting herself up above the water, she spread her wings. Then, she called.

Vellamo, who had been sleeping, blearily poked her head above the water, and saw one family spared by their own careful preparation, noted and approved of their diligence. Ukko, who had also been sleeping, blearily poked his head below the clouds and saw the same. Kokko, who had risen from her nest for the first time in ages, now swept the Birds' Path to get her own look at those who had not made it, and knew as well as the others what it meant.

Fire, she whispered to those remaining survivors down below. Use fire.

Elsewhere, another pantheon also woke.

It had been many generations since Valhalla had seen new warriors. Odin did not know whether they would be able to face Ragnarök… not without any new blood in his hall… it had been long, too long, since anyone had last sacrificed or prayed to them. He was not expecting the new calls for help.

Prove yourselves worthy, he replied, and we will give you the means to help yourselves.

Thor, roused from his slumber, set eyes on a young woman who slew many of the emerging monsters with only a kitchen knife and her own bravado, and was impressed by her valor. Freyja took notice of a young man, confused and despairing the loss of the god he'd thought had cared for him, and set her mark upon him in his stead. Far below them all, Loki thrashed with renewed strength in his prison.

Another had not protected them in their time of need, and so, the various people turned to their old gods for aid. And, the old gods answered.

Chapter Text

"Come on come on come on!" Ahead of them, Tuuri was practically bouncing up and down with excitement. "Don't you want to see it?"

No, Emil did not want to see it. He wanted to be curled up on the couch making out with Lalli after a nice dinner and a romantic movie. He'd even brought over a whole tin of cookies this time to get him in the mood—cookies that were going to be gone by the time the next weekend rolled around, and then Emil would have to buy another before coming over again, and his extra-special gesture just wouldn't be the same.

Cookies or no cookies, though, having your boyfriend's cousin constantly hovering around when you were trying to have a nice cuddle and demanding that you come with her to see this "haunted" tree that was probably just like any other tree kind of killed the mood—and when Tuuri wanted something, Tuuri pushed and prodded and wheedled and generally made herself annoying until she got it. Emil might still be inclined to fight her on this, but Lalli wasn't going to: "It's easier to just go with her," he said with a shrug, already pulling on his shoes.

Only a few more months, he reminded himself. They only had to wait a few more months, and then Tuuri would have graduated, and then she'd be off to college, and he and Lalli would be able to spend their weekends making out in peace with only Onni's hostile glaring to contend with.

"Ow!" Emil was interrupted from his increasingly filthy fantasies of the things he was going to do with Lalli once they no longer had Tuuri's attention to contend with when his foot struck something that sent him sprawling. "What idiot keeps putting rocks here?" he complained as Lalli bent with a sigh to help him up.

"Did you fall again?" Tuuri sounded exasperated. "Hurry up, we don't have much time!"

Several more falls and what seemed like several hours later, they were standing in front of it.

"We came all the way out here to see this? It's an ordinary tree!"

"That's because we have to wait until midnight. Then he'll come, you'll see!"

So, they waited. Lalli shuffled his feet. Emil shone his flashlight over his watch, letting out an impatient sigh. Every time, he could have sworn at least ten minutes had passed, but it was really only one or two. Just until midnight. They only had to stand out here staring at this stupid tree until midnight, then they could all go home and he might at least have the hope of curling up next to Lalli for the night…

"It's time." Tuuri had been checking her watch even more frequently than he had. She stood up on tiptoe, and Emil could practically feel her trembling with excitement. They waited…

…and waited some more. Finally, Emil lost patience.

"Seriously, there's nothing here. Come on, Lalli, let's—"

Then, however, he felt it: the hair stood up on the back of his neck, and Emil knew that he was being watched. All at once, the temperature of the air seemed to drop by at least ten degrees. The hair stood up on the back of his neck. Slowly, he turned back toward the tree…

"I take it you are aware that you're on private property?"

All three of them jumped, Emil and Tuuri letting out simultaneous yelps. The creepy feeling of being watched was suddenly replaced with a rather more typical type of dread. Emil recognized that voice. Impossible not to, when you'd spent every day of your life for the past four months staring at the clock while you waited for it to please stop talking so you could finally go and get your lunch.

Tuuri was the first to find her voice. "M-Mr. Madsen," she squeaked. Then, all in one breath, "You-can't-give-us-detention-outside-of-school-hours."

Their history teacher blinked, and for a split second, he actually seemed impressed. Then, he lowered the flashlight—just enough that he was no longer blinding them—and gave a small smile. "No, I don't suppose that I can. What I can do, though, is contact your parents—or I can contact the police. Now, which will it be?"

The implication was clear. He'd already seen their faces: there would be no point trying to bolt. Briefly, they all looked at each other… then, without speaking, shuffled over to where he stood.

"Very good. Now, my house is a bit of a trek but I can assure you that it is quite safe…"

Some time later, the three of them sat awkwardly crammed together on their history teacher's sofa while he called first Emil's parents, then Onni. Emil had never been inside of a teacher's house before, and there was something about it that felt inexplicably awkward and uncomfortable. The others beside him seemed to feel the same from the way they were awkwardly shifting. Finally, though, the phone conversations were over, and Mr. Madsen had returned to the living room to set a glass of water in front of each of them.

"While we are waiting for those who can properly deal with you, explaining what you were doing sneaking onto my property at midnight would be a good way to pass the time."

Lalli and Emil looked at each other, and slumped where they sat. Tuuri, however, no longer seemed cowed—she must have decided that as long as she was in this deep, she might as well go all the way. Emil didn't know whether to envy her courage or clap a hand over her mouth and tell her to shut up before she got them in even more trouble.

"We were here to see the ghost."

That sounded so stupid when said directly to an adult in a brightly-lit room, rather than spoken of in whispers during a long trek off a dirt road in the middle of nowhere with only the stars and their flashlights to see by. Mr. Madsen only looked amused. He raised an eyebrow. "'Ghost'?"

"The gunslinger who was hanged from that tree." Tuuri's eyes were now shining, and she no longer looked even remotely abashed. "The one who murdered three people before the law finally caught up with him, and strung him up from its branches. They say his ghost still appears at midnight, and that he's waiting to take vengeance on anyone related to those who caught him—"

"Let me stop you right there." Mr. Madsen held up a hand, and Tuuri fell silent. "First of all, I planted that tree myself, shortly after I first acquired that piece of land. I can assure you that nobody has ever swung from its branches without me knowing about it."

"Oh." Tuuri's voice had gone small and disappointed.

Emil, however, was concerned. "Wait, what do you mean without—"

"But it looks so old," Tuuri protested, interrupting him.

"Appearances can be deceiving, especially when it comes to matters such as age. Second," he continued, before any of them could ask another question, or interrupt again, "the gunslinger who died in that spot was shot to death—not hanged."

Tuuri's head snapped up. So did Emil's, though for a different reason. Beside him, Lalli was staring straight ahead. Not at Mr. Madsen… it was almost as if he was looking through the wall… looking back in the direction they had come…

"Third and fourth," Mr. Madsen was still talking, and he ticked points off on his fingers as he did, "she killed a lot more than three people before she died. Finally, the law never caught up with her. This was a confrontation of a more… personal nature." He spread his raised hand, closed his fingers, and let his fist drop.

"How… how do you know all this?"

"One does not teach history without having acquired some respectable knowledge of it," Mr. Madsen said dryly. "I have given you the facts—but you three are not interested in facts, if the frequency with which you've fallen asleep in my class is anything to go by." Emil slumped in his seat. "No, I know that you came here for the legend."

Emil wouldn't have thought it was possible for Tuuri to perk up more, but somehow, that was exactly what she did. "So there is a ghost!"

"Perhaps." He shrugged. "We are speaking of legend after all—of someone who in all her years of murdering and of tangling with the worst sorts of people was never caught by the law, who lived a life of violence yet survived again and again where any other would have been killed. It's said she was only able to elude both capture and death because she'd sold her soul—her own damnation, in exchange for revenge."

"What was she seeking revenge for?" Emil's question came out a whisper in the suddenly-quiet room.

"That is a question that has been lost to history." Mr. Madsen shrugged. "If, that is, it ever existed to begin with. Remember, we are no longer speaking of facts.

"Still, legend says that the deal she made let her live long enough to kill the man who'd wronged her, but after that, her soul belonged to the devil. Now, she is bound to spend the rest of eternity doing his work collecting the souls of the wicked. Thieves, murders… trespassers…"

A loud bang made all three of them jump in their seats. It took a few seconds for the resulting adrenaline spikes to go down enough for it to resolve into a pounding on the door. Emil was still trying to keep his heart from jumping out of his chest when Mr. Madsen opened the door to admit a frantic and tear-streaked Onni. By the time Onni had herded his sister and cousin out the door, though, scolding each of them in turn (Tuuri for coming up with such a harebrained idea, Lalli for going along with it), Emil's fear had transformed to sputtering indignation.

"You made that whole thing up just to scare us!" he accused as Mr. Madsen returned to the living room to sit down across from him, a small smirk on his face.

"It was amusing to see how high you could jump. Still, it was a good story, was it not?"

Emil didn't answer. Instead, he crossed his arms and looked away. Bad enough to be constantly made fun of by all of his classmates, but to know that even his teacher was messing with him…

They said almost nothing else as they waited. Emil was still feeling too resentful, both of his wasted night (all those cookies, and he wouldn't even get to be there when Lalli ate them) and of Mr. Madsen's attempt to scare him with a childish tale. It wasn't even his faultTuuri was the one who'd insisted on dragging them out here!

Finally, though, there was the blast of a horn from outside—then a repeated blast a few seconds later. Emil sighed, scooped up his flashlight, gave a cool nod to his teacher, and stepped outside.

The night still seemed cooler than it had been when they'd first set out—certainly cooler than he would have expected for mid-spring. Emil shivered as he got into the car—but he'd be lying to himself if he claimed that the temperature was the only reason.

As the car backed out of the driveway and down to the road, even though he knew that seeing anything at this distance was hopeless, Emil could not help but look back in the direction of the tree, straining his eyes in the dark…

Of course, he saw nothing. There were no streetlights here, the moon long since set and the tree a blurred smudge in the distance. Even earlier, it had been dark, his nerves on edge with fear of getting caught and his head full of ghost stories… there was no reason to believe anything had happened but his own anxious brain conjuring up an image to match Tuuri's ceaseless chatter.

Still, right before Mr. Madsen had called them out, he could have sworn he'd seen a tall silhouette leaning up against the trunk of the tree, with a low-tipped hat and a nose like a blade.

As the car pulled away with Emil cowering in tenuous shelter of its doors, he could not help but wonder whether Mr. Madsen had been simply guarding his property… or whether he'd saved all three of their hides.

Chapter Text

Dawn

Onni was not used to unasked-for affection.

In Keuruu, everyone had known to leave well enough alone. Comfort was not something he needed or wanted; after the loss of his family the last thing he wanted to hear was platitudes. As for affection purely for affection's sake… he had had two children to keep safe, and a job that needed doing if he wanted to earn enough money that he could afford to do that. Onni had never had time to make friends.

Reynir, though, was different. Not only did he not know when to leave well enough alone, he gave his attention openly without seeming to expect anything of Onni in turn.

It was… annoying.

Still, Reynir was both completely untrained and far more powerful than he knew, and that put Onni under an obligation. To do what, he wasn't quite sure, but he was obligated nonetheless. So, he answered Reynir's questions, and versed him on whatever answers a Finnish mage could verse him on.

He should have known when Reynir started disregarding all of his admonitions not to visit him in his area that something was off. Still, he had a younger sibling; manipulation was nothing new to him. He was also vastly unfamiliar with the Icelandic tradition, so he supposed it shouldn't have come as too much of a surprise that he failed to see the signs until it was right on top of him.

…he also found that Reynir's presence was far too easy to get used to.

Even though Reynir never came into his area unless he wanted something, Onni had to admit that it was reassuring to know that he was needed. That somebody out there still wanted his help. Tuuri hadn't now for several years, and Lalli… well, Lalli did the same dangerous work that he did and then some; Onni could not afford to coddle him. Reynir, though? Reynir was untrained. Naive. Not immune. Reynir needed someone to guide him.

"Um… hi."

"What is it this time?" Onni asked. He was, after all, eager to guide Reynir away from some of the dangerous paths he insisted upon walking—not to join him on his foolish ventures.

"Actually, I just came by to say thanks."

Onni said nothing. Thanks were not why he had done it—thanks were not why he had done any of it. Instead, he waited. Reynir shifted from foot to foot, looking nervous.

"Do you think… do you think I could stay here tonight?"

"What?" Reynir had driven him to some powerful bouts of magic over the course of the mission, but never had he come up with a request that was so singularly bizarre. "Why would you want to do that?"

"I…" Reynir tugged his braid. Whatever it was, he seemed suddenly reluctant to spit it out.

Onni looked at him. He looked so young, so unsure, and even though there was no room for coddling in this world, not even Lalli could deny that some things were just too risky for an under-trained mage to face on his own. "Are you afraid to cross the ocean?" he asked quietly.

Hesitantly, looking at the ground, Reynir gave a slight nod.

"Then you may stay here until you have awoken. However, I want you to remain in your own area from here on out except in case of absolute emergency. Is that clear?"

Immediately Reynir's face brightened up, and he clambered over the rocks to join Onni in his haven.

The next night, Reynir was back.

"What do you want now?" Onni demanded, his luonto already on high alert in case an emergency actually had materialized. "I thought I told you to stop coming here!"

"Actually, you never said that specifically…"

Onni crossed his arms. "So, what do you want?"

When Reynir once again did not speak, he continued, "I gather that there is not another emergency. You cannot possibly have concerns about crossing the sea again, if you just did so in order to come here. So why is it that you keep coming here?"

"I… I wanted to talk to you," Reynir confessed quietly.

Onni was not moved. "Explain."

"Well, I don't know any other mages," Reynir began—hastily, as if afraid that Onni would kick him out if he didn't talk fast enough. "I only just found out that I'm a mage, and Lalli doesn't want me around, and you're the only other person I've met who can actually tell me about any of this stuff, so I want to talk to you and… um, sorry?"

"What did I tell you about apologizing?" Onni sat, and patted the rock next to him. After a few seconds, Reynir swallowed, and moved to sit beside him—slowly, hesitantly.

"I already explained to you," he began once Reynir had finally settled. "I cannot be your teacher. You know why that is: your gods are not my gods, and you will need to learn how to reach them in your own way. Find someone from your own tradition if you must, but—"

"I didn't mean I wanted you as a teacher."

The words were spoken quietly, softly, but with firm conviction and no hesitation. Onni stopped, and peered at the young man next to him, who was not looking at him, but had his green eyes fixed at some point on the horizon. "Then what did you mean?" he asked, the question coming out gentler than anything else he'd ever said to Reynir.

Reynir fidgeted. He shifted his weight. He looked at his hands, then at Onni, then quickly back at the horizon again. He sighed, closed his eyes, screwed up his face as if praying for courages, then turned, wrapped his hands around the back of Onni's head, and pulled their faces together until their lips met.

Onni froze. He couldn't have this—he wasn't allowed this. When he was sixteen, back in Saimaa, there had been a boy… but then there had been Grandmother's mistake, and Tuuri and Lalli, and there had been only them. He had responsibilities now. He had a family of which he was the head. He couldn't spare his time or his devotion for anyone else—not when the ones who were already in his care still needed him so badly.

…except they didn't need him anymore, did they? Lalli had been almost completely independent since he was thirteen—and Onni had encouraged that independence, had pushed him into it because he'd known even then that Lalli would not survive without it. Tuuri, he'd allowed himself to keep under his wing just a little bit longer… she had no magic abilities, and she was not immune; was it so wrong to keep giving her the protection she so clearly needed, even if she didn't know that she needed it? In time, however, Tuuri too had slipped from the nest and never looked back, and now Onni was utterly alone.

"…I'm sorry." Reynir seemed to have noticed his lack of response and was pulling away, his face written all over with not hurt but guilt. "I'm being stupid. I shouldn't have—I should go."

Reynir stood up, abruptly, not looking at Onni, and turned to leave… but he had barely taken two shaky steps toward the border of his haven when Onni rose as well, grabbed him by the wrist, pulled him back, and kissed him in turn.

Alone… for so long now, he had been utterly alone. His solitude was a shield he'd built around himself for the sake of his family, but his family had long since grown up and moved on, even if he hadn't noticed. For so long now, Onni had been flailing, lost, unsure of what to do now that the people he'd claimed as his responsibility had chosen to be responsible for themselves, yet now, now, with this young attractive near-stranger offering himself so freely, there awoke within him a deep ache of longing that he'd thought himself no longer capable of, all the stronger for having been so long buried.

"You're… sure?" Reynir pulled away slightly. He sounded doubtful, but hopeful, oh so hopeful, as if he was hardly daring to let himself believe…

"Yes." Onni spoke firmly. Grabbing Reynir's hand, he pulled him further into his haven: a private place, where they could be truly alone.


Dusk

It was dark. It took him a moment to remember why, as he blinked his eyes open, and why it was that he felt so sore. It had been a long time—far too long of a time. To be waking up now with another warm body in his bed…

…it was dark. Why was it so dark?

Onni stirred to push himself up against the pine needles that dug into his bare back, wondering why his limbs felt so weak and his head felt so fuzzy. Finally, though, he managed to bring his focus to bear on the form of another person.

"R-Reynir?"

What was staring down at him now, however, was not the person he'd fallen asleep with. Oh, the face was the same, but where there had once been an eager smile, those green eyes now ran over his naked, exposed body with a cold, cold hunger that made shivers run up and down his spine.

"Reynir, what are you—"

Before Onni could even finish the sentence, however, he lunged: hands on his shoulders, pressing him to the ground with surprising strength, Reynir continued to pin him with that cold, insectile stare, and for the first time that night Onni felt his heart lurch not with pleasure but with fear.

He was supposed to be doing something—what was he supposed to be doing? What was happening to him? Why was Reynir doing this? There was something… something he should know…

"You don't understand." Reynir cocked his head, and for a moment, only a moment, Onni was able to catch a glimpse of the eager young man who'd been so often coming to see him. (Why had he been so eager to see Onni, who'd made it very clear that he was grumpy and inhospitable and that his company was not wanted?) He took a shuddering breath, as if about to break into a sob. "You're not like me. Your magic is different. You don't understand what… what I need to…"

"Stop." With a burst of strength born half of fear and half of anger, Onni sat up, set his hands against Reynir's chest, and pushed him away. He staggered back a few paces, and Onni got the unnerving feeling that he'd only managed to push him back that far because Reynir had let him push him back.

"Who… what are you?" he demanded, panting. Even the simple act of pushing him away had taken nearly all of his strength.

Instead of answering, Reynir only looked at him. The hunger in his eyes seemed to increase. "I need you," he said, simply, not like he'd spoken earlier, tenderly and full of lust, but now with a naked raw hunger: a predator to his prey.

Then, like a predator, he pounced.

"I need you," he repeated, pleading, as Onni thrashed about, struggling to hold him off. "I need to survive… I can't live otherwise…"

"You're already dead," Onni forced out from between gritted teeth.

In saying it, he knew it to be true: he guided the dead, it was a part of his job. Onni knew death when he saw it. Reynir might have managed to hide it up to this point, because Reynir had always seemed so alive: but he could not hide it forever. Not after an experience this intimate.

Once again, there was a flash of pain in those green eyes. Briefly, Reynir nodded. Already, he was on top of Onni once more, those cold, cold hands holding him down…

"How long?" he demanded, still fighting and failing to break free of Reynir's grip. It wasn't just that the other was strong: Onni was growing weaker by the second, a revelation made too late thanks to all the fuzz in his head.

"Long." When he spoke now, it was in a voice older than stone and as cold as the wind, and Onni felt a shiver run through him. "Before the Old World fell."

As valiantly as he'd fought, now even his best efforts were no longer enough. Onni slumped to the ground, spent. He looked around his haven. The sky had gone dark. The trees were shedding their needles like rain.

How ironic, he thought after his vision began to grow dark. After Saimaa, after Grandmother's mistake, after everything, he'd come through all that, only to be drained away to nothing by some rogue spirit who'd convinced him to let his guard down. Onni would have laughed if he'd had the strength.

"This won't hurt," Reynir said, hands curling around his shoulders. "All I want is your life… just your life force… If I get that, I'll finally be free—"

All at once, however, Reynir froze. His body went rigid. Onni, barely clinging to consciousness by this point, looked up at him in confusion. His pupils had constricted to pinpricks. His hands were clawing at air. Then, he screamed—a high, unearthly shriek that removed any and all lingering doubts that he was no longer human—and vanished.


"'I don't know' isn't good enough," Sigrun growled, again, impatiently waving her arm as she paced. "Not for me, and it definitely isn't going to be good enough for the Icelandic navy."

"And I'm telling you," Mikkel said, again, though with no hint of either sarcasm or defiance in his voice, only the dry monotone of a man stating a simple fact. "I don't know."

He'd honestly only thought to wake Reynir from a nightmare. When he'd walked by the bunk, it had been to find the kid first moaning in his sleep, and then thrashing around as though he were being attacked. If he were allowed to go on like that, he would hurt himself—but no sooner had Mikkel laid hands on him than he'd started fighting back, clawing at his arms and screaming in haunting wails… before suddenly going stiff, and toppling forward in a heap of deadweight. At first, Mikkel had been relieved… right up until he'd realized first that Reynir wasn't breathing, then that he couldn't find a pulse.

Mikkel had tried to resuscitate him. He truly, honestly had. For a good twenty minutes he'd knelt there on the floor of the bunkroom, stubbornly forcing Reynir's heart to beat and breathing air into his idle lungs. Eventually, however, he'd begun to tire, and had been forced to admit that if Reynir hadn't revived now, he wasn't going to, not without the aid of any modern medical equipment—a luxury they did not have. None of them could justify spending that much time and manpower to keep a corpse slightly less dead over the several weeks it would take them to make it back to civilization.

Sigrun had yelled at him for far longer than twenty minutes after she'd gotten the news. Mikkel admitted he did not envy her: the death of a civilian who'd been under her protection would be a black mark on her record, and gods only knew how the Norwegian army would handle it. At the very least, the Icelandic government would want to know who was responsible for the death of one of their own, and the captain of the expedition that Reynir had been marooned on would make for the most convenient scapegoat.

No, Mikkel did not envy her.

Even worse, there was a part of him that still feared that he had been the one responsible, however inadvertently. He'd forgotten his own strength, done some unseen damage or shaken something loose in Reynir's brain when he'd tried first to shake him awake and then to hold him down. He'd done as thorough an examination as he could manage after he'd determined that Reynir was beyond saving, and other than the bruises he'd inflicted and ribs that he'd broken during CPR, he could find no obvious injury. That didn't change the fact that there was still a nagging, lingering doubt in his mind that he had done something wrong, that after they got back to civilization a proper postmortem would reveal the whole ugly truth…

"People do die of unknown causes from time to time," he continued, trying to convince himself as much as Sigrun. "It's rare, but not unheard of. Perhaps he had a stroke, or a heart defect that none of us were aware of. In any event, we did everything that could reasonably be expected of us to keep him alive."

Finally, Sigrun seemed to be calming down—but even if no longer panicking, she was still upset. She didn't like losing people in the field—no one did. "So what do you think did him in?" she asked at last, her voice unusually quiet and subdued.

"Without a proper autopsy, it's anyone's guess." He pushed himself to his feet. "Whatever it was, though, I don't think we could have done anything about it even if we had caught it earlier."

Sigrun nodded. A little bit of the tension went out of her body as she let out a breath. "Get on the radio. We're going to have to let the old folks know."

