Illyana Rasputin liked to think that nothing scared her. Not anymore. She’d seen too much in her strange life. The kind of life where pretentious scribes would use the words ‘fell’ and ‘eldritch’ and describe that such things she had seen would drive lesser men instantly mad. She’d seen Elder Gods fall, friends gone corrupted and then killed, seen herself corrupted, the near extinction of her own people – at least twice – and the kind of racism and hate and fear only a mutant could experience. So, Illyana Rasputin had a pretty good feeling that nothing out there could frighten her.
And then the Norse God of Mischief popped into her life and said three of the most terrifying words a person could hear when strung together.
“Need a favour.”
She was trying to enjoy a burger and fries all to herself in a secluded corner of her favourite restaurant. She had to teleport well over two hundred miles just to get there once a week, but all things considered, that didn’t actually matter much. What did matter was that there was always some emergency, some crisis.
And now, sitting in her corner booth was Loki, all bedecked in green extravagance and golden horns, not caring who saw or that Illyana was trying to pass as normal for twenty minutes of her life.
No. It wasn’t that he didn’t care who saw him. No one in the restaurant seemed to notice him, just as everyone deliberately ignored her. She’d cast a glamour on herself, a relatively minor one. People could see her, but they just ignored her. It prevented anyone from approaching her and annoying her. Loki had done something much the same, though from what she could tell of the spell-work she saw around the edges, his was much more subtle and much more powerful.
She ignored his request, despite the anxiety that hit her. She hated when anyone needed help, never mind megalomaniacal gods. She wasn’t good at giving help. Favours weren’t her thing. She always found ways to attach price tags to them even though she never meant to, or made things worse. It was just her nature.
She eyed Loki, ignoring his normal cocky grin, the lopsided way he held himself, the absolute greasiness he managed to convey just by looking at her. It was a given that he had an ulterior motive. Everyone knew that Loki always had an ulterior motive. The question was, how many did he have, and how many of those were likely to turn into future annoyances?
“No,” she said, biting into her hamburger.
A bit of ketchup overflowed to the side and splat onto the wrapper spread out on the table. Loki reached out with a finger, dabbed into it, and gave it a long lick, never breaking eye contact. He was trying to be creepy. She’d seen worse in her childhood. Done worse. She gave no reaction.
“You haven’t