Mikkel nodded, and pushed open the door to the radio room. The body, he left where it was; one of their own, they'd have already buried and moved on, but in a situation involving a civilian the Icelandic government might very well want it back, as evidence. Still, as he began the power-up and the tuning, Mikkel could not help but remember something very odd he'd noticed during his postmortem examination:

Reynir's body was far colder than he'd ever seen in a corpse only minutes dead, rigor mortis setting in even as he attempted to resuscitate.

Mikkel allowed himself a small, private shudder as he picked up the headphones. He admittedly wasn't sure what they'd just brushed with, but would be almost shamefully glad when the body was finally gone and out of his hands.

Chapter Text

The rolling hills spread out before them looked deceptively like those of Earth.

Almost… but not quite.

Dark clouds roiled over rolling black hills. The cries of unknown creatures echoed throughout the air, the breeze carrying a scent of moisture that promised rains to come. The native star was invisible behind the ever-present cloud cover, but they all knew it was there, just as they knew to call it "star", not "sun"—if they could see it, they knew, that much would have been obvious on sight.

Their lander seemed so small in the vastness of the landscape, their supply boxes pathetic once they'd finished unloading them. Still, they were not here for luxury.

The day did not brighten or darken as they worked to set up camp. Nor when they sat down for dinner, or even when they began yawning and one by one retreated into their bunks. When they slept, and when they woke hours later, the sky was still the same overcast gray, the hills outside still rolling under the ruddy alien light.

"Well," the expedition leader said, stretching with a wide yawn as she surveyed their campsite. "Let's get to work."

Three volunteer scientists, three trained soldiers to protect them. As far as expedition teams went, these six were the dregs of what the League had to offer up: planets like this were, after all, the dregs of the terrestrials; humanity might need as much habitable space as it could get, but hardly anyone would want to live here. The only people who signed on for missions like these were the desperate, the bored, and the suicidally adventurous (or just plan suicidal).

"What about that? That looks like it could be good eating…"

"Not until I've tested it, Sigrun."

The expedition leader (or at the very least, the leader of the military part of it) had already fought in a number of interplanetary wars. Word had it that she'd been stabbed, shot, and poisoned more times than anyone could count, whether by the local settlers or the local fauna didn't make much difference, but had survived on all sorts of different planets through a combination of luck, skill, and sheer brazenness.

Mikkel idly wondered, as he examined the small creature that had been caught in one of his traps, how many of those poisonings had been due to her eating something random without knowing whether or not it was safe. That would certainly explain a few things, he thought.

Mikkel was the head scientist, the leader of the civilian part of the expedition. He was the one who determined their areas of study and prioritized the places that would be most interesting scientifically, but Sigrun always got final say on where they could go and when, based on whether or not she had decided it was too dangerous.

Yeah. It rankled.

Meanwhile, the expedition's mechanic was pointedly not doing her job while under the watchful guard of her cousin.

"Ooh, Lalli, did you see that!?"

"Yes."

"You're not even looking!"

Lalli shrugged. He was looking everywhere he was supposed to look, and whether he shared Tuuri's excitement or not, he had seen the small scurrying creature that had been scared away by her high-pitched squeal. He just couldn't afford to be interested in it unless it proved itself a threat.

Meanwhile, the last two members of the team were still doing their own thing…

"Hand me the screwdriver, would you?"

Emil shifted his weight, crossed his arms, and sighed. Of course, he could have trained as a scientist and been doing this work instead… but in the end, he'd decided that that would be a waste of his potential. No, his true place was in the military.

"…oh wait, never mind, found it! Sorry!"

…even if that did mean he was currently little more than a babysitter.

It was surprisingly difficult, to adapt to this planet.

The star never set, and night never fell. There was no night here. Instead, they had to rely on their timepieces to inform them when to eat, when to sleep, and when it was time to stop working. The native life might have managed to adjust, but none of them were native. Earth creatures were not meant to live like this.

"But I don't—" *yawn* "—feel tired."

"Yes, you do." Mikkel took Tuuri by the shoulders and steered her inside. "And it is time to go to bed."

"I think anyone would have to be crazy to want to live here." Reynir had dark circles under his eyes, and he was swaying on his feet. He had not adjusted well to the lack of darkness on this hemisphere of the planet.

"Well then, I take it you will be pleased to know that we're going to venture to the terminator after three more shifts."

"If the scout says that it's safe." Sigrun was spooning up a helping of the slop their employers called "rations" with an expression of extreme distaste.

"If the scout says that it's safe." Mikkel inclined his head in acquiescence.

Sigrun was not the only seasoned survivor on this team. Lalli, too, had been bounced from military to military for most of his life, and had spent his career taking whatever odd jobs he could find—solo, if at all possible. Sigrun might have been used to surviving in all kinds of environments, but Lalli was used to surviving alone.

So, they'd sent Lalli out with a glider to evaluate the terrain and find them a suitable campsite while the rest of them wrapped up their research at the substellar point. If all went well, he would check in and they would be moving within three shifts' time. If he told them it wasn't safe, they would have to stay where they were.

If he didn't come back, it was Sigrun's call to make whether to track his locater and attempt a rescue, or to give him up for dead and abort the mission.

That was a worst-case scenario, though. Lalli was good, he continued to check in like clockwork even if his reports were frustratingly sparse on detail, and even when he wasn't talking to them over the radio anyone who spared the attention to check his locater could see for themselves that he was still moving.

Sure enough, just as they were waking up by the time the third shift rolled around, the radio call came in. "I found a place."

They were packed up and ready to go without even taking the time for breakfast. They were all getting tired of the endless daylight and the stifling heat. Even the local life, the multitude of six-legged scurrying furry things and the plants whose giant leaves gleamed blackly in the ruddy light, had started to lose its novelty for the younger members of the team.

By the time they'd traversed a quarter of the planet's circumference and honed in on Lalli's locater, he already had a rudimentary camp set up and everyone's stomach was rumbling.

It was cooler here, the sky free of clouds, both of which were a relief. It was, however, also far, far windier, and everyone save Mikkel was nearly blown off their feet at least once during the process of setting up their research stations. By the time they'd retreated inside the ship for a meal, everyone's faces were flushed with windburn, and Reynir had a few red marks around his neck from where his braid had done a halfway respectable job of attempting to strangle him.

"If long hair becomes a liability, protocol demands that I cut it."

"Wait, what?" Reynir's hands came up to grasp his head, as if afraid someone was already standing behind him with a pair of scissors in hand.

"…or you can decide on a more practical style." Mikkel shrugged one shoulder. "It's your choice."

"Hack Freckles's hair off later." Sigrun rose and stretched, her empty bowl held in her outstretched hand. "We've got a job to do."

Even though they were still on the same planet, the differences were palpable, and they went far beyond the weather.

The native star, instead of being parked directly overhead, now hovered down close to the horizon, right near the peak of one of the distant mountains. Though the star had always been red, far redder than that of any planet that could respectably be called civilized, in the perpetual twilight the lighting had turned downright bloody. The crew spent a lot of time stumbling around and bumping into things before their eyes adjusted.

"Can't we at least set up a spotlight?" Emil grumbled after he'd stubbed his toe for the third time running.

"We shouldn't draw attention to ourselves," Lalli responded with a shrug.

Tuuri, meanwhile, was taking samples from the plants.

"These are so different from the ones at the substellar point! Lalli, look!"

Lalli didn't much care. He'd already seen the plants, and ascertained that they were not dangerous, so long as nobody attempted to eat them. That was the only thing that was important.

The plants here were very different from those at the substellar point. They tended to be sturdier, built to withstand the constant harsh winds, their roots running deep; some species grew with the wind, coming out hunched and twisted and bent until they were nearly parallel to the ground, forming a low roof under which the smaller of the local animals scurried and sheltered. Others had grown to direct the wind around themselves, growing broadly in the same direction but presenting only a blade edge to the constant onslaught.

"Hey! Twig!"

Still keeping one eye on his cousin, Lalli headed over to where Sigrun was gesturing for him—out of earshot of the others, he noted, unless someone shouted (though considering she'd had to shout in order to be heard over the howling wind, "out of earshot" was not exactly difficult in this situation). Stopping just close enough for them to be able to talk to each other without having to raise their voices, he waited for whatever it was she had to say.

"What, exactly, did you mean when you said we shouldn't draw attention?"

"There are bigger animals here," he responded. "Predators. Some of them are drawn to light."

"Any of them too big for us to handle?"

"…no."

"Well, that's what weapons were invented for!" Her backslap, added to the force of the wind, was nearly enough to send him sprawling flat on his face.

Once again, the team did their research. Once again, they trapped small animals, took samples of the plants, and sent out probes to observe the wildlife that wasn't amenable to direct human contact. As much as this new location might have been a refreshing change from the substellar point, though, it didn't take them long to grow weary of it as well: especially the soldiers, who had nothing to do but stare out into the darkness and squint their eyes against the wind while the scientists gathered samples. There were no incidents… save one.

They were nearing the end of a shift. Everyone's eyes were red and puffy with both sleepiness and irritation from the constant gale. They all returned to full alertness, however, at the sound of a scream.

"I just wanted to get a closer look at it," Tuuri confessed, shaking, as Mikkel bandaged up her shoulder back inside of their shelter. In front of them, Lalli was pacing agitatedly back and forth. The wind had blown a clod of dirt into his eyes at exactly the wrong moment, and by the time he'd managed to holster his gun and aim through his streaming eyes, Tuuri had already been down.

"I see. I suggest that in the future, you refrain from trying to pet any of the local wildlife—regardless of how cute you think it is."

"How bad is it?" Lalli asked. He still had not stopped pacing.

"Eh, I've been bitten by all sorts of things, on all sorts of different planets," Sigrun answered with a shrug from where she was leaning against a nearby wall. "Most of 'em are harmless, as far as bites go. Getting infected is what you really have to worry about. These alien planets, the local bugs mostly don't like humans at all, but once in a while you get something really nasty that'll have you turning all sorts of weird colors or spewing out your insides—"

"Sigrun…"

"—then of course there are the ones that are poisonous, or that like to lay eggs in your body so their babies can eat you from the inside out—"

"Thank you, Sigrun, that will be quite sufficient." After she'd pushed off the wall with a shrug and gone to find something edible, though, Mikkel returned his attention to Tuuri.

"I can assure you that most alien pathogens do indeed have very little interest in the human body. Still, we will need to keep you under close observation for the next few days, to ensure that you are not at risk of anything life-threatening."

Nevertheless, Tuuri said that she did not want to abort the mission. Returning from first planetfall on a previously unexplored world mandated a quarantine anyway, and anyone potentially contaminated by close contact with any of the local life would be treated with triple the caution. Better to stay, and continue their research, and let the isolation of the planet work as its own quarantine.

Of course, this did absolutely nothing for morale: their next planned outpost was at the antistellar point.

When Lalli got back from his scouting run, he was haggard and worn, a fresh bruise forming under one of his eyes. In his report, he'd said it was a dangerous area—but when pressed, confessed that he had found them an acceptable campsite.

It wasn't as windy here. It was also much, much colder.

Everyone shivered as they set down next to a large rock in the middle of an ice field. The campsite was barren, with no sign of vegetation: nothing could grow on the light of the stars alone. Without plants, there were unlikely to be any animals either. Still, Lalli was unable to explain what he'd meant when he'd said that it was dangerous.

After a bit of exploration, they found that there was life… of a sort.

As it turned out, Lalli had led them to a barren campsite on purpose. A short walk away from their base, however, was a fungal forest that turned out to be teeming with life, even if it was of a sort that was completely unfamiliar even by the standards of this planet. The fleshy black growths seemed to thrive in the dark, whether they were of the tall bulbous sort that grew well above their heads and risked swallowing anyone who got too close in their own swollen fleshy lobes, or the thick spongy stuff that was forever underfoot, or the slablike fleshy outgrowths that seemed to cover every available surface of rock and every decaying animal corpse.

"What are they living on?" Reynir wondered, briefly reaching out a hand toward a nearby mold that stretched between two rocky outcroppings, before abruptly thinking better of it and pulling back. "We've hardly seen any animals at all on this side of the planet. Surely there couldn't be enough to feed this many…?"

"Who knows what it is they're feeding on." Mikkel used his boot to brush aside some of the matted layers that seemed to be everywhere on the ground—if there was soil here, they had yet to sample deep enough to encounter it. "Or, indeed, what sort of ecosystem is thriving further down. Remember, this is not a known planet. It is a mistake to assume that every living thing here must follow a familiar logic."

Lalli did not like going into the forest.

Every time they went in, he stuck like a shadow to his cousin and jumped at every rustle. Every time they came out again, he breathed a nearly-inaudible sigh of relief. Nevertheless, he never protested. They'd all signed on for this job. They all knew the risks.

Sigrun had asked whether there was anything out there that couldn't be handled with weapons. Now that they were here, though, the truth was that he didn't know.

All he knew was that he had an increasingly bad feeling about this—and Lalli's bad feelings were usually right. Unfortunately, Lalli's bad feelings were also never paid attention to by anybody else.

The first casualty was Reynir.

"I only looked away for a second, I swear!"

Sigrun had been yelling at Emil for the past half hour, and he'd only been able to repeat that one defense. He'd only looked away for a second to adjust his uniform. There'd been no scream, no sound of a struggle, nothing: one second Reynir had been there, the next he was gone without a trace.

The first thing they'd done was escort the remaining two civilians back to the camp, and leave them inside of the ship with Emil for a guard. The next thing they'd done was organize a search party.

The beacon was exactly where they'd left it, marking the spot where Reynir had last been seen. There was, however, no trace of Reynir: no blood, no signs of a scuffle, not even a strand of red hair caught on any of the nearby fungi. His locater was still functioning… but it led them far deeper into the forest, and there was no motion to indicate that he was still alive.

"If we stop checking in at any point," Sigrun told Emil over the communicator, "assume that we're dead. If you don't hear from us for more than two days, pack up and go home. Do not come back out until we've gotten back."

The signal led them to a spot where the fungus grew so thick it would be impossible to get down from the glider without getting buried head to foot, pressed in on all sides by a sea of fleshy growths. Relying on the glider's lights to let them see, they got into harness and hung down from its sides, and began hacking away.

It took them hours to reach the bottom, and by the time they were finished their arms and shoulders were sore from the repetitive action of whacking away at soft flesh, before scooping it up and flinging it out of their way. Still, they had made a landing spot, and even though it was not pretty they had accomplished their purpose: there at the bottom lay a heap of tattered cloth and metal bits that they were able to identify as Reynir's clothing and equipment.

"Well, wherever he is, there's no getting him back." Sigrun's hands twisted the sleeve she'd picked up—despite the tattered state of his discarded uniform, there was not a drop of blood to be found. "Let's get back to camp and—"

Had anyone still been around to look, they would have seen that where Sigrun and Lalli had stood only seconds before, there were now only two empty ropes dangling from the sides of the hovering glider.


Emil paced from one side of the lander to the other. Then, he turned around and paced again.

"I suggest that you calm down," Mikkel suggested. He was organizing his notes. "Whatever is happening out there, there is nothing we can do to mitigate the situation."

No one could have said whether it was better or worse hearing Sigrun and Lalli's regular reports. On the one hand, they knew that at least two of their teammates were still alive. On the other hand, they had to hear of their discoveries one after the other, all the while completely helpless to do anything to aid them.

That question was answered when the reports stopped coming in.

The last they'd heard, Sigrun had said they were clearing the area and nearly to the ground. Then… nothing. The usual check-in time came and went. Emil gave up on his pacing, and instead headed to the cockpit to press his face against the viewscreen. Tuuri fidgeted in her seat, her head snapping up every few minutes as if she'd seen or heard something important. Even Mikkel could no longer seem to focus on his notes, and put them away, instead opting to fold his hands over his stomach and stare out into blank space instead.

"There is still no need to panic. Equipment failures have been known to happen. Perhaps they simply encountered a situation that required all of their focus, and were unable to spare the attention to check in." He sounded like he was trying to convince himself as much as the other two.

Nobody said anything about how unlikely it was that Sigrun and Lalli's communicators, and the one built into the glider, would all have failed at exactly the same time.

Emil continued to pace. Mikkel continued to sit and stare at nothing. Abruptly, Tuuri stood up.

She didn't explain what she was doing. At first, the others were unconcerned; it had been hours, and everybody needed a bathroom break once in a while. Then, however, she went to the door, and stood looking out, pupils dilated and breathing harsh.

"I have to go."

Emil stopped in his pacing and turned to her, wide-eyed. Mikkel was immediately out of his seat.

She threw the much bigger man across the floor with inhuman strength before bolting. In the two seconds in which Mikkel had actually had hold of her, though, his fingers had peeled the collar of her shirt away from her neck, and Emil had seen the ugly blackened discoloration that was eating away at her skin.

Emil's head snapped from Mikkel to the open door and then back to Mikkel again. He slumped against the wall where he'd landed, his body limp and blood pooling beneath his head. A quick look was all it took to tell even someone with no medical training that he was beyond all help.

Emil swallowed. He looked out the open door and into the endless night, the way that Tuuri had gone. Odds were good she'd kill him next if he tried to stop her. Even if he did manage to bring her back, she was in for a lifelong quarantine at best and a mercy kill at worst.

He took a deep breath. He still had to do this.


Though the ship and the lander continued to broadcast their position, the League never bothered to send an investigation out after them… and no one on the exploration team was ever heard from again.

Chapter Text

Part 1

After she'd agreed to the deal, things moved fast.

First, there was medical. She had parasites. She needed vaccines. They wanted all sorts of checkups and tests, and if at the end of the day they deemed her not healthy enough to do the job, they'd find someone else and chuck her right back in jail—permanently. So Sigrun sat as still as she was able (which honestly wasn't very), and bit her tongue through all of the poking and prodding and needles and pointless questions and loud machines and various equipment that was attached to her body only to be taken off again a few minutes or a few days later.

Take this medicine, they said. Your diet needs to be improved; we will provide you with rations.

Then, the training began.

Sigrun was no slouch; you couldn't afford to be, if you wanted to survive on your own in the Bunkers. That didn't change the fact that even by her standards, the training was grueling.

At the end of each day, every last muscle in her body ached. During the day, she was driven to near-collapse at least once every hour. Trond didn't hold back, though: "You think this is bad? Well, I have news for you: it's got nothing on the surface."

The physical training was hardly the worst part.

They decided when she got to sleep. They decided when, what, and how much she got to eat. When she wasn't in the training center or the mess, she had access only to her room. For all practical purposes, she was still imprisoned—the scenery had just changed a little bit.

Sigrun didn't complain. She had agreed to this, after all—they hadn't given her much choice, but she had had a choice, and this was what she'd chosen.

Perhaps most unnerving was the fact that they hardly ever let her train with anyone else.

Most units, they did everything they could to push them into bonding with one another. Teams needed to be able to work together if they wanted to survive, and ensuring that every member cared about everyone else not dying was the most effective way to do that.

Not her. The mission they needed her for was covert; they could not afford to let her care about anyone else.

Everything we have fought and died for hinges on your mission, they told her again and again. If you do not succeed, we are all lost. Your life does not matter in the grander scheme of things. You chose this. The freedom of all must be paid for by the lives of a few.

…in some ways, she agreed with them.

What had her life been worth before, anyway? Scraping by day to day, living on rats and scraps, stealing from those who had more so that she would not starve. Had she continued that way, she still would have died sooner or later, in a corner somewhere alone and forgotten. At least this way, she might be afforded a bit of glory to take with her.

You are a weapon. A dulled blade is a useless blade. You are a weapon. You must stop thinking of yourself as an individual. You are a weapon. You have no desires; your desire is our desire. You are a weapon. Your only mission is our cause. You are a weapon. In our hands, you will be the knife that cuts us free…

…she was a weapon. As a person, she hadn't been worth much. Might as well embrace it, and make some use of herself.

"Have you ever been topside before?" Trond asked her one day, out of the blue.

"…no?" Sure, she might have stuck her head out of a hatch once or twice, but there was nothing worth going after up there that wasn't easier to get down in the Bunkers.

"Then I expect you'll be happy we've found you a guide."

Lalli was a topsider, they said. He certainly looked it: short, fast, skinny, hardly any meat on his bones at all. Trond didn't say where they had found him, and Sigrun didn't ask. She was too excited to have someone to train with again.

That made one of them.

Lalli didn't talk. He didn't express emotion. He didn't respond to her overtures. When given an order, he simply said "okay" and then executed it—flawlessly, but with no real show of enthusiasm for what he was doing.

Sigrun couldn't figure him out.

"So what's in it for you?" she asked one night as he climbed into the bed above hers—they were bunking together now, had been since it had been decided that they were to send in a team rather than one solo. In theory, good for camaraderie. With Lalli, who knew.

"Why did you agree to this mission?" she asked again after a few minutes had passed and he still hadn't answered. "Topsiders never come down here. So why did you?"

"Needed to eat." The lights were off by this point, but she could hear the shrug in his voice.

"Yeah. Same here."

She was a weapon. Her job was not to survive, it was to strike. A knife had need of only the hand that threw it.


Part 2

This… was not the topside that she knew.

The air was clear—mostly. The plants were everywhere, and they looked healthy—or at least, healthier. The sun shone down at them from out of the haze—this was the first time she'd seen it with her own eyes.

"Oy. Are you still alive?"

Lalli blinked open his eyes, shivered, shifted against her—blinked again.

"Do you know this place?" she asked when he continued not to react, not to speak.

"No." He shifted again and moved away from her, and Sigrun took that as her cue to push herself to her feet as well.

It was chilly. They were half-starved and had no shelter. There was no sign of other people. It was either try to hack a living out of the local fauna, or keep walking and hope they would find someone willing to shelter them, or simply perish of hunger and exposure.

Did she regret it?

…behind her, muffled by the wall, Sigrun thought that she could hear the cries of battle, resentment and desperation channeled by cold calculation, a people angry at their circumstances and desperate for survival.

That was ridiculous, of course. Even if not for the wall the battles were far, far inland; they'd been completely alone when they'd crossed over. Whatever echoes she was hearing were all in her head.

Nothing. She'd had nothing. Steal or starve, a weapon in someone else's hands… they'd told her her death could at least be worth something, and she'd believed them, but now, out here, Sigrun found herself angered that she'd been robbed of the chance to truly be able to go on her own terms.

No. No, she did not regret it at all.

The two of them had been trained to be weapons, a knife in the hands of others. What was a dropped knife to do? Lie on the ground and go to rust—or maybe, just maybe, turn its blade to its own purpose.

The clash of battle faded behind them as they walked away from the wall.

Chapter Text

The world they had known was dying… and they had chosen to die with it.


Sigrun

Sigrun wandered the long roads for the rest of her days, never able to find satisfaction, never able to find rest. The great battles for the fate of Middle Earth were over. The king of Gondor had long ago ushered in a new golden era of peace. The world had no further need for shieldmaidens.

A guard, a guide… she was born to the sword. If her sword must forever remain sheathed, then what was she in this world?

Her wandering feet had taken her first through Rivendell, then through Moria. The abandoned ruins had shown her the glory of times long past; the mine had shown her the glory that she might have had, had she been born only a little bit earlier. After that, though…

After that, nothing but a long, boring journey through the dark, and an answer of sorts, when they'd found the remains of what had once been a master of the deep. The magic was going out of the world. It was never coming back.

This was the age of Men. Any member of the race of Men ought to be okay… but Sigrun had never cared for magic, and though she respected it she didn't understand it. Hers was a more visceral craving, something that this new age could not give her either.

So, she wandered. She watched the flowers wither and the leaves fall from the trees, and then bloom back again come spring, but her own spirit never bloomed to match. She was not a young woman anymore, and she had never been the kind of woman who might have a place in this time; her joy lay not in springtime flowers and sunlight and thoughts of love, but in the clash of metal, the burn of her muscles, the fire in her lungs and the satisfaction of a battle well-fought.

Year by year, her joints began to ache, right down to the bone. It got harder and harder to swing into the saddle. Year by year, her sword remained sheathed.

Then, there came the day when she could ride no more.

Sigrun was remembered among her people. She was something of a curiosity and the ghost of a legend, an echo of the proud warriors that they had once been, and chose to be no longer, but whose history they still honored. On her deathbed, dozens of people she'd never even known came to pay their respects.

"Put it away," she rasped out when a young girl approached her, dagger in hand. "Learn something that you'll be able to use."

It was the only time she spoke to anyone.

After the last of them had gone, she was left alone.

Sigrun had never married, never had children. She had had no siblings. Both of her parents were long dead. She'd wandered too far and too long to make any friends at home, anyone who could claim a right to visit her now. That left only the healer, whom she'd ordered to leave once it had become clear that there was nothing more to be done for her. Dying, as she had lived: alone, with a purpose but one that was no longer needed.

"The last shieldmaiden."

The voice was a man's; not one she recognized. Sigrun cracked an eye open, but the room was dark, the lights snuffed before the healer had left to give her a bit of peace, and all she could make out was a dark shadow above her.

"Death was Ilúvatar's gift to the race of Men," he continued when she did not answer. "Have your people remembered?"

"I know." Her voice was coming out as a croak; she didn't have much longer.

The shadow gave a brief nod; its posture, at least, seemed satisfied. "Sigrun, daughter of Solveig." His voice was deeper now, more formal, and carried in it the weight of ritual. "I would have you join my Hunt. Do you accept?"

Never mind that she could barely raise her hand, let alone her sword; never mind that every movement was agony, that her fingers could no longer grip or her legs hold her weight. This was the moment she had been waiting for all her life. "I do."

It took the entirety of her remaining strength just to reach out her hand. When she did, the fingers that clasped hers were warm and callused, and pulled her up with a strength that she could feel flowing into her in turn, her wasted youth in sight once more, another chance. Smiling, she let him lead her wherever he would.


When the healer came to check on her the next day, she had already breathed her last—but the smile on her face was peaceful and serene.


Mikkel

His people had always made their own way—and there had never truly been a place for them in this world.

Made imperfectly, the children of an impatient Vala. Attempted usurpers of the Firstborn. He knew his place; he always had, which is why he had always fought to defy it.

The Dwarves were smiths, miners, metalworkers. Even when there was not a place for them, they made one for themselves—whether before or after the War of the Ring, it made no difference.

That didn't change the fact that their own history still haunted them.

Moria had fallen well before the war, and had nothing to do with the war, but it still clouded his memories with every swing of his hammer and every recollection of the once great halls now fallen to ruin.

He had gone back. Even without a guide, he had risked going back, to the place that had once been a stronghold and pride of his people and was now nothing more than a nest for cave trolls and Orcs. The one thing he didn't worry about was getting lost. He had the ancient maps that his family had passed down, and besides, this place was in his blood.

Sometimes, he looked at the dusty walls and tried to imagine them plated with gold and jewels. Sometimes, he nudged the bones on the floor and tried to will them to become living, breathing Dwarves once again.

They delved too greedily, and too deep, legend had said. They woke something they should not have awoken, and perished as a consequence of their own hubris. Yet what they had awoken was now gone out of this world as surely as the Elves had gone—yet, they did not return.

Too many bad memories, those with the power to make such decisions would say. Too many bones to bury. The Dwarves were stubborn—but even they had their limits. Moria now would never live again.

…perhaps that was why he kept coming back.

Mikkel had no illusions of rebuilding, not by himself. He also had no illusions of convincing anyone else to help; they had all given up on that a long time ago. No, now that he'd found what he came for he simply wanted to be here… and remember.

Mostly, he was not disturbed. Orcs or no Orcs, he had learned how to be quiet when he needed to, and far too many had felt the bite of his axe to want to come close to him in any small numbers.

He was walking on the edge of a shaft one day when he saw something that caught his eye.

A glimpse of silver. It could have been nothing. It could have been his imagination, or someone's dropped tool. Still, it intrigued him enough for him to lean down over the edge, further, further…

…right up until the stone crumbled beneath his feet.

Impossible! It should have been built better than that! …and it had been, but Moria had been abandoned to decay now for nearly a full generation.

At first, he was too shocked to feel pain, only the dull impact of rock after rock striking his body. Eventually, though, he lodged—far down, too far. Then the pain hit, throbs and spikes of agony shooting through his limbs and torso. No, he wouldn't be climbing back up—he was going to die here, down among the rocks, and not even his bones would remain for his people to find.

So this was how it would end for him then. The dark pressed in all around him, the light from his torch snuffed out on the way down. Slowly, eyes straining into the blackness, Mikkel turned his head.

There. A glimmer. Something in the darkness—silver!

Too greedily and too deep, they'd said. Mikkel had stumbled upon one of the newly-tapped veins of mithril.

The Elves sang often of the beauty of the light of the stars—but his people had their own light. Slowly, his fingers ghosted over the metal, and a smile played across his face as the last of his consciousness faded.

"Ah. There you are."


Lalli

The mines were dark and peaceful, but they were not his home.

The night was dark and cool, but the moon and stars were too bright, a too-painful reminder of what he had once had and lost.

…he had someone he might be able to call a friend, but that was painful for the same reason.

Orcs could be social creatures; many of them had even built great cities of their own beneath the mountains. Like any race, however, there were individual variations, and Lalli was not. Given the choice, Lalli would always choose to be alone in the dark.

…so many Orcs had been slaughtered during the War of the Ring. Being alone now was not hard, not when you preferred the sorts of places nobody else wanted to go.

For some reason, he felt most comfortable in the crumbling ruins of Rivendell and the abandoned forest of Lothlorien. Those were old places, reminders of what he had once been, but now dead and broken to match his broken body. There, the two of them somehow always managed to find each other.

They never met long. They spoke even more rarely. Still, they… touched, reaching out in the only way either of them knew how to reach out.

Were any of the original residents to return, they would claim he was defiling these places. Lalli couldn't say in all honesty that he wasn't. The fact remained, though, that he felt drawn to return, and there was no longer anyone to force him away.

…what was he going to do when he no longer had Emil?

Elves, he knew, would slowly fade if forever removed from their own place and time. What, then, would happen to an Orc?

He was no longer an Elf, had not been an Elf for as long as he could remember, yet it had never been his time and never been his place. Maybe, if the War of the Ring had gone differently… but it hadn't. They had lost, and here he was, nothing more than a broken corruption of Ilúvatar's grand vision.

He had hated his creator, then, for having allowed his torment, knowing that he would never be taken back for what he had become. Then, he had wanted nothing more than to spread his own pain. Like most of his kind, he did not feel the blows when he was struck in battle—those were nothing, compared to the agony that had made him what he was.

Emil, at least, was able to share that much.

If the people to whom this new world belonged were to see Emil, though, they would look upon him with awe, as a reminder of the Firstborn and the glory that had come before them. If they were to see Lalli, they would shoot him on sight.

…he would never be fixed. He would never be whole. He could not remember what it was like not to be in pain.

"Can one such as me ever have peace?" he asked of the cold moon, his only companion on the long, lonely nights.

Let go, the moon seemed to whisper back. Let go.


Emil

"Why do you stay?"

Emil turned to look at him in surprise. Though they continued to meet, they did not often talk. This was the first time he could ever recall Lalli having asked him a question.

He shifted uncomfortably for a few minutes, but in the end, the only answer he could give was the truth. "There was no place for me in the Undying Lands."

"You are an Elf," Lalli replied, simply.

In answer to that, he could only shake his head. "I'm a coward."

A few more minutes of silence. Then: "How?"

This was the question he'd been dreading. A feeling of coldness curled up through his gut—but this was Lalli; he could not speak anything but truth. "I couldn't kill you," he said at last, in a whisper.

Lalli said nothing. When Emil finally dared to look at him, though, he did not appear angry, or shocked. Instead, he merely nodded. Of course; he had already known.

"Do you call me a coward?" he asked at last. Emil shook his head.

"What will you do?" Lalli asked, again—gently. "This world is not ours."

"I don't know."

The last Orc, and the last Elf, left behind in a world where they didn't belong, watching it change around them while they remained eternal.

Eventually, they both stopped wandering.

Neither of them had ever called Rivendell home, but it was still the only place where they could find peace. So they lived there, and watched its halls crumble around them, its glory slowly fade.

Emil started to show the signs first.

It started on the day he would not come out of his bed, but instead simply lay there, awake but inert, not caring to eat or drink—indeed, Lalli could barely convince him to move.

"I can't fight it anymore," was all that he said—that, and no more.

Neither did Lalli. He already knew what was happening. Instead, he felt his own heart breaking in turn, and rather than try to push Emil to go on in a world in which he had nothing to go on to, sat down beside him, and waited for his own fading to begin.


Eventually, the War of the Ring passed into legend, as did the legacy of the Firstborn, the reign of the Dark Lords and the monsters that had haunted the shadows. Even later, the race of Men began to doubt that any of these things had truly existed at all, that they had not been a flight of fancy from their own minds.

For the most part, they saw very little that contradicted this. Lothlórien was long since gone back to wild nature, and even the more substantial ruins were well-hidden, decayed to the point where it was impossible to tell what they once had been.

Still, whenever a lone wanderer did stumble across the ruins and cared to explore, they would find two skeletons lying side by side, hands clasped in a last show of solidarity.

Chapter Text

The first thing that the Hotakainen cousins always did when they got home from school was drop their backpacks on the floor and open up their laptops.

Sometimes, Tuuri spent her free time with groups of friends, but when she wasn't doing that, she was on social media—checking out everyone's status, and browsing as many pictures as she could find.

"Hey Lalli, look, Marie gets to go on vacation to Bermuda next month! Ooh, I'm so jealous!"

Lalli, who was already into a round of a first-person shooter, let out a grunt.

"And everyone else is—oh. Oh!"

Lalli, who had long ago learned that it didn't actually matter what he said, but that Tuuri would get angry if he didn't answer when she chattered, didn't even bother to remove his headphones. "What?"

"Come over here and look!"

"I'm busy."

"No you're not!" And, before he could react, she had yanked his headphones off, slammed his laptop closed, and dragged him over to where her computer was open on the kitchen table.

"See?" she demanded, pointing at her screen as if she thought he would achieve enlightenment just by looking.

"What?"

Tuuri huffed, as if she thought that whatever she was talking about ought to be obvious. "This!" She tapped her screen, jamming a finger into it with such force that temporary rainbows radiated out from the place where she had touched. "There's a new game coming out, and it needs people to test it!"

Lalli blinked. "Test it?"

"Yep! You download the prototype, and play it, and if anything goes wrong you make a note of it and send it in to the developer. Sounds fun, right?"

Before Lalli even had time to answer, he found himself in front of his own laptop once again, downloading a game he knew literally nothing about, the game he had been enjoying temporarily abandoned.


When Lalli abruptly disappeared out of the game with no warning, Emil swore.

It wasn't that he was especially invested in this particular zombie shooter—in all honesty, he was just kind of along for the ride. Still, this was something that Lalli enjoyed, and Lalli found it far easier to interact with people over a keyboard and screen than he did face to face. If the two of them ever spent quality time together, it wasn't at lunchtime or sitting next to each other in class—it was here, in the virtual world, and having that time unexpectedly interrupted was not something Emil appreciated.

He was just about to decide that Lalli had probably experienced a power outage and go try to do some homework when his phone vibrated in his pocket. Swiping it open, he saw that he had a text.

Sorry about that. Tuuri.

Nodding in sympathy, Emil texted back. You want to start playing again?

Actually, there's another game we can play…


"So, big guy, you wanna hit the bars tonight?"

"I do have a life other than going out drinking with you, you know."

"Like what?" Sigrun punched his shoulder. "If I didn't make you come out once in a while, all you'd ever do is sit home and read."

"As a matter of fact, I am not reading tonight." Mikkel took a few seconds to rub his arm surreptitiously. "A friend of mine has been developing a game. I promised I'd assist in the first bug test."

"As in, a computer game?" Sigrun blinked. "I didn't know you were into that."

"I'm not. As I said, I'm doing a favor for a friend."

"Yeah, yeah. … Mind if I join in?"

"Sigrun, I fail to see how something like this could possibly be entertaining for you."

"What? A game's a game, right? I'll grab a few beers and chat with you while we're doing it. You do the same and it'll be just like going out drinking after all!"

"I am not grabbing any beers."


Meanwhile, somewhere else, another redhead was browsing cute kitten pictures when he noticed he had an email from his pen pal.

"Wait, I can help? I can help!"


The download bar finished. The game opened. They waited.


Mikkel looked. Pretty simplistic, pretty basic. This shouldn't take him more than a few hours.

Better start from the beginning, then. He opened it up, started a new game, saved…

Well, there was Bug One. Mikkel poked around a bit, found the source of the error, changed a few permissions, and made a note in the email he was drafting.


"Okay. So." Sigrun clicked on the menu and started a new game. Boo-yah! It worked! "Oy, Mikkel! You seeing this?"

"Yes, Sigrun," his voice came in over her headphones. "I'm playing the same game you are."

She grinned, swiped a beer can from the mini fridge beside her computer, and pulled the tab open.

This was going to be fun.


"Oh, look, look! Aren't they adorable, Lalli!?"

"I'm looking," he said without bothering to answer her question—she wasn't going to notice, anyway. Just as well, since he didn't have the first clue what made her decide whether something was "adorable" or "gross and scary".

Personally, Lalli didn't care. An enemy was an enemy, whether it was a drooling zombie or a fluffy baby spider.

His team finished off one of those baby spiders. Then, they killed another.

How's it going so far? Emil's IM popped up on his screen.

Not bad, Lalli typed back after pausing the game. I'm on Level 5.

I'm still on 2…


"Hm, I wonder why the game took me straight into battle mode… Oh! I wonder if I should maybe write that down?"

What kind of tester was he? Hastily he typed out an email and sent it to the debugging address.

A few minutes later, he noticed that one of the characters was consistently getting more XP than anyone else.

"Oh no, I should have told her about that too! I'd better send another email…"


"How… I'm dead again!"

"Hm."

"Seriously, how are you on Level 7 already and I keep getting game over!?"

"Have you perhaps considered the merits of playing strategically as opposed to fighting every single thing that you come across?"

"Where's the fun in that?"


Tuuri was quick to discover that not only was the game saved in a plain text file, but that it could easily be edited.

At first, she just had fun seeing how ridiculously overpowered she could make the characters. Then, though, she decided to start playing around with some of the other parameters…

"EEEEEEEEE! Lalli, I got into the forbidden area!"

"Okay."

"You're not even looking!" Indeed, Lalli was still busy killing spiders.

Lalli shrugged.

Fine, let him be that way, then. Tuuri turned back to the text file. She wondered what would happen if she tweaked it to put her outside of the next barrier…


This game was boring. It was too repetitive. Run into a black dot, kill spiders. Run into another black dot, kill more spiders. Done. Before long Emil wasn't even playing anymore, just chatting with Lalli.

What level are you now?

15.

How about now?

23.


Mikkel had sent in his completed bug report a long time ago. Now, he was chuckling to himself at the enemy spawns moving across the screen, which he had replaced with Mario sprites.

Quietly, he contemplated the merits of sending his own altered version back to the original writer…


The half-empty can of beer flew into the wall hard enough to make a dent. The computer followed shortly thereafter.

Still too fuzzy-headed to care about the mess or the expense, Sigrun staggered away from the desk and fell face-first onto the couch to sleep it off.


With a feeling of smug satisfaction, Lalli one-shotted the queen spider into oblivion. Then, he did the same to each of the smaller ones in turn.

It was well after midnight. The rest of the household had long since retired. If Onni could see him now, he knew, he would have lectured him that he should have been in bed hours ago.

Right now, though, it didn't matter. Lalli could say with satisfaction that he had thoroughly beaten this game.

Chapter Text

The Noise Inside My Head

For the fifth time that week, she jolted awake.

Sigrun couldn't have said what had woken her; if there was a nightmare, she didn't remember it. No, the only thing she could point to was a vague sense of dread, which wasn't helpful, damn it!

Move. She needed to move, needed to get out of here, if only for a few minutes. What she really needed right now was something to fight, but it would be far too dangerous to go off alone into the dark, so a little bit of fresh air would just have to do.

The crisp night air woke her up quite effectively—the nights were always a little bit chilly this far up in the mountains, even in summer. It was a good way to shake off that creeping dread that she still had never managed to put a name to. Good way to keep herself from going back to sleep until she was sure that it was gone.

Nobody was going to question it, she knew. She might not have been with this team for long, but they'd already learned that these night walks were just something she did. Just another one of their new Captain's quirks.

Sigrun couldn't help but wonder, as she took a seat on a rock just inside the perimeter of the camp, whether she'd truly figured out all of their quirks.

No point in thinking about that. She'd know what it looked like if it cropped up. In the meantime, though… well, the fact that there wasn't much she could accomplish by worrying wasn't enough to stop her from worrying anyway.

In all honesty, she wasn't even sure what she was worrying about. She'd had nineteen straight years of military service before Mikkel without a single hitch; odds were she could go another nineteen years or more without encountering his like again. People like him, she imagined, had to be rare.

Still, even one was more than enough for the rest of her life.

What are you going to do now?

Go back to work, of course.

She could not risk being kept out of the field. That would leave her with nothing but her own bad memories and this new lingering dread. So, she refused to let anyone see that there was still something wrong with her.

He was gone. She was healed. There shouldn't still be anything wrong with her… but that didn't change the fact that there was, that he was going to haunt her for the rest of her life.

Slowly, though, ever so slowly, for this night at least the dread was subsiding. Wasn't to say it was gone, or that she was under any sort of illusions it wouldn't come back, but for now, at least, she had achieved a bit of calm.

It was late. Sigrun needed her rest. She could not effectively lead her team if she had not slept.

No one stirred when she crawled back into her bedroll. The bedding had grown cold now that she had moved and given the lingering body heat time to leach out, and Sigrun shivered as she curled up into a ball and pulled her cloak tighter around herself.

She never used to get cold so easily…

Sleep had used to come to her so readily…

It didn't matter. Life was harder now, but if she gave up, he won.


Another night, another Hunt. More creeping dread that sent her jolting awake.

This was getting to be too much. It had been over a week since she'd had a full night's sleep.

For a time, she'd tried pacing forcefully around the edges of the camp, hoping to exhaust her stupid body enough to convince it to go back to sleep. The problem with that, though, was that it inevitably left her with a cold bed to come back to, and even if she was tired enough to rest she'd spend a full hour shivering herself to sleep, which brought back a whole new set of bad memories.

Now, she was seeing how it worked to simply stay in bed.

Breathe. Stay calm. It's over. You're not hurt. Breathe.

Breathe.

It didn't pass right away—it never did—but then again, it never had when she'd gotten up and moved around either.

Eventually, Sigrun realized that the fingers of her right hand were digging roughly into her left arm.

With a hiss, she pulled her hand away. Still, the sensation of rough scar tissue lingered under her fingers.

The darkness of the tent bored into her eyes. Her teammates' snores filled the air.

Normal night sounds. Signs that all was well.

Sigrun rolled over and laid her head on the pillow, but she'd known all along that she would get no more sleep that night.


Home. Winter. The off-season. They were still responsible for defending the village, but the trolls were not active and neither were they. The days were quiet, the nights quieter. The great hunts were for the summer.

Again, she pushed herself out of bed. Again, she staggered to the desk.

Sigrun hated writing even more than she hated reading. Bad enough sitting around trying to absorb someone else's words, but when she tried to put down her own, they wriggled and squirmed and slipped from her grasp. Ever since learning the alphabet, she'd studiously avoided writing any but the briefest of statements: her name on a piece of paper, the ranks of her underlings.

Maybe that's why she had started. Maybe, she'd thought, if she spent some time forcing herself to do the most awful thing she could think of, it would help her forget the awful thing that had woken her up in the first place.

Sitting down with a sigh, she dipped the pen in the inkwell.

I'm cold, she started.

She never thought very hard about what she was writing, nor to whom she intended to send it. Did she intend to send it? The only people she'd be willing to show these words were also the ones for whom they'd open their own old wounds.

Weakness. She could not show weakness to any of the soldiers she was supposed to be leading. Therefore, these letters remained secret.

At long last, she began to yawn. The pen was put away, the paper crammed into a drawer before the ink had even been allowed to dry. She couldn't leave it out, and take the risk of anyone seeing it.


Her parents did know, and they did try to help.

Her mother had asked, that first year, whether she needed to take some time out of the field, but Sigrun's refusal had been adamant, and they hadn't asked again. She was needed, and she needed the work. The officers in the Hunters weren't getting any younger, the new recruits weren't getting any more numerous, and if you couldn't be relied on when you were needed most, then you simply weren't reliable.

She'd talked, that first time, because she'd had to, because she'd owed them the truth of what she had done and what had been done to her. Now, though, there was nothing left for her to say that she had not already said.

So they stopped asking. Instead, they would take it in turns to tell her that it was time to practice, and that they wouldn't take no for an answer, and to spend some time outside in the snow, hours if need be, crossing blades with her with blunt practice swords until she was sweaty and flushed, and had no room in her head for anything other than her own exhaustion.

Even so, the relief was only temporary, and she always knew that soon enough the cold would creep back in, carried by dread like the stink of infection in a long-hidden nest.

It was a temporary fix. A Band-Aid over a gash. She needed something different, something more.


The Nexus

When the letter came for her, it was a surprise.

Would you like to join us this summer? the last line read. It was signed by five familiar names.

She set the letter on her desk. Then, she flipped through the multiple separate sheets of paper that had been in the envelope along with it.

Enough is enough…

We need to face this…

We're all going…

Then, her fingers brushed over the outlier, the one she hadn't wanted to read.

Though I have committed no crime, I will understand if you don't want to see me. If any one of you feels that I should remove myself from your venture, I will do so. Nevertheless, I humbly request to be allowed. I need the healing as much as you do, and perhaps, being who I am, I could even help in some way.

The name, the two initials, was so familiar… yet at the same time, different, and she could not let herself forget it.

For a moment, Sigrun hesitated. To go back… to re-tread that path…

No. She was not a coward. She pulled out a blank piece of paper, dipped the pen in the inkwell, and began to write.


The base was exactly as she remembered it.

All around her, the smell of the sea. Cats scampered between the legs of uniformed workers, all under the watchful gaze of the officers. She breathed in the sea air, and looked around.

It was not hard to find him: even if his features hadn't been eternally imprinted on her mind's eye, someone that tall and that built would always stand out in a crowd. Catching his eye, she saw that he was looking in her direction, but he had not moved from where he stood: waiting for her to come to him. She did so.

"The others here yet?" she asked, after they shook hands.

"Unfortunately not."

After that, there was nothing to do but wait—and remember.

That first time, she had been so excited, bursting with energy and eager to meet her new team. Now, they passed the time with little more than a weary resignation.

When Emil finally approached them, he had a black eye—another rough ride, it looked like, and a fact it seemed he was trying to hide via creative rearrangement of his hair. For the first time that day, Sigrun grinned.

"Punch any giants this time?" she asked, brushing away his hair to get a better look. Emil winced.

"Got thrown off the bed," he muttered. "It's nothing."

The sound of someone clearing his throat behind them made them all turn to look. Emil stiffened, and Sigrun kept a hand on his shoulder. "Wasn't there supposed to be one more of you?" Michael asked.

"Reynir," she muttered, her good cheer instantly evaporating. "He's coming by sea."

Sitting down by the docks, separated from the others once more while she waited for the ship to come in, Sigrun felt the cold sea air wash over her face, and breathed. No chills this time, thankfully, just the crisp, refreshing snap of the winter air. Presently she heard the sound of footsteps beside her, and turned.

Under any normal circumstances, it would be highly unusual for the scout to seek her company. What they were doing here, however, did not count as normal circumstances. "So why did you decide to go through with it?" she asked as Lalli stared out to sea beside her.

He didn't give her an answer; she wasn't expecting him to. So, they simply waited in silence until Lalli's voice made her perk up once more.

"They're coming."

In an instant she was on her feet. Sure, she couldn't see anything, but this is why they needed mages to be their eyes and ears. She beckoned the others over, and they all stood at the dock to wait.

Sure enough, before long the great prow of a ship appeared on horizon. As a group, they all moved forward to meet the tall redhead who came down the gangplank.

"So… when do we go?" he asked, after greetings had been exchanged.

Sigrun opened her mouth to say "Now"—but for a second, she hesitated, then sighed. "Give me a moment." Then, she walked off without further explanation.

The white jacket let slightly more chill in as it settled on her shoulders than her usual fur-lined cloak, the gloves and boots shiny and still not entirely broken in. It didn't feel like her uniform, not anymore—but it did feel right for what they were doing.

The others blinked at her as she came within their sight once more. Then, however, Emil smiled.

"Give me a minute as well."

Before long, they had all changed into their old uniforms—all, that is, except one.

In answer to their glances, Michael shrugged. "I'm not my brother, and I wasn't originally on this mission. I see no reason for me to emulate his looks more than I already do."

"Fair enough." They turned to their vehicle, battered and smudged but still serviceable even after all these years. "Let's go."

In silence, they crossed the bridge. In silence, they settled down for the night.

As they traveled, they made note of this place or that: "Hey, our first book raid, remember how you blew up that building?" "Yeah, Lalli was in there and nearly died." "What books did we get out of there again? How much did they sell for? Does anyone remember?"

Finally, though, they came to Amelienborg.

"A troll followed us here," Sigrun explained, arms crossed, leaning up against the tank while Reynir sketched protective runes around the perimeters of their campsite. "Stalked us under the snow. When it attacked, it went right for the weakest," she jerked her head in Reynir's direction, "and the only thing I could do to stop it was get between it and him."

Michael nodded. "You were injured?"

With a brief nod, she pushed up her sleeve. The scars were still there, discolored and rough. "I've had worse," she confessed, rolling her sleeve back down. "I've even had worse stitching than the mess he made of it. But this was the first time…"

The first time she hadn't been able to trust the person who was tending her wounds. The first time what should have been the most straightforward thing in the world suddenly and inexplicably ceased to work the way it was supposed to.

Belatedly, she realized that the fingers of her right arm were tightly gripping her left. Sigrun took a deep breath and pried them off.

"What did he do?"

"More a question of what he didn't do." She looked at him.

The meaning was clear: something for something. Michael nodded, as if he understood. "I caught him, once. Messing around with one of the calves. Dad had taught us exactly how we were supposed to tend a newborn calf. Said he wanted to know what would happen if he did something different."

"Sounds familiar." She scuffed her foot against the ground. "And?"

"The calf died." He shook his head. "You grow up on a farm, you get used to death, but this…"

"I just about lost the arm," Sigrun said in her turn, weeks later, when they were within sight of the abandoned base. "Lucky I didn't die of infection by the time we got this far."

"What happened?"

Instead of answering, she turned, looking out to where the others were having their own conversation by the side of the tank. Reynir was standing a little bit apart, though, and came when she beckoned.

"This one's a farm kid, too," Sigrun stated, laying her hand on his shoulder. "He might not have been able to do everything, but he knew enough."

"The doctors wanted to cut it off," she continued that night, as they sat around the dying embers of a campfire after the kids had gone to bed. "I wouldn't let them. I was ready to fight them before I'd let them take my arm." She poked the ashes with a stick. "He'd already taken everything else from me, he wasn't going to take my career as well."

It was only then that she realized just how much she'd talked ever since this little venture, this retracing of their steps, had started. Sigrun looked over the fire pit at Michael, narrowing her eyes.

"I'm glad you were not forced to leave the military." As if picking up on her thoughts, he rested his hands on his knees, and leaned back on his own log. "I suppose I owe you a tale of my own, then."

She shrugged. "Anyone other than you ever find out about the calf?"

"No. If I'd told our parents, he'd have told them about that time I'd gotten into the liquor cabinet, and… well." He grinned sheepishly for a moment, but then let his hands fall back down into his lap. "I suppose that's not funny."

To her surprise, Sigrun found herself letting out a brief snort of repressed laughter. "Not at all." Then: "You're telling me that story next."

"As you like."

For a time, they simply sat in silence. They waited until the last of the embers had finally faded out of sight. Michael shifted in preparation to get up and go to bed.

"Why am I talking to you?" she said at last.

Michael sat back down.

"Was that an invitation for me to try and answer that question?" he asked, carefully, after a few minutes of silence.

"You look like him," she continued at last, shaking her head. "They're the ones who went through this with me," she swept her hand in the direction of the barracks, where the four younger crewmembers were sleeping. "I've never wanted to talk to anyone about what went on out here, not even my parents. So sure. Give it your best guess."

"My guess is that it has something to do with the fact that you're the officer on this team. Mikkel was supposed to be your co-commander, but they needed to be able to rely on your strength. As to why suddenly feel like opening up now…" He shrugged. "Might it be the fact that I've chosen to return the favor?"

"Makes sense." All at once she was tired. Back when that infection was raging through her body, she'd always felt better after her wounds were drained—but that didn't change the fact that it hurt. Sigrun sighed, and stood. "I'm going to bed."

She was barely in range to hear Michael's soft "Goodnight."


Sigrun made a point of not asking her former teammates whether the trip had been worth it. That didn't stop any of them from telling her anyway.

"Thanks for coming with us," Emil said to her in an undertone, as they were getting ready to part ways at the station. "It wouldn't have been the same without our Captain there."

"It wasn't supposed to be the same," she shot back, only to soften when Emil's face paled. "But I know what you mean."

"You didn't have to come, you know," she said to Reynir, later, as he was getting ready to board the ship. "This wasn't even your mission the first time."

"I wanted to help." He shrugged. "I always wanted to help, but nobody ever wants to let me."

"You did." Her hand on his shoulder was becoming a familiar gesture, and she thought Reynir was finally getting used to it—just as she had finally gotten used to thinking of the useless troll bait as one of her own.

Finally, there was only her left, waiting for the ship that would take her back to Norway: her, and one other.

"Why did you want to come?" she asked at last, without turning to look at him.

"No matter how much time passes, my brother continues to haunt me," he replied after a moment. "I suppose I needed to see for myself what his final acts had been."

She nodded. "Makes sense." After all, had she not shown him herself, to the nearest that Lalli had been able to remember, the place where they had found the body? "Has he ever stopped haunting you?"

"Never."

"That's what I thought." Shaking her head, Sigrun stepped onto the gangplank and back toward her home.


Those last few days of retreading the mission, she'd finally been able to sleep soundly. The first night after her return, though, she woke up thrashing and could not help but leap out of bed, turning on the light as she went.

Old habit brought her to the desk. Old habit found her pulling out the chair and dipping the pen into the inkwell.

Old habit did these things—but new experience prompted her to, when she would have pulled out a fresh sheet of paper, instead open the drawer and run her fingers over some of her old musings.

She drew the top sheet out. She read it over. Shivers passed through her as she remembered the night that she'd wrote the contents.

Carefully, Sigrun folded the paper. Then, instead of a fresh sheet, she lowered her pen to an envelope, and scratched out an address for her thoughts to be tucked inside.

Chapter Text

She was gone.

It was his worst fear, come to life. This wasn't a nightmare. It wasn't a paranoid delusion. Onni had seen her go: had fallen from the sky trying to fly after her. After all of his effort, all of his care, his baby sister was dead.

He'd lost all his will to help. He'd lost his will to do anything.

Slowly, Onni got up and walked to the border of his haven. Peeling back the protective barrier, he peered out over the endless sea.

She was out there. The last eleven years of his life, he'd sacrificed to protect his sister… yet in the end, it had all been in vain…

All at once, Onni sat down heavily. He had failed. First his orders and admonishments, then later his begging and pleading… no matter what he tried, it had all been for nothing. Why had she not been able to admit the truth?

Tuuri. He owed it to her to think of her by her name; she deserved better than to forever be "she" and "her" in his mind because the mere mention of her name hurt him, as if his only sister had been nothing more than another nameless, faceless victim of the Rash! Faceless to someone else, maybe… but not to him; never to him.

So many years of her life, that she would never get to live. Tuuri had been so smart; she could have done anything that she wanted—if only what she wanted hadn't been so deadly to her! When she had been alive, Onni had only ever thought of the day to day: where their next meal was coming from, how many patches he could manage to sew on before she outgrew her clothes completely, how to dissuade her from her next harebrained scheme to go beyond the walls… Now, though, he watched Tuuri's future dissolve before his eyes: the books she was never going to write, the inventions she was never going to show to the world, the ancient civilizations she was never going to learn about, the dead languages she would never get to speak…

"Was it worth it?" he whispered, gazing out into the mist.

Tuuri had certainly seemed to think so. Now that he thought about it, even tucked up under the wing of the Swan she hadn't sounded sad at all: she'd spent her last words admonishing him not to sorrow. Did Onni have any right to mourn his sister's death, when she did not?

He couldn't be all alone… not again…

"We'll see each other again someday; you know that!"

Yes. Someday. When the Swan came for him in turn.

…how many decades would that be, now?

Even as Tuuri's future faded into the distance, Onni saw his own stretching out before him, empty. All of the care and effort he'd once put into keeping his sister safe was now meaningless. Yet he'd still spend his day to day managing the wards of Keuruu to protect people who weren't his family… knowing all along that those who benefited from his efforts still had something he had lost forever…

We'll see each other again someday…

Onni thought for a few minutes. Then, he got up and pushed his way past the barrier.

It was necessary to be cautious out here—one wrong move, and the soul could be separated from the body and wander forever. Nevertheless, Onni was an experienced mage, and he knew what he was doing. He felt no fear as he ventured out into the starry darkness, only the lightness of relief. The worst had already happened; he had nothing left to lose.

One leap, and the dream sea was drifting silently beneath his wings. He did not bother to keep track of where he was; that didn't matter anymore. The only thing that mattered was where he was going.

Return to your body. It is not your time.

No. My time was eleven years ago. Thank you for the extension, but I am ready now.

Onni! I knew you'd come for me!

Don't worry, little sister. I'll always be here.

Chapter Text

Part 1

It was soon, too soon.

That was what Mikkel had said when they heard the news. Sigrun was still weak from her fever, and her wounds had not yet healed. Winter was setting in, the roads choked with snow; traveling under such conditions would be inadvisable at the best of times.

"I said do or die, and I meant it," was Sigrun's cheerful response to this news. "If it's stay here and be hunted out by the Romans or exposure on the road, I'd much rather die getting home."

"Very well—but I must remind you that such a journey will be rough on your health."

Personally, Emil was on Mikkel's side for once—even if he did have his own ulterior motives.

They needed more time. He couldn't speak for Reynir, but his feelings were all a tangled mess—what Reynir was to him, whether he wanted to stay for for Reynir to come with him, how hard it struck him that both were impossible.

Reynir's home was here. Emil knew all too well what it was to be ripped away from one's own people, to be thrown into a strange world with strange customs where even a thing as simple as having a conversation was well beyond one's means. They had all been away from home for far too long, he needed to rejoin his own people, and Reynir needed to remain with his. And yet… and yet.

Here, there would always be a lingering "might have been". What Reynir was to him… he didn't even know, and regretted that he would never have a chance to find out. Friend in his time of desperation, shelter in their time of need… who could say what might have grown between them, if they had only had better circumstances, and communication, and time…

Now, though, they didn't have any of those things. Now, Reynir had to stay, and Emil's life was on the line if he didn't go. On the morning of their departure, though, when Emil was still in the process of shrugging into his pack (what supplies Reynir's family had been able to spare, and thank the gods for small mercies that if they were careful they wouldn't have to beg on the road), Reynir came out to see him off.

He had something in his hand. Responding to his gesture, Emil held out his own hand, palm up, and received his last parting gift: a tiny wooden sheep, carefully carved; he knew without even asking that Reynir had made it himself. Reynir held both of Emil's hands in his own for a few seconds after the carving had been folded into them, speaking a single sentence, and then without another word, turned and retreated to the fields.

"What did he say?" Emil asked at last after a few seconds of silence turning to the one person who could pass on on that final message.

"He said, 'We'll meet again.'"


They did not know exactly where they were going.

Sigrun had left her village far too long ago to remember the way. Emil hadn't been paying attention, because navigation had been the task of someone else in their party and he'd thought at the time that holding a map was beneath him. Mikkel had a vague notion of a destination, but it was only a best guess. For the time being, the only thing they knew for sure was that they needed to head north, that they needed to avoid the Roman legions, and that their best hope was to find a village where the people spoke their language, and go from there.

At first, Emil was afraid that they would be caught, but the legions were looking for gladiator rebels, not a group of ragged travelers on the road. In the case that they did get stopped, Mikkel's Latin was good enough and his tongue quick enough that they could usually avoid suspicion; as long as Sigrun and Emil kept their mouths shut and their heads down, as good women and children were supposed to do in Rome, they could pass unremarked.

Mikkel's fluency in Latin was not only good for getting them out of a potential tight spot. Once or twice they managed to hitch a ride on a passing wagon, or work their passage on a boat that was headed north. "I told the crew that you were mute," Mikkel explained to Emil on one such occasion, his eyes sparkling with an unwarranted amount of amusement while Emil sputtered with outrage, "so it would be best for all of us if you would refrain from talking throughout the entirety of this journey, on the off-chance that someone should hear you."

Sigrun was not handling the journey well.

Oh, she didn't complain; a true Viking warrior never did. Still, when they were on foot she often fell behind, breathing hard and sweating when she finally managed to catch up, and Emil knew that the multiple rest stops they took while on the road were not for the sake of his tender feet.

Every night when they made camp, Mikkel would stop to look at her, but there wasn't much he could do. One of her arms was in a sling because it still hurt her to move her shoulder, and Mikkel would make sure that that stayed securely in place, but medicine was scarce while on the road, and clean bandages were something they had to beg or pilfer. The medicine that Reynir had packed for them was by this point long gone.

"What she really needs," Mikkel confessed to him at one point, while Sigrun curled shivering in her bedroll while the two of them were left to clear the scant remains of their dinner, "is rest. Rest, and good food, and a clean environment in which to heal… and unfortunately, none of those things are available at present."

"Do you think we're at least close?" Emil asked, rather than thinking about the implications of that. They'd nearly lost Sigrun once, but still she'd pulled through. He had to believe that she would do so again.

Mikkel shrugged. "Impossible to say. I know what my maps and my memories tell me, but a lot can change in twenty years—including, sometimes, the location of a village."

Emil nodded. They would know they'd made progress once they managed to locate someone who could speak their language—but they hadn't seen a soul on the road for a matter of weeks. They were too deep into the wilderness, and too deep into winter. Much longer, and it would be hunt their dinner or starve—and the hunting here did not look good.

They were near that point of desperation when they saw it.

They had just eaten the last of their food. They were well into the mountains and had found no acceptable shelter, and so had been forced to push on or risk going to sleep and not waking. Then—

Emil grabbed Mikkel's arm. "Is—is that a light?"

For a few seconds, Mikkel squinted into the snow. Then, he smiled. "I do believe that it is. Your keen eyesight might have saved us all."

"Well, let's not all stand here gaping at it." Sigrun put a hand on Emil's back, pushing him forward. "I don't care if it's a pile of straw, but I want to sleep in a warm bed tonight."

They needed little encouragement. Still, they approached cautiously, not knowing what sort of welcome they were going to receive. They might have been well out of Roman territory, but that didn't mean that every tribe they stumbled across were going to be their friends. Right now even the fighters were exhausted well beyond fighting, and they had nothing with which to trade for a meal and a night's shelter save the labor of their own bodies, which in their sorry state wouldn't amount to much.

They were right to be cautious. Emil had just begun to make out the twinkling of individual windows when a figure in a heavy cloak stepped into their path, naked sword in hand.

"What purpose do you have in coming here?" It was hard to tell under all the furs, but if the voice was anything to go by, the speaker was a woman—a good sign. An even better sign was the fact that Emil understood her words perfectly. Still, he was careful to keep his hands well away from his weapons, and held them up palm-out to show that he had not come here with the intention to fight. Beside him, he could see Mikkel and Sigrun doing the same.

"We are travelers seeking shelter." Though they were no longer in need of an interpreter, it seemed as if Mikkel had fallen into the habit of doing all the talking. "We have no goods to trade, but are willing to work for our keep. Is that an acceptable offer?"

Emil's heart sank as she hesitated; she was still suspicious. Then, Sigrun stepped forward, using her good arm to lower her hood. "Look, we appreciate the caution and all, but we're really tired. So if you could just—"

She was interrupted by a sudden gasp. The sword clattered to the ground. There was a tenuous whisper—"S-Sigrun?" Looking back at Sigrun, Emil could see that her eyes had gone wide. She mouthed a single word, her eyes overbright. Then—

—then, both women were rushing toward each other; they collided in a fierce embrace, their weapons left forgotten in the snow. Emil was shocked by the sound of a sob, though he couldn't have said which of them it came from, and then a stream of barely-intelligible words interspersed with more sobs as they both started talking at once.

"We thought—"

"—dreamed about this so long—"

"—wanted to—"

"—tried, I really tried—"

"How did you—"

"How did you—"

Emil turned to Mikkel. "We missed something."

Mikkel crossed his arms. "That is indeed a safe assumption."

Finally, though, they broke apart and turned to the men, and Sigrun—her eyes were red, Emil realized with a shock, and not only from the wind—raised her good hand to wipe away a stray tear. "Emil, Mikkel. This is my mother."


"I have borne many children," Solveig explained to them as they shared one last drink before turning in—Sigrun had fallen asleep right there in front of the fire, albeit with as many warm blankets as she could possibly want, and Solveig ran a hand fondly through her red hair as she spoke, as if afraid that her daughter would vanish if she went too long without maintaining physical contact. "But Sigrun is the only one who made it past infancy. She was so determined to prove herself as a warrior… and yet, when she didn't come back…"

"I'm sure she will give you the full story herself at some point," Mikkel rumbled. "For now, though, suffice it to say that we were all of us captured and enslaved by a foreign people, and had to pool all of our resources and wits in order to get back home—it was her drive and leadership that paved the way for us to do that."

Solveig nodded. "You brought our daughter back to us when we had long thought her dead. For that, you will always be welcome here. But what of your homes? Are you going to attempt to return to your own families?"

"I have been away from my own home for so long I would hardly know where to start. That we just so happened upon Sigrun's was nothing more than sheer luck…"

While Mikkel talked logistics, Emil thought.

Did he want to go home? Even if he were to somehow miraculously locate the village where he'd been born, would his uncle and aunt give him the same tearful welcome with which Sigrun's mother had greeted her? The journey that had taken him to Rome had been his uncle's scheme in the first place… it had been planned so poorly, supplied so scantily; there had been so many things that could go wrong, and yet, they'd thought nothing of bribing and cajoling him into attending, thinking it would be a means to finally prove his worth…

Emil had proven his worth—but to himself, not to his relatives or the smirking village boys. The journey had been a failure; he had not accomplished what his uncle wanted. Even if he did show his face there again, would he be welcomed with open arms or with more ridicule?


The reunion with her father, who'd been out hunting at the time of her return, was no less tearful, if somewhat more subdued. Out of necessity Sigrun had forced herself to get up and moving far too soon, and she'd spent so long on her feet and on the road, eating hard trail rations and sleeping cold, that now that she finally had a safe space to heal and rest, her body was no longer willing to take no for an answer, and she spent most of her time sleeping, or simply resting quietly in front of the fire.

The village healer did take a look at her, the morning after her return, but did not tell her anything that Mikkel had not already said: rest. She needed to rest. Medicines helped, but her body could not heal itself if she was driving it to exhaustion.

So, she rested. She did not yet have the energy to get out and reintroduce herself to the village. It was just as well, really: Sigrun belonged here, yet she felt like a stranger in her own home.

It had been so long since she had seen her parents that she hardly knew what to say to them. The worst that she had gone through in Rome, she wasn't yet ready to talk about. Even the day to day seemed oddly detached now, like a story she'd been told about some fictional heroine.

"When you're ready," was the only thing her mother had said.

She did tell them about the heroic battle that she had led in order to escape from Rome.

Her people valued stories, and they valued courage. This, at least, was one good story that she could bring back to them, and the long months of journeying that had brought her home.

In turn, they started to tell her some stories of their own. It was a good way to pass the time when you were low on energy and supposed to be resting up anyway, even if some of them did produce an unexpected reaction.

She had missed out on so much. So much of the life that she should have had had been stolen from her, and those were years she was never going to get back. She barely knew her own parents anymore. How did you go about putting your life back together after something like that?

"You need to start moving around a bit more," her mother said to her one day, out of the blue. "It's time you had a look at the rest of the village."

They were well into spring by this point, and the crisp mountain air tasted so fresh in her lungs as she took in first one breath, than another. Oh, how she'd missed this, missed it so much and not even realized.

Then, all around her, there were the familiar sights. That swift-running stream, where fish leaped up fresh for the taking. That low-branching tree, which she'd loved to climb as a girl. That rocky outcropping covered with moss—when had it gotten so small?

They stopped by the stream, and seated themselves on a wide rock—she tired far too easily still, and needed to catch her breath. For a time, they did not speak, only sat in silence.

"Did you know we held a funeral for you?" her mother said at last.

No, she hadn't known, but it didn't surprise her. It was one of the things she'd thought about most often, those first years, whenever she'd thought of home: how much time could pass before her family would decide that she was dead? "How long?" she asked, and was surprised by the raspiness of her own voice.

"Five years." A heavy weariness came into her father's voice when he spoke. "We searched for you for five years, before we were forced to accept that you had to have died."

Five years… by that point Sigrun had been well onto her path as a rising star in the arena, and she had long since given up dreaming. She let out a breath. "I didn't wait that long," she confessed, remembering the smell of blood and misery and the strength of Mikkel's broad back as he supported her weight. "I had to survive."

"We know."


Part 2

By the time that summer rolled around, she had regained enough of her strength to try picking up a sword again.

It felt clumsy and too heavy in her hand, and her reflexes were stiff and sluggish, as was always the case after having recovered from a severe enough injury. Still, she was here, and it fit her hand perfectly, and it had been so long since she'd gotten to do this not for the entertainment of others or in a desperate fight for her life, but on her own terms, because it was what she wanted to do.

Emil, she noted, had also stayed.

"I'm waiting a bit to try to find my own village," he explained when she pointed out that the roads were long since passable; he had no reason not to be undertaking a journey of his own. "Until I have more… uh… information."

There was something more there, but she didn't press. Not like she'd told Emil any more than she'd had to about her first dark days of hopelessness and beatings; she would let him have this.

Instead, Sigrun invited him to cross blades with her once more: not under the watch of Roman strangers standing by ready to mete out harsh punishments for shirking, but to the cheers and jeers of their own fellows.

It was… different.

Emil came at her now not with resigned terror, but with a steely determination she'd only briefly glimpsed in him before: when he'd refused to accept the blood on his hands. When he'd asked her to take a risk, and let Mikkel give a warning. When he'd burned down the Colosseum and probably half of Rome with it.

Emil and Mikkel… the one constant of her life she wouldn't mind keeping between there and here.

Mikkel had already left at the first true signs of spring, claiming that he had to at least try to find his own people. Even after a summer and a winter and a spring had passed, however, Emil was still here.

"So why are you so eager to learn from me now?" Sigrun asked one day, as they were washing off in the stream—beautiful, clear water, the sort of icy cold you only found in the mountains.

"You actually care about how I'm doing," he responded, with such fierceness that she was taken aback.

He wasn't wrong. No matter how long they were free from Roman chains, or how free they were to do whatever it was they wanted, Emil was still her little Viking.

…which was why it bothered her so much that she still couldn't figure out what was eating him.

They had their freedom. He had been enslaved for far less time than she had; reintegrating into his home, if he could find it, should if anything be far easier for him. Was he afraid of failure, of not being able to find it? No—Emil had his faults, but being unwilling to push for what mattered was not one of them, no matter how impossible the odds.

…which could only lead her to conclude that as much as his freedom had mattered to him, finding his own village again somehow didn't.

It could be that boy he had left behind, the one he clearly hadn't wanted to say goodbye to. It could also be something else, something to do with his home village itself, and which Sigrun didn't have the first hope of guessing.

Whatever it was, she didn't think that she had any hope of fixing it—but there were plenty of other things that she could do.

Emil had already made clear his desire not to accompany them on any raids. Sigrun couldn't say she blamed him—in all honesty she wasn't too keen on it herself, not after what had happened the last time she'd gone too far afield. There were still plenty of other worthy pursuits for a young, healthy warrior to take.

"You ever been on a real hunt before?"

"Not… not really."

"Great! Pack your stuff, because tomorrow we're going to eat well."


"Nah, you've gotta hold the bow like this. Here."

Emil sighed a little as Sigrun corrected his grip. Things were different now; it wasn't like the arena, where he had to learn and learn fast if he wanted to survive to the next day and Sigrun, knowing that, was willing to push and punish and slap him to his feet if he forgot and let his focus slip. Here, there was no more death and punishment constantly hovering over them. Here, he was allowed to take his time.

Calm. He could afford to be calm. When Sigrun took her hands off his, Emil took a deep breath. He sighted his target. He let the arrow fly…

…it flew wide, but he had at least come closer to grazing his target. He was getting better.

"Great!" Sigrun's backslap was so hard it nearly knocked the bow from his hands. "A few more like that and you might take down an actual deer."

In all honesty, Emil preferred fishing—but nevertheless he felt himself glow with the praise. There was no more talk between them as they gathered the arrows and returned to camp.

The rabbits they'd snared earlier still simmered in the pot over their fire pit—they weren't going to go back, she said, until they'd bagged at least one deer, something they could share with the rest of the village. Still, what they had already was plenty for an evening meal for the two of them, and far better than the mush the Romans had fed them.

…one of the hardest parts, physically, of coming back, had been the simple act of eating. It had been so long since he'd had meat that at first the food had made him sick; he couldn't imagine what it had been like for Sigrun and Mikkel, who'd spent decades enslaved to Emil's months. Even so, they'd all forced themselves to it; Rome had taken enough from them already, and they were not going to let themselves be robbed of any more of their own homes. At times like these, breathing fresh mountain air and enjoying rabbit stew straight out of the pot, Emil was glad that he'd persisted.

"So you said you hadn't really been on any hunts before," Sigrun started after they were finished chowing down. "Funny; I know you're old enough."

It was a question, but one that he was free to answer or not, as he chose. He didn't want to answer it, but… Emil took a few moments to lick the last of the juices off of his fingers, sighed, and put down his bowl.

"I did try," he confessed. "But I've always been a failure at everything I tried."

Sigrun blinked. "Emil," she said, growing uncharacteristically serious. "You burned down Rome. That didn't look like a failure to me."

Instead of cheering him up, though, this thought only made him shake his head. "I did that because I had to. Every time I tried something before, I only got laughed at. Why do you think I was sent on that raid in the first place?" He let out a breath. "Even to you, I'm still a baby."

"So what?" The words made his head snap up. Sigrun shrugged. "Everyone's a baby at some point. What, you think I was born with a sword in my hand?" Her eyes grew serious. "It's the people who wouldn't give you a chance that are the problem, not you."


He'd left to raid because he hadn't been able to prove himself to his countrymen. He no longer had to worry about proving himself to Sigrun. Emil still wasn't ready to go back, however: not until he'd proven a few things to himself.

"Again," he said, holding out the sword which he'd just picked up off the ground after she'd knocked it out of his hand.

"Again," he panted while the cold steel of her blade still rested against the back of his neck.

"Again," as he pushed himself up from where he'd fallen on his backside in the mud.

Never again would he be taken against his will. Never again would he be given up for fodder because he was presumed weak.

"Look, kid," Sigrun said one day, as they were sitting quietly in front of the fire after yet another day of strenuous training, "you've gotten pretty good with that sword now, and with a bow… but what do you want to do with the rest of your life?"

Emil was taken off-guard. What did he want to do?

Home… he'd spent so much time up to now putting off trying to find his home. By now, he'd accepted that he would have to do so, someday… but he didn't want to do it yet.

"I think…" he started. "I think I need to go back."

"Back?" She raised an eyebrow. "You mean, back to Rome?"

"Yes and no." He sighed, staring into the embers. "Not quite as far as Rome."

"Ah. I see."

He knew by that answer that Sigrun wouldn't be coming with him. She'd had enough of Rome, and he couldn't blame her. That was okay, though. All this time, Emil had been adrift, first trying to prove something to others and then trying to prove something to himself, not knowing what that was or how to do it. It was about time that he did something by himself.

As long as he was trying to figure out who he was, figuring out what he wanted was a good place to start. It was time to go south, back to the rolling hills grazed by fluffy white sheep.

What would come out of it, he didn't know—but it was time to find out.

Chapter Text

"You're coming with me this time."

"Bwuh?" Emil looked up from his breakfast; he'd only just rolled out of bed and gotten dressed; he wasn't nearly awake enough yet to process this. "Going with you where?"

"Down the mountain, of course! We've been putting this off long enough; it's time you came with me on a real field mission."

Back to the plains… now wide awake, Emil mulled over the idea as he slowly chewed his porridge. Not since he'd run away with Lalli, and Sigrun had found them and brought them to safety, had he been back down there. In all honesty, he wasn't sure if he should go back down there. What if someone recognized him? What if they tried to force him back—not even Sigrun could fight off an army. What if…

He swallowed. Forced himself to be rational. First of all, there was nothing forcing him to go: however she might have phrased it, Sigrun would respect his decision if he refused. Secondly, no one was going to be keeping an eye out for the lord's missing niece. As far as his uncle's territory was concerned, the lord's missing niece had been eaten by a troll or deceived and murdered by her lover, since then Emil had changed his appearance as much as he could, and no one outside of that territory was likely to have even heard of the story. As long as they did not return to that castle on the cliffs, he was likely to be safe.

"What sort of field mission?" he asked cautiously, not willing to give an answer until he'd heard all the details. Usually when Sigrun left the mountains, she did so on an adventurous whim. That she'd spoken of an actual mission…

"Here." She shoved a piece of paper across the table at him. "What does that look like to you?"

Emil squinted at the drawing on the yellowed, fading paper. "A sword?"

"Exactly." Sigrun gave a satisfied nod. "Not just any sword, though: this is a special one, one that belonged to one of the ancients."

"Is it magic? Will in help in killing trolls?" All at once Emil was interested again. As a child, he'd been so enamored of the heroes in his fantasy novels, always finding magical weapons that could be used to slay dragons or even resurrect the dead…

"Nah." Sigrun folded the paper, and stuffed it back into her pocket. "Far as I know, it's an ordinary sword. But it is worth a lot of money… and if we can get our hands on it before anyone else, then some lord is willing to all but empty his coffers in order to own it." She leaned back, propping her feet up on the breakfast table and nearly upsetting his porridge. "So? What do you say?"

"Let me think about it." And ask Lalli, he added silently to himself.


"Why?" Lalli asked, when Emil brought up the idea while they were curled up in bed that night, enjoying their first time alone together in over a week. Lalli had just returned from a hunting trip.

Emil shrugged. "Why not? It'll be an adventure, and…"

Lalli gave him a look, and he stopped talking. He could think of plenty of reasons why not.

They could be attacked by trolls, without the defenses of a village to aid or protect them in their fight. They were equally likely to encounter hostile people. The plains weren't always safe for a woman who wished to travel, sometimes not even if she was a skilled warrior or actually a boy. Emil in particular ran real risks if someone were to recognize him, however unlikely that possibility may have been, and report back to his uncle or his parents that the poor lost lady was not so lost after all…

Emil knew of all of these problems. So why was he even considering it?

Not a day passed that he hadn't remembered to be grateful to the mountain people who had taken him in. If not for their hospitality, he and Lalli would all too likely have ended up dead or worse. Still, when the air got cold a full two months earlier than it was supposed to, and winter waited a month longer than it should have to relinquish its grasp, when he woke every day with his lips and hands chapped to bleeding, and twisted his ankles on the steep trails, and spent every day eating food that was hard or gamy or simply not at all what he was used to…

This might have become his home, but there were still so many things that he missed. Things he wasn't yet ready to give up completely.

"…I want to go," he responded at last, and he knew that Lalli would not ask anything more unless he volunteered it.

"Then I go with you," Lalli responded, and just like that, it was decided.


As much as he'd been anticipating it, he wasn't prepared for the rush of emotion that hit him the first time he breathed real valley air in almost two years.

It was late spring, the air heavy and rich with the scent of fertile earth and full blossoms. All around them birds sang and butterflies danced in the sunlight. Emil breathed deeply as they moved down the road in dappled shade, and realized to his shock that tears were actually welling in his eyes.

Had he really missed his own home that badly?

Quietly, an arm snaked around his shoulder. Without looking, he reached up, and gripped Lalli's fingers.

They camped by the roadside that night. Less money, Sigrun said, and the night wasn't cold enough for them to require shelter. What was left unsaid was that no inn or church would admit a "barbarian" without far more of a fight than it was worth, and they didn't want anyone looking at Emil too closely anyway.

Emil volunteered for first watch. Right now, he was too wound up to sleep anyway. He spent the time staring into the dying embers of their campfire, in between gazing up at the stars, which seemed so much dimmer and farther away now that he was no longer looking at them through the crisp mountain air.


Their first troll attack came on the second night.

Emil was staring into the embers once more; he was just beginning to feel sleepy and wondering whether it was time to wake Sigrun (not until the Swan flew overhead, she'd said, but it looked as if it was almost there) when, almost without warning, there was a snarl behind him, and grasping claws struck out against his side.

It was only thanks to years of hard training that he reacted fast enough to avoid becoming troll food then and there. The earsplitting shriek that the troll let out when he drove his sword deep into its belly was more than sufficient to wake the others, and within moments they were fighting for their lives against the oncoming pack.

It wasn't a large pack—if it had been they would all be dead. Still, they didn't get away completely unscathed.

Emil hadn't even realized he was wounded until after the battle was already over. When Sigrun bent to lift his shirt up without asking, though, he swatted her hand away in protest and started to step back—only to let out a gasp as the pain suddenly hit him all at once.

"Well, it doesn't look fatal," she declared, though she did not try to touch him again. "Still, you can't just go wandering around opened up like that."

"Can you fix this?" he asked, already knowing—and dreading—the answer.

"Nope." She looked at Lalli; their eyes met, and they both nodded. "But I know someone who can."


It took them a bit more walking after Lalli had disappeared into the night. They had to walk; trolls were attracted to the smell of blood, and they could not afford to rest. Sigrun kept her sword out, and Emil, as per her instructions, kept his hand pressed to his side to try to keep from bleeding even more.

They had a handful of close calls. A couple of times Sigrun stepped off the side of the road and told him to keep going; there was a series of shrieks followed by a few hair-raising minutes before she appeared at his side again, sword black with blood. On one occasion Emil was even forced to defend himself, though at cost of undoing all of his careful pressure and causing a new trickle of blood to run down his side.

Finally, though, Lalli came rushing soundlessly back at them out of the night. Wordlessly, he pointed to the road ahead, where they could see a light winking at them through the trees.

An inn. He had led them to an inn.

At least there was only the innkeeper to stare at them as they came through the door. Still, the innkeeper was bad enough. The three of them made for an odd sight: the tall barbarian, the skinny foreigner, and the suspiciously pretty boy… Emil found himself pressing his hands harder to his side at the thought, and not only to stanch his wounds.

"Ah. Good. You have arrived safely."

Immediately Emil's heart started doing flipflops in his chest—and he didn't know whether they were the good kind or the bad kind. Could it be…

It was. He looked much as Emil remembered him: tall, strong, and completely unperturbed by anything. Including, apparently, being woken up in the middle of the night to tend to the former lady he'd once helped escape.

"Good thing I've been keeping track of where you are," Sigrun declared as they crowded into his room—apparently intended for use by only one person.

"Yes, I imagine so you can continue your campaign to surprise me," he said dryly, then, turning to Emil, "Take off your shirt."

Immediately Emil turned beet red. Everyone in this room knew the truth about his body yet had still accepted him for who he was. Even so…

"Emil." Mikkel's voice was level as he said it, though he looked as if he were barely refraining from rolling his eyes. "In my career as a healer, I've done everything from stitching up soldiers to delivering babies. I can assure you that you have nothing I haven't seen before. Though, if you would like some more privacy…"

"Lalli can stay," he said after a few deep breaths. Sigrun, taking the hint, shrugged and left the room in search of a pint of ale.

By the time his wounds were stitched and bandaged, the night was half over, Lalli had fallen asleep with his head in Emil's lap, and Sigrun had re-entered the room with bruised knuckles and a grin on her face that said they didn't want to know what she had been up to.

"Not that I'm surprised that you're wandering again," Mikkel said to Sigrun the next morning over a (very late) breakfast, "but dare I ask why you've dragged these two into it this time?"

"We're on a quest!" Sigrun declared dramatically, pointing her hand into the air and causing multiple other patrons to stare.

"I see." Mikkel was rubbing his forehead. "And what, exactly, is the object of this… quest?"

She grinned disarmingly. "Come with us and I'll tell you."

"I am not getting dragged into yet another one of your harebrained schemes."


"…I cannot believe I let you talk me into this."

"You were the one who needed the money, big guy." Sigrun consulted the map, her tongue sticking out of her mouth.

"How exactly are we deciding which way we're going?" Emil decided to ask, taking a moment to lean over the rock where she'd spread it out and look at the map himself. Though landmarks and the names of towns and the borders of provinces were there in abundance, there was not a single mark on it to indicate which direction that they might take.

"Eh, I'm just going with my gut."

"…really?"

"Emil." She clapped him on the shoulder. "Did you really think we were going to bring back a magic sword and get rich, just like that? These things may be out there, and they may not—but the important part is at least trying to find them, and what you can accomplish while getting there."

"I wouldn't call what you're doing 'trying'," Mikkel muttered from off to the side.


The second night down the mountains had been their first time encountering a pack of trolls, but it was far from the last.

Most of the villages they'd passed, they'd avoided, but then there came that one where they swooped in just in time to join a pitched battle against a particularly large pack of trolls. For once, nobody asked where they were from, but welcomed their aid in battle and then Mikkel's in caring for the wounded. For that night, at least, they were fed and sheltered without even a single weird look.

People praised his courage. They told him he had fought bravely.

Every time, Emil felt a burst of happiness in the pit of his stomach. Before, his only value had lain in his beauty, and in the prestige he could bring to a marriage. Now, though—now, he was being recognized and praised for his accomplishments, things that he had achieved rather than for what he had been born with.

The little bubble of happiness floated… and burst into foam.

What would these people think of his fighting prowess if they found out what his body looked like? How would the react if they knew his lover was another man?

He and Lalli could not be open in their affections here, not without enduring more trouble than they wanted, but Lalli's hand found his knee under the table, and squeezed in reassurance.


The second time, they were called upon to help a small farm that was near the edge of its lord's territory.

They were out of the way, small, and poor. The lord cared only to collect his tithe every year, but not to send defenses when they were being overrun.

"Right," Sigrun said as soon as she'd gotten a look at the situation. "First, we're going to need to secure a place to make a stand. Do you have—"

Mikkel, meanwhile, was working with the matron of the family to secure the safety of their remaining livestock.

"A cow that is constantly frightened will not give milk. Now, we'd best make her feel as secure as possible if you want to retain your livelihood…"

Lalli, meanwhile, had disappeared into the nearby woods.

"What should I do?" Emil muttered to Sigrun, as soon as he could get a moment alone with her out of earshot of the others.

In answer, she only shrugged. "Whatever you're good at."

That… wasn't helpful. So, he simply decided to stick close to Sigrun while they made their plans, until he could figure out some way to make his own contribution.

Before long, though, Lalli came bursting back out of the woods to inform them that he had found the nest and that it was of a considerable size; the time for planning was over.

The best way to fight trolls, Sigrun had told them, was to invade their nests during the day when they were asleep. It was effective, but it was also dangerous: they were walking straight into a potential trap, putting themselves in the heart of enemy territory.

To Emil, it also seemed dishonorable.

"They do the same to us, given half a chance," Sigrun explained, sitting next to him on the log where he had slumped, gripping his knees and breathing hard, "sneak up on us when we're at our most vulnerable and attack us in our sleep. They're not malicious, just hungry—we aren't either, just trying to survive. They can't change their nature, and I try to make it quick, but I'm not going to just stop breathing so more of them can live. We can't afford to be kind."

For as long as he could remember, Emil had wanted so badly to learn how to fight. Now, though… somehow, in all of those years and caring for all of those wounded soldiers, it had never occurred to him that fighting meant killing.

He knew what the plains people would say. A man does not shirk his duty, and a man does not pity monsters. What of the mountain people who'd adopted him?

Of course men were not all fighters, either in the mountains or in the plains. They were blacksmiths, craftsmen, scholars… In the mountains, which hosted the breeding grounds of the trolls, life was a constant danger, the need for self-defense was ever-present, and no one, man or woman, soldier or civilian, went unarmed. Still…

They can't help being as they are… but neither can we help our own need to survive.


"Sigrun?"

"Yeah?"

"Did you find out something you didn't like the first time you came down here?"

For a moment, she looked at him, saw that he was serious, sighed, and sat down beside him.

"No one ever comes down here without learning something they really don't like. It was like that for my parents—and yeah, for me too, my first time." She did not specify what exactly it was she had discovered, and Emil didn't ask.

"Is that why you brought me?" he asked instead.

"I didn't know what it would be like for you," she confessed, "since you grew up here. But maybe that's why you needed it more than anyone."


When they returned to Dalsnes, it was with no sword, fame, or money in sight. What they had instead was a whole lot of bruises, scars, and stories.

Nobody seemed surprised by any of this. Even Sigrun told of their daring exploits without a trace of disappointment, describing instead the pitched battles and how fully Emil had proven himself.

"Was there even a sword?" he whispered to Sigrun later, after dinner had come to an end.

In answer, she only gave him a mischievous grin. "Does it matter?"

In truth, Emil supposed that it didn't. After all, they'd already found exactly what they'd set out for.

Chapter Text

He didn't know where he was.

Where he was—who he was. What he was doing. All he knew was that he was lost, that he had lost something, that if he didn't find it soon he would…

…actually, he didn't know that either.

Something had happened, some encounter he couldn't remember, and it had left him… incomplete.

He dragged himself out of the frigid water and assessed his surroundings. Above him, mountains rose to the dark sky, their jagged peaks capped with snow.

…this wasn't where he needed to be.

Carefully, he picked his way among the rocks, following the river that had spat him out on its shores, somehow knowing that if he got too far from the water, he would be lost.


As soon as he had reached the feet of the mountains, the darkness closed in on him.

He had gone down—so far down. No matter how far he went from the banks of the river, dark water still lapped at his feet. Steam rose from the water, and his breath came out in a cloud of fog.

He could not shake the feeling that something stalked him in the darkness, that this was the place where it had happened, where he had lost himself.

As he passed through the darkness, he started shivering uncontrollably, and could not seem to stop.


For some reason, he'd expected everything to be barren.

Instead, lush forests sprang up around him as he walked, the offensively prolific vegetation threatening to choke him out and block his path. Every step became a battle, a fight to get to where he was going.

…where was he going?


He'd lost the river.

The sound had led him astray. The persistent vegetation had forced him to turn. Now, the vegetation had all wilted away, and there was no sign of water.

The desert sands were unstable and shifting beneath his feet, the stars burning brightly above him.

The dry air felt neither hot nor cold. The sand was coarse-grained and white. He looked up, forward, and could not tell whether the burning orb in the sky was the sun or the moon.

…this was it, wasn't it? He was lost for good, and he was never going to find his way back.

There was only one direction left to go. Sighing, he turned toward the bright light in the sky that cast stark shadows over the waterless white dunes.

"Lalli!"

He pulled up short. That voice… it was a really annoying voice, but it was one that he recognized… recognized calling his name.

Slowly, hardly daring to believe it, he turned his head. There, running across the sands toward him, breathing hard, a medium-sized dog at his side, was another familiar mage.

…Reynir. His name was Reynir. His name was Lalli. Something had happened… something he couldn't remember… and there was also someone else. He couldn't grasp who, not yet, but that was important. He pulled that piece of information close and held it tight.

"You have to come back with me." Reynir extended his hand. "Onni and I have been looking all over for you."

"Onni…?" he repeated, dumbly, still unable to figure out what it was that he really wanted to ask.

"He didn't want me to help, but he's been searching for you on his own. Ever since you and Emil didn't show up everyone's been worried." Reynir's green eyes widened as something else occurred to him. "You… can come back, right?"

He didn't know, but there was no point saying that. He would or he wouldn't, and as long as he didn't know he might as well try. Instead of answering, he placed his hand in Reynir's.

The other immediately brightened up. Then, without warning, he began to run.

The desert sands glided past underneath them and were gone. Still, they were moving forward, crossing all obstacles, until they reached the water once more and their feet glided effortlessly over it, barely making a splash.

Chapter Text

 

He remembered all too well the last time they'd left Saimaa.

Never again, he'd promised himself as the dark waters slid by beneath their boat and his sister lay sleeping in his lap, while his cousin peered out toward the shore as if he could see something that they couldn't, even though there was nothing Lalli could have seen that Onni shouldn't have been able to see as well. I'm never going to let this happen to my family again.

When they reached the safety of Keuruu, he was too exhausted and grief-stricken to be relieved. Instead, he submitted to the quarantine with a dead-eyed shuffle, and was assured that Tuuri had slept through almost the entire procedure and that Lalli would in the meantime be staying with someone who was capable of caring for him. Everything was going to be okay.

…not a day had passed when someone came to the window and told him that his cousin was causing problems.

The story was told to him. Lalli was brought to him. Lalli refused to talk.

In spite of himself, Onni could feel his hands starting to tremble and his eyes well. They didn't understand Lalli—no one in the village back home had, and no one here was going to either. They had escaped nothing; they had only brought all of their problems along with them.

No. No. He was not going to let this rule them. They were still alive, so they did still have a choice.

Onni talked to the authorities. He made arrangements. Lalli was immune, he told them; as long as he was properly decontaminated after the fact, his presence would pose no threat. A cot and some nearby modest sleeping quarters could easily be spared. If nobody else could look after his cousin, Onni would.

When they were released from quarantine, the first thing Tuuri did was run up to him, jabbering excitedly. As it turned out, while she'd been alone in her cell, the staff had given her books to keep her occupied: storybooks, fairy tales, travel books…

Onni's heart sank as she went on and on and on about all the great things there were to explore elsewhere, and how badly she wanted to go out into the Silent World and find the remnants of all the old civilizations that she'd been reading about. Onni did his best to discourage her, reminded her near daily of how good their life was here and how lucky they'd been to make it out, but she still wouldn't listen, and instead only wanted out out out and there there there.

"No!" he told her, again and again and again. "The last time anyone tried to mess with the Silent World, people got killed!" Why wouldn't she understand that?

He took on Lalli's training himself. He got Tuuri a job with the skalds where she could be looked after and occupied and safe. None of them would be leaving Keuruu if Onni had any say in the matter. Never again.

What would his parents have done?

The thought sent a jolt through his gut and he had, briefly, to retreat to the shadows and lean against a wall, eyes burning. His parents weren't here. His parents were never going to be able to help him work anything out. The only thing he could do now was what he thought best, and protect what was left of his family by avoiding their mistakes.


Lalli didn't improve.

No, he never did that again, and as far as Onni knew no one else died as the result of any botched reports—and he would know; he was watching closely. Still, he continued to put in only the bare minimum of effort required whenever he was expected to give any form of verbal feedback. He put in no effort at all to any aspect of his life outside of work. Ten years in Keuruu, and he had yet to make a single friend, or have a single conversation that was not started by someone else.

Tuuri didn't improve.

At least with Lalli, Onni's efforts to teach him still had some effect. Though he wasn't always as diligent as one would wish, and seemed to have accepted a life of perpetual loneliness rather than make the effort to deal with other human beings, he was at least capable of living on his own, and he had enough professional pride to at least do his job well. Tuuri… he didn't know what to do about Tuuri.

Onni didn't worry about his sister for the same reasons he worried about his cousin. Tuuri was smart and social, and readily learned everything that was available for learning, to the point where she ended up picking up a whole extra language for no other reason than that she could. Where Lalli was content to stay forever in his rut, though, Tuuri was always too ambitious.

Always, always, no matter how busy she was or how many interesting things she had to keep her occupied within the walls, she still wanted to go out there. When she was still small, Onni had to constantly watch her at all hours of the day and night to keep her from sneaking out beyond the walls. Once she had her own job, he could relax—a little. Still, though, he wouldn't put it past her to sneak off for the thrill of it, and stayed up nights worrying.

The absolute worst nights were the ones where Tuuri came back after an unexplained absence, and wouldn't tell him where she'd been, then everything would go back to normal for a few days until she started coughing. Though he did everything he could, she was soon feverish, and then, while he was caring for her, he would notice it: the blistered, discolored skin creeping up her arms or the side of her neck. Then, he'd look at his own hand, to see the fingers blackened and rotting away.

That was the part where he would always jolt awake, and shuffle over to Tuuri's room in his bare feet to feel her forehead for any signs of fever, then to lean in close and check her neck for Rash.

He was being ridiculous, he knew. Tuuri couldn't have gotten outside the walls without passing the guards, and whether they had the authority to stop her or not, they would not have let her back in without a good long quarantine. If she'd been outside, there was no way he wouldn't have known about it. No troll or beast or even infected human could have gotten inside the walls, not without raising all kinds of alarms. In Keuruu, they were as safe as they were ever going to get.

Nevertheless, the first time he was jolted awake from one of these nightmares after Tuuri had moved out and he could no longer go to her room to check her directly, he spent over two hours curled up in a ball on his bed and shaking until the sun rose and it was time to go to work.

He tried to warn her. He tried to tell her of the danger. Still, she could never see what he had seen, and so never learned the caution that hard experience had taught him.

She hadn't changed. She hadn't learned. She still insisted on running straight into danger—and this time, there was nothing he could do to stop her.

Onni didn't improve.

He never learned to communicate, never figured out how to convey the depths of his concern or his love. He'd never figured out when it was time to be a parent and when it was time to be a sibling—it had been his job to teach them how to handle themselves, and if after all this time they still couldn't, it must then be his fault.

All this time, Onni had spent fleeing with his family away from their destiny—but they had always been fated for this, and because they could not change, they always would be.

And Onni… what of his destiny?

Something he had been running from… something he hadn't been able to change, that would find him no matter how far or how fast he fled. Now, he could see clearly that there was nothing left but to resign himself.

"Well?" he asked, staring over the dark waters outside the safety of his haven. "I'm waiting."

Chapter Text

It was his greatest shame… and his most delectable pleasure.

It was wrong, and he knew it was wrong. He had duties, obligations. Still, if it would allow him one more night…

Quietly, Mikkel slipped into his boots and his heaviest parka. Quietly, he slipped out the door.

The wind numbed his face and stole the breath from his lungs the second he opened himself to the frigid night air. Nevertheless, he tucked his hands into his pockets, and kept walking.

He wasn't particularly worried about being caught; no sane person would be outside on this planet after dark. When all of the illegal stuff happened during the day anyway, people took the opportunity to be in their beds during the coldest part of the night.

As he walked, he wondered. Would she be there? There was no reason to believe that she wouldn't—she'd come the past several nights after all. Still, it was hard sometimes not to wonder… hard not to believe it had all been a dream…

Well, if it had, he supposed it wouldn't hurt for him to have the same dream again. They could dig his body out of the snow in the morning.

Finally, after far too much huffing and puffing, the tips of his toes beginning to go numb in spite of his heavy boots, Mikkel reached their meeting spot. He folded his legs beneath him, sat down in the snow, and waited.

Once again, he was beset by the nagging thought that it had all been a dream. The environment did nothing whatsoever to dispel this fear: though it had not snowed since last night, the wind had swept the small hill clean of all but the hardest bottom layer of ice-crusted snow, erasing all evidence of their previous dalliance (if indeed it had ever happened in the first place). He had nothing to corroborate the encounter but his own memories.

Just as his eyelids were drooping, and just as he was beginning to fear that it really was just his imagination, and that he would soon succumb to the cold and a dream from which he wouldn't be able to wake up, Mikkel felt a light touch against his back. Reaching behind him, fingers now free of his glove, he allowed his hand to sink into the softest, finest hair he had ever had the pleasure of touching.

"Ah," he muttered, a small smile of satisfaction spreading over his face. "So you did come."

There was no answer; there never was. Instead, long limbs curled around him and lifted him gently upward for their greeting kiss.


The next morning, hating himself yet still thrumming with pleasure at the thought of doing it again, he would wake on his face on a floor slick with puddles of melted snow, and wonder why he kept convincing himself that this was a good idea.

This was stupid, he told himself again and again as he dragged himself to the bathroom to at least try to make himself presentable for the job that he hated. He'd gotten drunk, or gotten his hands on some other drug that had left his brain so addled he couldn't remember taking it, or even having bought it. He was lonely and miserable; he'd curled up on the floor in the drug-induced stupor and dreamed the whole thing up.

Still, as he scraped a razor over his face to remove the last of the stubble from his chin, he could not help but notice the perfect pinpricks on his neck where his beloved Queen had lightly sunk her fangs to sip the taste of his blood.

Chapter Text

"My fault."

Lalli said it flatly, with the air of one who's used to taking the blame and accepting it as fact. Emil's heart wrenched more than his ankle at having to see that look on his face—that certainty that no matter what had happened or how outside of his control it was, somehow he was still the one to blame.

"No, it was my fault," Emil said firmly, careful not to wince as he straightened out his leg. "Besides, it's just a twisted ankle, no permanent ha-AUGH!"

Lalli raced to catch him as he nearly fell over, ankle still throbbing from where he'd attempted to put weight on his injured foot.

"Okay, so maybe I'm not fine," he admitted, sinking down to the ground with Lalli's help. "We should probably go back to Dalsnes."

"How?"

Emil grimaced; Lalli was right. He couldn't walk on his own and Lalli wasn't strong enough to carry him, so unless they wanted to camp here, there was only one solution that he could think of… and Lalli really wasn't going to like it.

"You're going to have to go get help."

Lalli didn't say anything, but immediately his face took on a stubborn set. "We have hours until sunset," Emil rationalized. "The trolls aren't going to be coming out anytime soon, and you're fast enough to get there and back in plenty of time."

"Trolls not only dangerous things out here."

"Which is why I have a dagger." Emil patted the weapon that hung at his hip to make his point. "Look, I don't like it either, but do you have a better idea?"

Lalli didn't answer, but Emil could see by the tightening of his mouth that he didn't. Rather than waste more time arguing, Lalli bent down to kiss him on the forehead—his fingers briefly brushed over the hand that held the dagger in a silent admonition to stay safe—and then he was off, running back toward Dalsnes as fast as his legs could carry him.

Once he was gone, Emil could only lean against the tree that Lalli had helped him over to, keep his fingers curled around the hilt of his dagger, and wait.

He'd meant to stay awake. He really, really had. Lalli hadn't been exaggerating, when he'd spoken of dangers other than trolls; predators roamed these mountains, cats the size of a man and bigger, and while typically they hunted smaller prey Emil wasn't willing to bet his life that one would turn its nose up at a vulnerable meal just because it preferred mountain goat to human. If he stayed alert and kept a weapon at the ready, he ought to be fine.

Even so, after only a few minutes sitting in the cool shade of the tree's embrace with the sound of birdsong all around him, Emil's eyes began to droop. As if sitting for an extended period and able to do nothing wasn't bad enough, his stupid period had started the night before, and he'd barely slept a wink. The first time he caught himself nodding, his head jerked up, and he gave his hair a hard yank for good measure. The second time, he tried slapping himself. The third… well, he wasn't quite sure when his efforts to stay awake had subsided into being too sleepy to care, but in spite of his best efforts he ended up leaning back against the trunk of the tree, hands relaxed and mouth hanging open as he slipped into unconsciousness.


When he came slowly back to wakefulness, he was briefly conscious of the relief of a much-needed nap… right before he noticed the weight in his lap.

He tensed, eyes still closed, all combat training suddenly frozen as he considered the possibilities with rising panic. Nothing that heavy could have fallen on him without waking him up; it must have been set there, gently. An animal…? He could think of no animal that would do such a thing, not without making a meal of him as well. That left only a human, and the thought of why a human might have set something in his lap while he was asleep…

Emil swallowed. He hoped he hadn't yet given away the fact that he'd woken. Slowly, without opening his eyes, he surreptitiously curled his fingers around the hilt of his dagger.

Once he was sure he had himself under control and was ready to move quickly if need be, he eased his eyes open… just enough to be able to peek under the lashes…

…and let out an involuntary gasp.

There, in his lap, was the head of something he'd never thought he'd see outside of a storybook. Pure white, it had the rough shape of a horse but far, far smaller, the spiral horn protruding from its forehead leaving no doubt as to its identity.

A unicorn… they were rare, the stuff of legend; there hadn't been one seen in the plains for several generations. Pure, virtuous, able to heal any wound or neutralize any poison; it was said they would only suffer the touch of virgin maidens…

Something wrapped around him, squeezing his lungs, an emotion he'd never been able to put a name to but which he'd felt all his life. Trapped… his body a prison, never free of it… "Get off!" With a sudden burst of anger, he pushed the unicorn him away from him as hard as he could. The shove was not ineffective; it was barely the size of a pony, and clearly not expecting an act of such violence from one of its beloved maidens. It had been in a kneeling position; now it flopped onto its side, in an image that in any other circumstances would have been incredibly comical.

Immediately Emil's anger melted away, to be replaced by… fear? Regret? Had he hurt it? No—it was pushing itself to its feet, shaking its horned head as if in a daze. Then, it trotted right back over to him.

This was beyond embarrassing. It wasn't enough for God or fate or whatever to stick him with a soft, weak body that bled for no reason and sprouted growths that did nothing but get in his way, not enough for him to spend a childhood in a gilded cage getting leered at by men, but now nature itself was shoving it right in his face.

"I'm not a girl," he growled when the unicorn began to kneel once more, pushing it away—not as hard as he had the first time, but what should have been hard enough to get the message across. It staggered maybe two steps back before going on its knees again and plonking its head right back into his lap.

Gritting his teeth, Emil raised his hand again… then lowered it with a sigh.

He could think of a few things he could do that might get the unicorn to leave him alone, but they were all far more violent than he would have liked. The poor dumb beast wasn't doing it on purpose; all it knew was that he smelled like a maiden, or had the glow of virginity about him, or whatever it was unicorns used to tell the difference between maidens and matrons—or maidens and men. Unicorns were a rare blessing, a gift from God. To harm one was the gravest of sins. While Emil had long given up on the god who'd given up on him… somehow he still couldn't bring himself to harm an innocent animal for any reason other than immediate need.

Instead, he lowered his hand, and entwined his fingers in the unicorn's silken mane. Unexpectedly, he felt tears welling in his eyes. He had missed his family's horses so much when they'd been sold to pay their debts; he'd sometimes spent hours in the stables afterwards, staring at the empty stalls and willing himself to hear soft whickering and the stamp of hooves. Once, he'd even curled up in the back of a stall for the better part of an afternoon, and earned himself a scolding for having dirtied one of the last nice dresses that he had left.

Now, there was no one to see, no one to disapprove, no one to tell him that it wasn't ladylike for him to spend his time outside with the animals rather than at the hearth. He was doing nothing wrong. He was doing nothing wrong.

He wasn't quite sure how long he sat there, running his hands over soft fur and simply enjoying the feeling of a living, breathing animal under his hands, when he heard the pounding of running feet. Startled, he snapped up his head; he'd almost forgotten how he'd gotten into this situation in the first place!

Mere seconds after he'd heard the noise, Lalli burst from the trail in front of him, his breath coming slightly faster than normal. "Emil! Are you—"

He halted mid-step and mid-sentence at the scene that lay before him. Lalli had never been overly talkative even after he'd started learning the local language, but this was the first time that Emil had seen him truly speechless.

A jolt of panic shot through him at the thought of what Lalli's return had to mean. Emil couldn't be seen like this—even if Lalli had brought one of the small handful of trusted people who knew his background (and really, why should he, when the only thing Emil needed was a bit of physical help), that didn't mean he wanted to be seen with a unicorn in his lap, any more than he wanted anyone from the village to see his naked body. "Drive it away!" he hissed.

Thankfully, Lalli seemed to have heard the panic in his voice, because he didn't ask questions, only ran toward the unicorn as one would toward a bothersome deer that was eating one's garden. The unicorn, for its part, didn't even seem to notice Lalli until he was right on top of it, at which point it leapt up with a startled snort. Rather than running, though, it pawed the ground with one of those tiny hooves, and lowered its horn as if to charge…

"No, no, stop!" Emil leaped up, dashing to stand beside Lalli. The unicorn shook its head briefly, unwilling to charge him… and then turned tail and was gone.

Emil let out a breath he hadn't been aware he was holding. Lowering his sword, he took one last look in the direction the unicorn had run, but it was gone—its tread was so light it had not even left footprints. A few moments later, another set of footsteps made itself known, and Asbjørn Eide came around the bend of the trail.

"Emil? Lalli said you'd hurt yourself. Are you…"

Emil noticed it at the same time Asbjørn did: he was standing, with no sign of pain or weakness, on the leg that had been completely unable to take his weight not two hours before.

"Oh… um… I guess it wasn't as bad as I thought? I could barely stand on it earlier," he added hastily, lest Asbjørn think he'd been faking it, "but maybe I just needed a bit of rest? Yeah, that's what happened. Sorry I dragged you all the way up here."

"Well, as long as you're not hurt, that's all that matters," Asbjørn said good-naturedly, dealing him a backslap that nearly knocked Emil off his feet. "But don't think this will get you out of training tonight!"

Emil, not wanting to give himself away, forced himself to laugh along. Even so, he could not help but notice Lalli's narrow-eyed glare, and guessed that Lalli knew the truth of why he had "mysteriously healed" just as well as he did.


The next few weeks were not good for their relationship.

At first, it was hard for him to fathom what Lalli was upset about. That he'd covered up the encounter, and was hiding the fact that the unicorn kept coming around to see him, and he kept sneaking out to the edge of the village to meet it? That couldn't be it; Emil had spent far too much of his life telling far bigger lies, both to himself and to others, and as long as it harmed no one the things that he did in his free time were nobody's business. Did Lalli just not like animals? He had never gotten along particularly well with the goats and pigs and the small handful of dogs that populated the village—but the huffy narrow-eyed disdain he showed toward the unicorn in particular was a whole new level of hostility, even by Lalli's standards.

It took him a couple of days to figure out that Lalli was jealous.

"It's not like I'm sleeping with it!" Emil said, exasperated, when Lalli all but hissed his displeasure.

"I don't like it," Lalli answered—whether because he didn't yet have the words to describe how he felt or because of his difficulties communicating in any language, Emil couldn't have said.

With all of the tension between them, it naturally wasn't long before things came to a head.

"I'm not your property!" Emil yelled, after Lalli had all but accused him of caring more for the unicorn than for him.

The second the words were out of his mouth, Emil wished that he could take them back: he saw the flash of hurt across Lalli's face for only a split second before his expression closed off and he took a step away, turning his back.

"You right. You're not. I being stupid." He walked away.

"Lalli, wait—!" But Lalli was already gone.

The next few days were a haze of endless misery. Lalli avoided him, while Emil chased himself back and forth in an endless cycle of anger and regret: one minute he'd feel horrible about the things that he'd said, the next angry that Lalli would make such a big fuss over his relationship with a stupid animal, then back to self-loathing when he remembered everything that Lalli had done for him and thought of how ungrateful he was being, before swinging right back to anger at the thought that just because Lalli had helped him, that didn't give him the right to tell Emil what to do with his own life!

"What am I supposed to do?" he asked, petting the unicorn's soft nose as he buried his face in its mane.


"Um… hi. Have you seen Lalli?"

Solveig's eyebrows drew together as she looked up at him, before she closed her book with a sigh. "He was having some difficulty concentrating, so I told him to leave early. Would you happen to know if there's something upsetting him?"

The absolute worst part was that she didn't sound like she was accusing him—she was genuinely concerned and asking for his input. In answer, though, Emil could only shake his head.

"I—"

The words, however, stuck in his throat. Emil desperately wanted to ask for advice, he realized—something he'd never been able to do with his parents, or with his aunt and uncle—but he could not describe their argument without disclosing the details, and he did not want to do that if he could avoid it. It had become too much his secret.

Solveig must have seen the conflict in his eyes, for she pushed back her chair and stood. "Come with me."

"Where are we going?" Emil asked, even as he obeyed.

"The training grounds."

"I thought—"

"I will not suffer any undue hardship from taking over my husband's duties for one day," she said dryly. "I think that you need this."

So Emil shut his mouth, picked up his sword, and followed her to the arena. For the first few minutes they simply ran through warmup drills, and Emil felt himself relax into the familiar routine. It wasn't until they were well into a match that Solveig spoke of anything other than technique or stances.

"Have you made many friends since coming here, Emil?"

"Um… I guess?" He wasn't sure whether he should count Sigrun, who had always been more of a mentor, and he'd never gotten nearly as close to anyone as he had to Lalli, but the other young men and women who trained with him were friendly enough and always quick to offer him tips or guidance, and after a few months he'd gained enough confidence to talk to some of the Plains-born women who now lived here, to reminisce on the improvements in their lives as well as the things that they missed.

Solveig nodded, as if his answer had not been unexpected. "Are you aware that Lalli has not?"

"Um…"

Guilt washed through him as he realized that he had noticed—it had just never occurred to him that it might be a problem. Lalli was a loner. Lalli didn't like being around other people. Except he'd only assumed that, hadn't he? He'd never once bothered to ask whether Lalli was content with the relative lack of human contact.

Some of these feeling must have shown on his face, for Solveig nodded knowingly. "Some people have more difficulty adjusting to a changed situation than others, but that shouldn't be taken to mean that they don't want to. If, perhaps, someone felt his only source of support were drawing away from him, it could turn a difficult situation into an unbearable one."

"I want to support him!" Emil said, agitated. "But that doesn't give him the right to tell me whether I can spend my time with—with anyone else."

"No, it does not." If Solveig had noticed his stumble, she gave no indication. "It might help, however, to let him know that while you may have made other friends, you do still want him to be a part of your life."

A much longer talk later, Emil was grateful for Solveig all over again—he'd heard it through the grapevine that old Trond had his eye on her for when he stepped down as clan chief, and having experienced her skills as a mediator, he could easily see why. A long round of questions, suggestions, and (he had to admit) evasions later, he was finally ready to make amends with Lalli.

"I'm not going to stop meeting it if it keeps coming around," he said, with conviction but as gently as he could, when he'd finally managed to corner Lalli later that night. "Lalli, I really miss the horses that my parents used to keep, and having an animal around again means a lot to me—but I'm not going to let it come between us, and not even a unicorn could ever replace you."

Lalli darted a glance at him then, and Emil's stomach clenched at the mingled relief and fear in his expression—he really had been afraid that Emil had gotten bored with him. "Even when—" He made a frustrated noise, but though he did not have the words to express what he was trying to say, a gesture was enough to convey what it was he was really asking.

"No." On impulse, Emil stepped forward and kissed him, hard, remembering how much it had meant to him when Lalli had given him that same reassurance when he'd thought he'd never be able to be true to himself and make Lalli happy. "I know it's not going to last forever," he said when they broke apart, so, so glad to see the relief and happiness in Lalli's face. "When I do have to choose, I'm going to choose you, every time. Just… I want to enjoy this while it does last. Can you live with that?"

Lalli gave only a brief, jerky nod, but it was enough.


It was too much to hope for that Lalli and the unicorn were ever going to like each other—and Emil was going to have to learn to live with that. Still, it was enough that they now tolerated each other's presence for Emil's sake, and Lalli even consented to keep watch while Emil enjoyed running his fingers through the silken mane. In return, Emil made sure to make a little time at least every few days for just him and Lalli. From the very beginning, they'd had an unspoken agreement to take it slow, and though they had yet to do anything that would cost Emil his right to touch the unicorn, Emil could satisfy himself that they hadn't yet gotten to that point because he wasn't ready—and that Lalli wasn't going to push him out of any petty jealousy.

Several more weeks went by in this way. Then, one day while Emil was busy helping Lalli dress some of the rabbits he'd caught on a hunting trip, a by-now familiar cry went up through the village:

"Sigrun's back!"

It took a couple of minutes for them to finish their work and clean off their hands, but they were still outside just in time to see Sigrun come up the rise of the hill. Emil watched, grinning, as his mentor was mobbed by the usual gaggle of children.

"I hope you're ready to do some serious training," she declared with a grin once she'd managed to disentangle herself (though a little girl was still sitting atop her shoulders, and a boy clinging to her leg apparently unnoticed). "I want to see how much you've improved since the last time I saw you."

"You haven't been away that long," he pointed out.

"And you've never failed to impress me every time I see you." She punched him in the shoulder. "Tomorrow at sunrise, don't be late!"

So, once again his routine changed. Emil couldn't have said he minded; it was good to have Sigrun back, and even if he wasn't yet ready to accompany her he always looked forward to her tales of her adventures in the plains. Even so, she was far nosier than her parents—and it didn't escape her notice that he and Lalli had made a habit of disappearing from the sight of the village, sometimes for hours on end, and she seemed to have come to her own conclusions as to what they were doing out there.

"We have beds, you know."

"Really, we're not—"

"I'm just saying. You haven't been caught off-guard by a troll until one sneaks up on you with your pants off—"

"Sigrun!"

Still, he did manage to keep up the ruse for a while—and if Sigrun assumed that he and Lalli were putting some of Solveig's lessons to practical use, let her assume that; at least it meant she wouldn't press for further details, and she definitely wouldn't try to catch them at it.

Unfortunately, the key word in that sentence turned out to be "try".


It was the perfect combination of unfortunate coincidences: Lalli was standing guard as usual, when a small troll skittered through the shadows in their field of vision. Emil, who was as usual sitting on the ground with the unicorn's head in his lap, was in no position to defend himself, but Lalli was. He had it skewered and dead before Emil could so much as blink.

They'd barely had time to breathe a sigh of relief before they heard a rustling noise accompanied by pounding feet, and Sigrun burst from the underbrush from the same direction the troll had come; her drawn sword and light panting said that she'd been chasing it. "Did you see—"

She ground to a halt. Within seconds her gaze took in Lalli, the dead troll on the end of his bloodied sword, Emil on the ground, frozen, his face growing hot, and the unicorn that had never once moved from Emil's lap. She blinked once, twice. Then, she jumped into the air and whooped.

"You got one! I knew it was a good idea bringing you back here!"

"Um… thanks," Emil mumbled, face burning, but before he could so much as consider how easy it would be to bury himself in the ground where no one would notice him, Sigrun was talking again.

"Do you have any idea how rare unicorns are? There hasn't been one seen around Dalsnes since my great-grandmother's caught one! This is—"

"Sigrun," Emil groaned. His face was in his hands. "Stop. Just please stop."

"Oh, right. Sorry about that, buddy." She drew her sword. "Hold it still for me, would you?"

It took him a couple of seconds to make the connection. Emil opened his mouth, to protest that the troll was already dead—before realizing that it wasn't the troll she had set her eyes on, but rather the unicorn that was still lying docilely with its head in his lap.

"What are you doing!?"

Sigrun blinked. "What does it look like I'm doing? That horn could do wonders for Dalsnes. An opportunity like this lands in our laps, it'd be insane not to take it."

"You're really going to kill it and chop off its horn?"

"Well, I could just chop off the horn without killing it if that'd make you feel better. But I have to warn you, that would actually be crueler in the long term. If it can't defend itself—"

Some of the horror he was feeling must have shown on his face, for Sigrun was now giving him a look, though thankfully she did not yet move to follow through on her intentions. "Emil, I've seen you dress out game before. I know you don't have a problem with killing animals out of need—and we really do need that horn. So what's so special about this one?"

Lalli, who heretofore had been watching the exchange in silence, chose this moment to speak up. "It his pet."

"Uh-huh." She thought a few moments—Emil held his breath—before shoving the sword back into its sheath and coming over to sink to the ground next to him, on the side opposite the unicorn.

"I wasn't lying about needing that horn. You've worked with the healers before; you must have seen what a troll attack can do. Having a unicorn horn on hand could mean the difference between life and death for a whole lot of soldiers—and it could mean the difference between having enough healthy people to hold off an attack and being completely overrun. Suppose Lalli gets on the wrong end of a troll one day—something like this could easily save his life."

Emil's breath caught in his throat. All of a sudden, he felt sick to his stomach. He remembered how dire Lalli's condition had been the first time he'd seen him—his head injury had been so severe that even Mikkel had declared him to be beyond help. Supposing that Lalli was that badly hurt again… if Emil had the means to alleviate his pain, he would do it, in a heartbeat—and now, he had the means quite literally sitting in his lap.

Lalli first, he'd promised. Whatever affection he might have developed for the unicorn, he would always put Lalli first—and he'd meant it. He didn't want to do this, any more than he would want to sacrifice a favorite dog or one of his family's prize horses—but Lalli was far dearer to him than any dog or horse.

Sigrun patted his shoulder. "Hey now. I promise I'll make it quick. You don't have to watch if you don't want to." With that, she reached over his lap, and clicked her tongue. "Come here."

To his surprise, at the sound of her voice the unicorn showed the first interest in anything other than him since they'd first come into the clearing—and not in the manner of getting ready to charge as it always had with Lalli. Instead, it lifted its head from Emil's lap, gave a sniff, and then gently nudged its nose against Sigrun's hand.

Emil could only watch, dumbfounded, as Sigrun placed a hand on the unicorn's neck and coaxed it over from his lap to hers, making soft whistling sounds all the while. "Wait a minute, you're…?"

In response, she only raised an eyebrow. "This surprises you why?"

"Um…" He blushed even more as he realized how stupid that line of questioning actually was. Never had a sweetheart that anyone knew of, showed less than zero interest in ever having one… of course it made sense. Emil was just glad he'd managed to bite his tongue in time to avoid saying something stupid about her age.

Thankfully, Sigrun was not offended. Instead, she saw the embarrassment on his face and burst out laughing. "I've heard a few of the stories those lowland churches like to tell about 'virtuous maidens'. Never met a single one like that, myself."

Not quite daring to say anything more, Emil got up and turned to leave. Sigrun had been right: he did not want to watch this. If anything, he thought, he should be glad it was her: Sigrun might live for the fight but he'd never known her to drag things out any longer than was necessary, not even with trolls. He trusted her to keep her word when she said she'd make this quick. Still, he could not help but stop to bend down and stroke the beautiful white head one last time, with a whispered "I'm sorry." Lalli placed a hand against its back.

"Hey now," he heard Sigrun say behind him, "don't make this harder than it has to be." Looking back, he saw that the unicorn had lifted its head and was nuzzling her face with its horn—and that the minor scratches she'd received from the various branches and thorns she'd gone crashing through were now knitting together and healing.

"Oh yeah," Emil said. "It healed my ankle the first time I saw it. Maybe you want to let it finish that, before—"

The thought hit the both of them at the same instant. Emil looked at Sigrun. Sigrun looked at Emil.

"You know, we might not have to chop off its horn to get it to heal people."

"Young women fighters, sure. You think it can be persuaded to get close enough to a man in order to work that healing?"

Emil shrugged. "It's worth a try, isn't it? A horn will work longer if it's attached to a live unicorn, right?"

"Guess so." She turned back to the unicorn. "You done yet? Good." Sigrun pushed herself to her feet. "It likes you and it likes me, so it looks like it's going to keep coming around. Though I don't know what we're going to do with it in the mean… time…"

Slowly, a grin spread over her face. Emil automatically felt a premonition of dread creeping into his stomach. His feeing was proven correct when Sigrun swung onto the unicorn's back (it took her a few tries, being unused to going mounted, but she got there eventually) and grasped its mane. "Hey, buddy," she said, reaching down to pat its neck. "Whaddaya say we go slaughter some trolls?"

The unicorn's ears flicked back, then forward, as if it shared her enthusiasm for her particular choice of entertainment. Then, it reared up on its hind legs, slashing the air with its hooves—Sigrun let out a whoop—and the two of them were off, disappearing into the woods faster than the eye could follow.

For the next few moments, Emil could only stare, gaping wide-eyed at the spot they'd just disappeared. "What… did we just unleash on the world?"

Lalli shrugged. "Don't think about it," he suggested. Emil, after a moment's thought, was inclined to agree. So, deprived of any further purpose, they slid their fingers into each other's hands, and turned for home.

Chapter Text

The First Fall of the Earth

The earth was dying.

It wasn't humanity's fault, not this time. Instead, the bodies of the dead and dying piled up in heaps in the cities and even here in front of her little church when there was no one left to bury them, when every last hand was needed to care for the living.

All over the earth, the land was blanketed with rotting flesh. Every evening, she said a brief prayer over the newly dead (every day there were more, more), and asked Him to see them home.

The Second Fall of the Sea

The radio had nearly gone out by the time the reports started coming in of what was happening on the coast.

That the Rash was a fast-spreading human disease was bad enough. Then, they learned it had spread to other mammals as well… and now, it had infected the seas.

On the dying and staticky TV, the lens of some brave or foolhardy cameraman showed a whale breaching above the waves. Thick black growths covered its hide, and an oily residue was left on the water in its wake.

"Lord have mercy," she whispered as the screen flickered back into static.

The Third Fall of the Rivers

Every river and stream was choked with the bodies of the dead.

In days gone past, the little stream that ran behind the church had been clear and cold, and even in the event of an emergency the water would have been drinkable after a precautionary boiling. Now, though, the water ran sluggish and red-black with filth. She would not have offered it to a dog, let alone the sick and dying who were in desperate need of comfort.

When she turned on the tap, a stinking reddish-brown mess spewed out into the sink. They had bottled water, but every day it was necessary to go farther and farther afield to locate the unlooted stores, and too many, far too many who were still in need.

"God will provide," she reassured as she held the mouth of a bottle to a dying man's lips, ignoring the paper-dryness of her own tongue and throat.

The Fourth Fall of the Sun

There came the day she noticed she was shivering uncontrollably.

It was a rare sunny day, and the cheerful squares of light cast in by the windows had never failed to comfort her before. Now, though, the light seemed pale and anemic, and despite the amplification provided by the glass, no matter how long she stood there she could not seem to get warm.

"God save me," she breathed when she rolled up her sleeve to reveal the spreading rash.

The Fifth Fall of the Beast

She was staggering outside of the church doors—why, she couldn't remember, something about needing to breathe some fresh air even if only for a minute—when she saw it.

Obviously, it was a dog… but obviously, it also wasn't. It was staggering. Its fur was matted and missing in chunks, the exposed skin covered in sores. When it lifted its head, its eyes were not a dog's eyes, but cataracted and swarming with motion just below the surface.

For a moment, they only stared at each other, her hardly daring to breathe. It whined, and pawed the ground. Bony outgrowths pushed their way out of its back, trailing bits of skin and muscle, before settling back down again like a bird's threat display.

In the end, it walked away, and somehow she was more frightened by the fact that it hadn't attacked than she would have been if it had.

"Lord protect us from evil," she said as she closed the church door, unable to shake the feeling that she was now the one defiling the holy place.

The Sixth Fall of the Stars

Her congregation had fallen. She was the only one left.

She staggered from one end to the other of her now-empty church, tripping over skeletons. For so long now, she had cared for the dying, but now that she was dying there was no one left to take care of her.

A spell of dizziness hit her. The stars seemed to spin as she cast her gaze on the sky. She had never before realized they were so very far away.

"God… help…"

The stars spun and blurred above her as she fell.

The Seventh Fall of the Air

Sickness. The world had been consumed by a terrible sickness. Every breath burned and choked in her throat. The stench of illness and decomposing bodies hung above and around her in an impenetrable miasma. The very air seemed to burn against her raw skin.

"Lord, why have you forsaken me?"

Chapter Text

"A wanderer."

That was what he'd said, when she'd asked him who he was. He had not given his name, or indeed any other information about himself. That was fine; Ensi hadn't either.

She did not fear him, though perhaps she should have. After all, it was quite rare to meet another person in this place, and all too common to stumble across things that were trying to kill her. They were getting smarter, too: some of them had learned tricks, had begun using snatches of her own thoughts to disguise themselves as human, just long enough for her to let her guard down and allow them to get close. She'd long since stopped making the mistake of trusting anything or anyone on the basis of its appearance alone.

It was hard to explain, even to herself, why she had trusted this one on sight, why, instead of driving him off with all of her not-inconsiderable power, she'd gone straight to him when he'd appeared on the edge of her haven and unhesitatingly let him in.

They did not do much in the way of talking. Ensi only talked when she had something to say, and once it had become clear that he would say no more about himself, she did not see the point in asking further. Instead, she folded her legs and sank to the ground atop her own tiny island, and with a gesture invited him to join her.

"Long have I wandered these wilds." He swept his hand outward to encompass the treacherous sea and the eternally darkened sky. His manner of speaking was strange, as if he wasn't quite used to doing it—or as if he came from very far away or very long ago, and had been left far behind by the tides of time and space. "I have seen very few."

"There are very few mages," she answered. "I have not met many either."

"I see." For a moment he looked sad, and very, very distant. Then, he turned to her, smiling. "I will teach you a song."

He knew so much. He had been so far, and practicing so long, and the rhythm and meter rolled from his tongue like water. Still, Ensi did not ask, only accepted what he had to teach her, knowing not only that it was rude to request information he had not volunteered but also knowing that he would not answer.

Instead, she offered him a gift of her own, and they still lay in each other's arms by the time she felt the first stirrings of her physical body ready to blink awake.

"If only we had more than this one night," he whispered as her consciousness began to fade.

When she opened her eyes to morning sunlight, the last word lingering in her mind was the last one he'd said to her. Ukko-Pekka. He'd said his name was Ukko-Pekka.

Chapter Text

Children would only let you make the choices for them until a certain age, when they would always begin to demand independence.

He knew this. He had already raised four children before; they had only let him protect them for so long before they'd left the farm and chosen to pursue their own, dangerous, careers. That was why he and his wife had tried to protect them beforehand, by granting them immunity even before they came into existence.

This one was different. With this one they had not, could not plan.

"My grandfather decided that never again would any of his descendants be subjected to the horrors of the outside world," he said during a late-night consultation with his wife, shortly after Reynir had been born. "I intend to uphold that promise."

Reynir was a curious child. Reynir loved listening to the exploits of his older siblings, and he wanted to explore. They could not let him.

'I'm doing this for him,' he told himself again and again. 'Better alive and dispirited than free and dead. His life is worth anything else we might have to keep him from.'

"That's the rule," they told him when he asked why he wasn't allowed to go over the hill. "There could be monsters hiding around any corner."

(They didn't include the caveat that there had never been a case of the Rash spreading in Iceland.)

"Get anywhere near one and you'll get infected, and then your face will melt and fall off," they told him when he asked what he should do if he ever encountered a troll or a beast.

(They didn't bother to specify that either a bite or inhalation of the pathogen was required to spread infection.)

"Oh honey, non-immunes aren't allowed to travel outside of the country," when he expressed his desire to go visit Bornholm and see all the palm trees. "It's the law, you see."

(They didn't mention that that law was no longer on the books and had been repealed the previous year.)

They would do anything to keep him safe, they had determined—even if it necessitated lying to him and smothering his dreams. Even if it meant sacrificing his happiness. Even if it mean that he would be hurt.

Then, there came the morning when they woke up and Reynir was not there. He had not told them where he was going. Instead, he had left only a note:

"Forgive me."

Everything they had done, they had done for the sake of keeping their son safe. Instead, they had killed him.

Chapter Text

There was a part of him that couldn't believe his luck… and another part of him that filled with cold dread every time he had a moment alone to think about what he had done.

He was here. He was really here. He had made it to the surface—and even better, he had found her.


The first time they'd met, they hadn't really met—he might have seen her, but she hadn't seen him, and he knew what the law said about showing himself.

So instead, he watched. Beneath the waves, always beneath the waves, he watched her splashing in the water and laughing, pointing at every new thing with a smile of delight. She was never alone: there were two men who came with her, one frail-looking and skinny, the other shorter and stocky, but their expressions were usually grim, or at the very best muted. It was her smiling face that Reynir had been drawn to.

Who was she, and what was she doing here on this remote island? Who were the two men with her? Family members, he guessed—they looked alike. At least, he thought, she did not seem to be in any sort of distress, and that meant they probably weren't stranded: she was happy, and seeing her happy made him happy.

It was only because he'd been watching so long that he managed to save her.

The day was stormy. The water was choppy and light flashed above the waves; it was times like this when his people knew to stay deep down, far beneath the turbulence, and wait out the sky's wrath until the sea calmed once more. Even so, he swam to the surface, looking for her. Humans could not swim to the depths, could not take shelter in the ocean's embrace, and he did not know what they did to take shelter when the storms blew through their domain. He needed to make sure that she was safe.

She wasn't safe.

She was in the water, thrashing, trying desperately to stay afloat but with waves going over her head at every other breath. By the time that Reynir had managed to reach her, she had lost consciousness and slipped beneath the waves.

What am I doing what am I doing what am I doing, he thought over and over again as he held her tightly and beat his tail against the tide, fighting the waves to drag her to shore. Don't interfere in human affairs: that was their law. Still, though, he did not even consider letting go and letting nature run its course. He had made his decision, and now he would see it through.

Once they were both up on the beach beyond the reach of the waves, he lay by her side, panting, his muscles aching from his battle against the storm. She lay there shivering, coughing up water, but she did not wake, so Reynir stayed by her side, whispering whatever reassurances he could think to give. He took that time to study her face: plump, cheerful, with a healthy blush in her cheeks. He tried to picture what she'd look like with a tail—its scales would be silver, he decided right away, to match the color of her hair, which would form a halo around her head as it floated free in the water. His own long hair was sopping wet, and clung to his torso like seaweed. How did humans tolerate being constantly dragged down day in and day out?

He didn't know how long he'd lain there when her eyelids began to flutter. Slowly, he backed away—he'd been willing to take a risk, but not that great a risk—and waited for her to wake up.

Grains of sand worked their irritating way between his scales as he forced his tail to move backwards along the beach, shoving it ungracefully behind a rock. He could not leave her there unconscious, but neither could he let her see what he was. Once he was situated, he did not move, but watched her face. A few more shudders, and then her eyelids finally cracked open all the way.

"…wha…?" She was awake, but her gaze was unfocused. Reynir could not be sure whether she'd seen him or not.

Just as he was debating the merits of calling attention to himself, though, he heard another voice from farther up the beach. "Tuuri? Tuuri!"

It was one of the men who'd accompanied her, the stocky one. Hastily, Reynir slipped back beneath the waves. For a few seconds, the man stared out into the ocean and blinked—Reynir's heart pounded against his chest; what if he'd been seen? Then, however, the man shook himself, bent down to scoop the woman into his arms, and retreated with her back up the beach.

Reynir had done all that he could do. He turned tail and headed back out to sea.


"Here! Try this!"

Something cold was shoved into his hands. He looked toward Tuuri, who was standing there grinning in anticipation, and gingerly smiled back.

A glass, with cold liquid inside. This was safe. He raised it to his lips.

Swallowing was still difficult, but he was learning. Pour the liquid slowly into his mouth, tilt his head back, and work the muscles of his throat until it went down. It was so sweet that his throat could taste the sugar, even without his tongue.

…even eating was so different, on the surface. Reynir had never had anything sweet before—and of course, one had no need to… drink, that was the word… when one lived under the water. It was like being a hatchling all over again, re-learning how to chew, using a finger to push the food around in his mouth because he couldn't swallow properly… Tuuri's cousin said he was weird. Even with two legs, he felt so alien and out of place.

"Do you like it?" Tuuri asked, beaming up at him. They'd learned very quickly to stick to yes or no questions.

Reynir smiled more broadly as he lowered the glass, and nodded.


"Here."

He looked at the things she'd set atop the large, perfectly square brown rock in front of him: one of them square and white and thinner than seaweed, which bent when he picked it up, and a smaller long cylindrical object. He picked up first one, and then the other; the second he'd seen once in a while, floating around in shipwrecks, but had never encountered anything like the first, and guessed that it had to be one of those things that fell to pieces in water. He looked back at Tuuri (he knew her name now, Tuuri), asking her with his eyes what she wanted him to do.

"Write your name," she elaborated, gesturing again at the implements. Onni stood behind them, arms crossed, a troubled expression on his face. Reynir had gathered that they were trying to get his name, in some way that would not require him to speak it, but beyond that he could not piece together what they wanted of him. He could only shake his head.

"You know. Like this." She picked up the long thing and touched its tip to the flat white thing, leaving a series of black marks. "See? That's how you spell my name. Tuuri Hotakainen. Now write down yours."

Reynir leaned forward, fascinated. This… he had never seen anything like this before. He still couldn't give them what they wanted, but he could at least show them he was willing. The siblings leaned forward, one over each shoulder, as he began to make his own series of black marks, not quite sure how to adjust his grip so as to make a line or a curve.

"I… I don't think he knows how to write."


"Tuuri, please fix the radio."

"Huh?" Tuuri let go of his hand—they'd been about to go on a hike—and turned back to face her brother. "But I was just working on the radio!"

"And the radio still isn't fixed, and Lalli and I don't know how to fix it."

"I'll finish fixing it tonight. Come on, I want to see the waterfall!" This latter was said to Reynir, and was accompanied by a tug on his hand.

"That's what you said about fixing it this morning!" Onni's voice rang after them as Tuuri pulled him onto the trail that wound through the trees.

Stabbing pains like knife blades drove through his feet and legs with every step, and tears sprang unnoticed to his eyes, but in truth, Reynir was glad for any delay in repairing the radio. Every day without a link to the outside world meant one more day for him to win her love.


"I can reshape your fins into legs, and spell your skin so you won't dry out if you spend too long out of water, if you're willing to pay the price—but in the end, I can only make you look like a human. If you want to become a human, permanently, you must win the love of one of their kind."

"I know just the one."

"So we have a deal?"

"We do."

The last thing he remembered was a horrible pain in his mouth, and a cloud of blood that darkened the water around his head.


"I always wanted to go exploring and see the world. But Onni is such a coward, he would never let me."

"Mh." Reynir made a noise in his throat and focused on the coolness of the water, which soothed his aching feet.

"I finally got him to agree to come on this vacation, though. Probably because I told him Lalli and I were going whether he came along or not." She splashed a bit in the water as she jumped from rock to rock. "Hey, do you have any siblings?"

Though he was sure she hadn't meant it, it was like a blow to the chest. The thought of his brothers and sisters… the thought of his parents…

He was never going to see them again, was he? His journey to the surface hadn't been a temporary thing, like Tuuri's island vacation; this was permanent. For fear that they might have tried to stop him, he hadn't even told his family goodbye.

Tuuri hadn't noticed. She was looking at him expectantly. Almost glad now that he couldn't talk, Reynir nodded around the lump that was rising in his throat.

"Are any of them older?" Again he nodded.

"You know what I'm talking about, then. I never get to do anything." She looked up toward the top of the waterfall. "Hey, let's hike farther up the river. There's some really neat rock formations up there!"

Even the thought of more walking, and then having that much farther to walk back, sent stabbing pains shooting through his feet. Nevertheless, he pulled his shoes back on, taking care all the while not to let Tuuri see his dread. He only had so long to win her love, and a long hike was probably the best chance he had to be alone with her. He had to make every second count, because if he didn't take this chance, he might not get another.


"He's not your pet, and he's not harmless. He's a naked man we found on the beach with no sign of a boat even though it's impossible to get here without a boat. He can't talk, he can't write, he has no identification, we have no idea who he is… As soon as the radio's fixed, I'm contacting someone who knows what to do with him, because this isn't something we can handle on our own."

Reynir, who'd been listening at the door of the room where they thought he was sleeping, slumped against the wall. He had a time limit now. He didn't know what the human authorities were going to do with him after Onni managed to get in touch with them, but odds were that he was never going to see Tuuri again.


Tuuri liked him. Tuuri found him interesting. Tuuri aways brought him along whenever she wanted to explore more of the island. That had to count for something… right?

It had to. It had to. Otherwise all of his pain and sacrifice would have been in vain.

So Tuuri didn't notice how much the long walks pained him, or how badly he limped whenever they were nearing the end of a hike. Reynir didn't want her to notice. He'd been doing everything he could to hide his signs of pain, because she enjoyed herself so much when she was exploring and she wouldn't fall in love with him if they had to stop doing it for his sake.

So Tuuri kept dragging him from one end of the island to the other, and never once asked him what he wanted to do. He wanted to make her happy. If she was happy when she was with him, that was all that mattered.

…every day, Reynir wished that he could still speak, or that he could learn that "writing" thing the humans seemed to use as an alternate means of communication. Then he'd be able to tell her how much he loved her, and that he'd given up his entire life just to be with her.

There was even a small part of him that hoped she was putting off fixing the radio so she could spend more time with him.


Reynir wanted to cry as he looked down at the chopping waves.

Of course it wasn't going to work out. Of course Tuuri wasn't going to put off fixing the radio forever, nor Onni leaving the island. He'd been running on a time limit to begin with—a limit that was far too short for anyone to truly fall in love.

He had tried, one last time. While the radio was crackling and Onni was telling the person on the other end about the mysterious stranger they'd found on an apparently deserted island, he'd grabbed Tuuri's hand, tugged her off into the trees, and desperately searched her face for any sign of fellow feeling before he'd leaned down and kissed her.

She'd seemed surprised—but not unpleasantly so, and after a few seconds' worth of shocked hesitation she'd wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him back. A feeling of pleased warmth had spread right down into his stomach—the sea witch had told him of the magic of love's first kiss, the power it had to induce a transformation. This felt so right; it had to be—

"I'll miss you too," Tuuri had said cheerfully as she'd pulled away, seemingly unaware that his heart was shattering into a thousand pieces. "It's been such a fun vacation, hasn't it?"

He'd searched, in vain, for any sign of longing, or regret, or an indication that she might have wanted more than a kiss as she'd pulled away with a wave and turned to go back to her brother. He had found none.

Now, he was on a much bigger boat than the one Tuuri's family had owned, surrounded by strangers who all wore identical clothes and kept asking him questions that he couldn't answer. The knives of pain that shot through his feet every time he took a step were a constant reminder that he'd given up everything, and received nothing in return.

He couldn't even blame Tuuri for being too selfish to notice his feelings, or Onni for trying to keep them apart. Tuuri had every right to live her life as she chose, and Onni had no reason to trust the stranger who'd washed up on the beach to pursue his sister. Reynir was the one who'd had unrealistic expectations, who'd thought that a few uninterrupted days together would be enough to cement a lifetime commitment. No—he hadn't thought. What he'd felt for Tuuri had been shallow infatuation and curiosity, not love, yet for the sake of a child's daydream, he'd not only thrown away his past and his people, he now no longer had a future.

At that thought, he began to cry in earnest, learning his forehead against the rail of the ship. Dolphins broke the surface beneath him, chattering to each other as they played in the boat's wake, yet another reminder of what he could never have.


When Tuuri had run off after saying her brief, careless goodbye, Reynir hadn't followed. He didn't want to go with her and be reminded that he would never win her love; he didn't want to see Onni and be reminded that in only a few hours' time he would be in the hands of strangers to whom he meant nothing because he had no identity and nowhere to go. Instead, he'd turned, and run back down to the water.

Every footstep was like his legs (tail, he was supposed to have a tail) being shredded and then shredded again, but Reynir did not slow his pace. Instead, he ran full force down into the ocean's embrace and kept going, pushing harder and harder as the water came up to his ankles, his knees, his waist, until finally he reached a high wave that towered well over his head; for a second the water seemed to hover above him, and as it crashed down he closed his eyes, plunged his whole body under, and took a deep breath…

Instead of the refreshing cool wetness he'd always known, his lungs were filled with a harsh burning sensation that clogged his nose and threatened to smother him alive. Darkness began to gather at the edges of his vision… he couldn't breathe… he needed…

…air.

Desperately, he flailed, trying to find his way back to the surface… but he no longer knew where the surface was. The ocean, his birthplace, had for so long been a safe haven… but now he'd rejected it, thrown away his homeland, and it was going to kill him in retaliation. The waves buffeted him, water clogged his lungs, he couldn't breathe…

Then, someone else's arms closed around him, and he was hauled back to the surface and then up onto the sand.

Hands were gripping his arms, hands were turning him over, hands were pressing down hard on his stomach, and then hands were holding up his head as he vomited out water onto the sand, so much water, darkening the sand like the blood that had poured from his mouth when the sea-witch had cut out his tongue…

"What were you thinking?" Onni roared once the coughing and the gagging had finally subsided, and he was able to look around himself and notice his surroundings while taking gasp after desperate burning gasp of air. Onni was on one side of him, Lalli on the other, and they were both soaking wet.

"What were you thinking, trying to throw your life away like that?" the other man continued when Reynir didn't answer, when Reynir couldn't answer. "Can't you see that we're trying to help you?"

Oh dear mother of the ocean, they'd thought he was— that he was about to— He could not explain that he had only been trying to return to his home. Instead, he could only bury his face in his hands, and weep.

Onni didn't let him out of his sight after that, not until the boat with the strangers had come to take him away to wherever it was they took people who had nowhere to go. He walked Reynir all the way back to the cabin, not commenting on his limp. He stood outside the door while Reynir dried himself off. He sat next to Reynir, the latter wrapped in blankets, until the sound of an engine told them it was time for him to go.

"He tried to drown himself a few hours ago," he heard Onni saying to some of the other people as he was hustled into the boat. "You might want to watch him."

These people also asked him a lot of questions—but at least they were questions that he could answer. Had he inhaled water? Was he feeling dizzy or short of breath? Was he trying to kill himself? Was he telling the truth about not wanting to kill himself? Would he try to kill himself again if they left him alone? Did he have any family? Was there anyone they could contact who knew who he was? Reynir nodded and shook his head as was appropriate.


"…Reynir?"

His head snapped up and his eyes snapped open. Someone knew his name. Someone knew his name! Hardly daring to believe, he looked down into the water… and saw the head of his eldest sister Guðrun, who was swimming alongside the boat.

Automatically, he opened his mouth—and despair and regret crashed into his sudden hope and joy when he realized that he could not answer her. Meanwhile, she was looking up at him with a growing expression of horror, taking in his continued silence and the pair of legs that were dangling over the side of the boat. "What have you done?"

In answer, he hung his head, and covered his face with his hands. He'd jumped into something without thinking, agreed to things that couldn't be undone, and permanently given up the life that he'd had. That was what he'd done.

He'd put himself in a position where not even his big sister could protect him anymore. She'd only be able to stay with him until they reached land. Nevertheless, she swam alongside for as long as she could, and talked. Everyone in their family was out looking for him, she said. They wanted to know what had become of him. She told him that everyone was well, if grieving. She told him how much they'd miss him.

"I'll be sure to tell the others what happened," she called after him at last, when the waters got shallower and the human activity on deck increased to the point of putting her at risk of being seen. "We'll always remember you."

Reynir held those words in his head as the humans came to gather him, and led him onshore to whatever fate awaited.

Chapter Text

This could not be happening.

It had to be a nightmare. He'd never stowed away in a crate full of tuna cans and stranded himself in the Silent World. They hadn't stirred up an army of angry ghosts and trolls that had swarmed them in the middle of the night. Tuuri had never been bitten, the tank hadn't broken down, Emil and Lalli had never been separated, and now… now…

…now, he wasn't holed up in some abandoned Old World building with Sigrun and Mikkel because a small group of trolls had taken notice of them as the sun went down, and said group of trolls definitely did not include what had used to be Tuuri!

Tuuri was gone. Tuuri was never coming back. Tuuri had been bitten by a troll, and she must have started seeing the first signs of infection that night, and she had thrown herself into the ocean and drowned, and… and…

…and they'd never managed to find her body, no matter how long they'd paced up and down the beach, and it had been far too cold and too dangerous and too futile for anyone to try to swim out and retrieve it. In the end, they'd managed only a symbolic burial, building a pyre with only a few of her possessions to burn.

He'd tried, a couple of times, to desperately appeal to Tuuri (or at least, to what Tuuri had been), but Sigrun and Mikkel had hurried him along and not allowed him to linger anywhere even close to within reach of the horde that was currently chasing them. In the end, they'd halted on the creaking staircase—Sigrun had given a few last instructions—and then they were going one way and she was going another, Mikkel's hand on his collar preventing him from slowing his pace or stopping to look back.

Then, they waited.

It was agony to wait. They couldn't talk and risk drawing attention. Instead, Reynir only sat quietly, arms wrapped around his knees while Mikkel stood over him with a crowbar in hand, straining his ears to catch any sound through the wheezing of his own breath through the filters of his mask.

It was horrible, having to listen like that and not be able to see anything—and not be able to do anything. Reynir had scratched out what protective runes he could, but the ones he'd drawn in the dust of the floor could only protect him and Mikkel, and all of the successful ones he'd managed to make so far were only proof against ghosts, not trolls. They would not help Sigrun if she was greatly outnumbered.

At first, there wasn't much, only the panicked wheezes of his own breathing and the complaints of the ancient floorboards as Mikkel shifted his weight. Then, they started hearing the gunshots.

Reynir looked up at Mikkel. "That… that can't be good, can it?"

"No, it is not." Mikkel's fingers tightened around the handle of his crowbar. "Stay here."

Then, Mikkel was also gone, and Reynir could do nothing but sit there with his arms wrapped around his knees, and listen.

There were yells, several loud bangs, the sounds of a scuffle, a few more bullets, then… quiet. It seemed that the battle was over.

Reynir realized that he was shaking. His ears rang with the sudden absence of gunshots, but it wasn't quiet, far from quiet: in the ringing silence, he could hear uneven footsteps moving around on the floor beneath him. Only one set of footsteps. Desperately, he prayed that Sigrun and Mikkel had survived… that the unevenness was because the person still standing was injured… that there was only one set because the other person was resting, or unconscious, or also injured and unable to walk, just not dead not dead please please please don't let them be dead…

He desperately wanted to call out and end the suspense, but he didn't dare draw attention to himself. Instead, he curled further in on himself and waited, repeating the rule that Mikkel had drilled into his head over and over again in preparation for the journey ahead: stand still and stay silent, it might go away, stand still and stay silent, it might go away, stand still and stay silent, it might go away…

The dragging footsteps started to creak up the stairs. Reynir wrapped his arms tighter around himself, and waited.

The head that poked its way into his hiding place did not belong to Sigrun or Mikkel.

Oh dear sweet Odin, please please no.

She had not been infected for long enough for her body to be twisted and mutated in any of the more gruesome ways. Still, it was clear just by looking at her that she was no longer human. The spreading Rash (or was that her time in the water?) had turned her skin a bloated blue-gray that hung from her body in loose folds; her hands, once so small and clever, reached out for him with fingers that were now knobbly claws; her bloated blackened tongue hung from her mouth like some form of gruesome slug; and as for her eyes… oh dear gods, her eyes…

What was looking back at him out of that skull weren't Tuuri's clear blue eyes. Instead, a writhing mass protruded from the sockets where her eyes had once been.

The second she came into view, all hope that Reynir might go unnoticed if he only stayed quiet enough was dashed. Now, it was time for action—but what? He'd already discovered his protective runes were no good when faced with the physical body of a troll. He didn't have any sort of weapon with which to defend himself—Sigrun would never have trusted him with a gun and he didn't know how to use one even if she had; Mikkel had taken the crowbar with him when he'd gone down to assist her and there was nothing else to hand that he could use as a club. That left him with only his own hands and feet, and his chances were not looking good. Still, better a slim chance than no chance at all.

The second she'd laid eyes on him, what was left of her mouth had spread into a wide grin, and now, she was lumbering toward him, albeit at a pace that was thankfully much slower than what a fully-formed troll would manage to achieve. Reynir took a deep breath to steel himself. "Tuuri," he said, "I'm really, really sorry about this." Then, before he had a chance to have any second thoughts, he ran straight toward her and kicked her as hard as he could.

He didn't think a bloated near-corpse would still be able to look at him with shock and betrayal, but that was exactly the expression on Tuuri's face immediately before gravity took over and she tumbled down the stairs. "I'm sorry!" he apologized once more, desperately, before running down after her in the hopes that she'd stay down long enough for him to get past her and out of the building.

Reynir was nearly to the door when something caught him around the ankle, and he crashed to the floor.

Wildly, he looked around him. Sigrun and Mikkel… oh gods, there was no way they could still be alive, not when the trolls had… hurriedly, he glanced away. At least they'd accomplished something; dead trolls littered the floor of the building, and it looked as if Tuuri had been the only one to make it out alive. Oh yes, and speaking of Tuuri… she'd survived her fall, and she was the one who'd grabbed onto his ankle.

It was impossible to care about whether or not he attracted attention anymore: he was screaming. Tuuri's fingers around his ankle gripped him with surprising strength, and even though he lashed out again and again with the foot that was still free, a human skull was far harder than it looked, and the Rash had not yet had time to soften her bones: his blows did little more than glance off her forehead. "Tuuri," he was babbling, tears streaming down his face, "Tuuri, please, I don't want to do this, oh gods, please, I don't want you to kill me, anyone but you, please anyone but you, just please please please don't eat me…"

He didn't know how he was expecting her to respond. Maybe (if he was in luck) to finally succumb to his kicking and let him go, or (if he wasn't) to ignore him and, with a hungry gleam in her eye, sink her teeth into his tender flesh. What he had not been expecting was for her to answer.

"nOt gOinG tO eAt YoU."

He was so shocked that he completely forgot about struggling. Instead, he could only sit and stare, frozen, as she released him (she had not, he noticed somewhere in the one tiny corner of his mind that had yet to shut down completely, attempted to bite or even scratch him) and instead moved to his side, where he could see her up close. "T-Tuuri?"

He looked at her. The swollen blackened tongue lolled out of her mouth, pushing past what few teeth remained in their sockets. The… things… moving around in her eyes almost seemed to droop, and then…

Were… were those actual blackened tears running down her face?

"yOu dOn'T LovE mE?"

"But you're dead!"

In Reynir's defense, it was the only thing he could think of to say when the girl he'd spent weeks trying to work up the courage to confess to had drowned herself, come back to life, murdered two of her former teammates, and was now looking at him like a kicked puppy because he was terrified that she was going to do the same to him.

"WhY sHouLD thAt StOp mE? eVerYOnE tOLd mE I cOuLDn't gO iNtO thE SiLEnt WoRld bEcaUSe I wAsN't ImMuNe, bUt I dIdN'T lEt ThAT StOP mE eItHeR."

…Reynir had to admit that she had a point. So, now that he was no longer hyperventilating (and he was reasonably sure that Tuuri wasn't about to rip his skin off and start chewing on his intestines), he leaned back on his hands with a loud sigh. "I guess this is for the best," he mused, more to himself than because he thought that Tuuri actually cared what he had to say. "After all, those ghosts have been following us everywhere ever since we left Kastellet. If I'd gone home, I'd just have ended up leading them right to my family and friends."

Tuuri said nothing. Instead, she only watched as Reynir blew out a breath, hands resting on the floor, and came to a decision.

Well, at least there was something he could still do to help.


As it turned out, traveling through the Silent World was a whole lot easier while under the protection of one of the locals.

Granted, it wasn't exactly reassuring when, upon the approach of any other troll or beast, Tuuri would grasp his arm and hiss threateningly until it went away. Still, at least for the time being he seemed to be safe, even if he wasn't quite sure whether she was saving him to be her lover or her lunch.

…it didn't matter. He was dead anyway; after the adrenaline had worn off his stomach had begun to rumble and after several hours of walking his mouth was as dry as the inside of an old boot, but even if Reynir had thought to grab some of the essential food and water supplies that Mikkel had packed away, he dared not remove his mask for even the few precious seconds it would take him to swallow a sip of water or a spoonful of cold, gelatinous soup. Tuuri was his guard and she would protect him from what the rest of the Silent World had to offer, but the flipside of that was that it wasn't even safe to breathe with her around.

He felt surprisingly calm about it, now that he knew he didn't have a choice. As long as he could manage to find the church before thirst and hunger and cold overtook him, he would not have died in vain. The choice he did have, he would make the best of: if he must die in the Silent World, better to first achieve something to ensure that everyone back home would remain safe, and better to choose his own way to go than sit around shaking while waiting to get eaten by trolls. He would find the church, he would accomplish what he had set out to accomplish, and then, presuming he didn't have the strength to continue on to the meeting point (which, by that point, he probably wouldn't), he would simply lie down in the snow and let nature take him. Hypothermia didn't sound like a bad way to go, all things considered.

Tuuri kept up a constant stream of cheerful chatter as they walked. All in all, Reynir couldn't say he minded that either; it helped to keep his mind off things, and if he managed to ignore the rotting skin, the constant drooling, and the downright creepy cadence her voice had taken on, it almost felt like old times again. If only he'd managed to muster up the courage to tell her before; then he might have had a chance to take such a stroll with a living, breathing girl rather than a half-drowned monstrosity. What if he'd leaped in front of her when the troll had broken into the tank, rather than freezing up and staring like an idiot? What if he'd done a better job of warning the team? There was no use thinking about what ifs, though. What was done was done, and all he could do was continue to press on.

Thanks to Tuuri's infection, they could only travel at night. During the day, they sheltered from the cold in ruined buildings. Reynir found himself shivering constantly; as it turned out, when he had had nothing to eat for several days running it was much, much harder to keep himself warm. Tuuri noticed, and snuggled right up against him, and even though it warmed him he was pretty sure she had her own ulterior motive. Still, he kept waiting to wake up to find a set of tooth marks on a vulnerable patch of skin, and never did. For the time being, at least, she was keeping her word.

He was beginning to give up hope when they finally found it.

Reynir breathed a sigh of relief as they walked through the dusty church door. He'd been starting to fear that they wouldn't be able to find it—that it was in another city entirely, that they'd passed it on their way to the coast. Still, though, here it was, and the faintly glowing silhouette standing behind the altar was unmistakeable.

"They're right behind us," Reynir explained as soon as he finished greeting her. "You… can guide them, can't you?"

"Of course I can, child. You need simply to guide them to me."

In the end, they didn't need much help. All that Reynir had to do was remove his runes, and they flocked to the church. Still, he didn't stop holding his breath until the pastor was done with her rite and every last ghost had been led to rest.

…that left only the question of what he was going to do.

He was never going to make it to the coast in time. He wasn't even sure he could make it back to the wheelbarrow where they'd left their supplies, hunger and thirst had left him so weak. While the pastor had been performing her rite, Reynir had sunk to one of the wooden benches, too tired even to care if one of the ghosts escaped and tried to drain the life out of him. Tuuri sat beside him, one arm thrown around his shoulders.

That was the other problem. Tuuri. He couldn't just leave her here, not when she'd come with him so far and helped him so much. Nor could he justify abandoning her to the retrieval crew to be killed. If there was any sign she was suffering from the torments inflicted by the Rash, it would be an act of mercy—but she wasn't. The physical changes might have been rather… extreme… but if she clearly wasn't bothered by them, Reynir didn't see how it was his place to tell her whether or not she should want release. So what was he going to do? Back in the tank, he'd often fantasized about spending the rest of his life with her. Now, it looked as if he was going to get that wish—no matter what he did, his life wasn't going to be much longer. Still, if only he could…

"…and now, it is time for me to depart to my own rest."

Startled, Reynir realized that the pastor was getting ready to leave them. Of course she was; her work here was done, and she had more than earned her right to take her own rest. Still, Reynir found himself yelling "Wait!" An idea had come to him, and the vague notion crystallized into a certainty as she waited patiently for him to speak. "Could you… do one last favor for us?"


"I do."

Clasping Tuuri's clawed hand, he gazed into her writhing eyes and knew that he had made the right decision. Sure, this wasn't how he'd ever imagined things going—but if the gods saw fit to give him exactly what he wanted, then who was he to question the circumstances?

"Then I now pronounce you man and wife. You may now kiss the bride."

Slowly, Reynir reached up to unclasp his mask. This was it. Once he did this, there would be no going back.

In a sudden surge of boldness, he ripped the mask from his face and threw it away. Then, he leaned down and pressed his lips to Tuuri's, and reveled in the feeling of that long black tongue working its way into his mouth.

Chapter Text

 

(I'm sorry there's no actual playlist at this time, but for whatever reason the stupid Spotify embedded link keeps disappearing as soon as I try to post the chapter. I am going to continue trying to fix this.)

So now that we've got all of that out of the way, I have a bit of a question for readers:

What next?

While I was working on it, this challenge has spawned a lot of AUs, and there are still quite a few that I think could go further, or be expanded, or be wrapped up in ways that I didn't get around to while I was working on the challenge, and there is a chance (though not a guarantee) that I might want to continue to work on some of them in the future in more of a longfic format. Not to mention that if anyone would like to play around in any of these universes, I'm quite willing to put them up for adoption as well. So the question is: what do people want to see? I'm not going to treat this a as a poll, where the "winner" is whatever gets the most votes and that's the one I'm going to work on next, but as more of an opportunity to bounce ideas around. So, without further ado, a list of the stories that I think might have room to go somewhere:

*Contains mature material, usually in the form of extreme violence; reader discretion advised

**Up for adoption only; I don't want to work on this universe any more myself

 

The Western AU

Characters: Sigrun, Mikkel, Trond

Relationships: Sigrun & Mikkel

Possible Future Directions: Mikkel's side of the story; potential backstory?

Blaze of Glory

Running to Stand Still

A Horse with No Name

A Slow Parade

The Hanging Tree

 

The Gladiator AU

Characters: Emil, Sigrun, Mikkel

Relationships: Sigrun & Emil, Sigrun & Mikkel, Emil/Reynir pre-romance

Possible Future Directions: More fleshing out of the story; what happens to Emil and his relationship with Reynir

Centuries

The Awakening*

The Phoenix

 

The Paranormal Investigators AU

Characters: Lalli, Emil, Reynir

Relationships: Emil + Lalli (open to interpretation), Lalli & Reynir, The Hotakainens

Possible Future Directions: More details on the Hotakainens' backstory; more fleshing out of the story

Dead Man's Party

Night on Bald Mountain*

Personal Space Invader

Quantum Immortality

An Epic Age

 

The Dystopian AU**

Characters: Sigrun

Relationships: Sigrun & Lalli

Possible Future Directions: Lalli's backstory; what happens to them after

Invisible Sun

The Knife

 

The Assassins AU**

Characters: Lalli, Emil

Relationships: Emil/Lalli, Sigrun & Emil

Possible Future Directions: More backstory; future battles with other assassins

Just a Job to Do

A Murder of Crows

 

The LotR Crossover**

Characters: Ensemble Cast

Relationships: Emil + Lalli (open to interpretation)

Possible Future Directions: What happened to Tuuri and Reynir; more fleshing out of the other characters' stories

Land of the Dead

The Last Unicorn

 

The Valhalla Chronicles**

Characters: Sigrun

Possible Future Directions: More oneshots and fleshing out of the afterlife

Million Dollar Business

A Light that Never Comes

 

The Mecha AU**

Characters: Tuuri, Emil, Sigrun, Mikkel

Relationships: Tuuri & Emil, Sigrun & Mikkel

Possible Future Directions: More fleshing out of the story

Oxygen

A Bit of an Awkward Situation

A Race against Time

 

Eide Family Backstory

Characters: Asbjørn, Solveig, Sigrun

Relationships: The Eide Family

Possible Future Directions: More fleshing out of the story; lots and lots of fluff and angst and Eide family dynamics

No Way Out

Violet Hill

 

The Evil Mikkel AU*

Characters: Sigrun, Mikkel

Relationships: Sigrun & Mikkel, Sigrun & Crew

Possible Future Directions: More fleshing out of the story; more detail on the divergence from canon

A Demon's Fate

An Ordinary Abnormality

The Dying of the Light

The Nexus

 

Keeping a Secret**

Characters: Reynir, Emil

Relationships: Emil & Reynir, eventual Emil/Onni

Possible Future Directions: Further development of Emil and Onni's relationship

Keeping a Secret

Dry Eyes by Aliax

An Innocent Man

 

The Fight Club Crossover**

Characters: Sigrun

Relationships: Sigrun & Solveig

Possible Future Directions: More exploration of Sigrun and Emil's relationship and how they put their lives back together

A Warrior's Call

 

The Steampunk AU/The Evil Emil AU**

Characters: Lalli

Relationships: Emil & Lalli, The Hotakainens

Possible Future Directions: More exploration of what Lalli does with his life after the end of the story

The Eulogy Ballroom

 

The Little Mermaid Crossover

Characters: Reynir

Relationship: One-sided Reynir->Tuuri

Possible Future Directions: Reynir trying to build a life under the circumstances he's stuck himself in; perhaps building a relationship with someone other than Tuuri

The Yacht Club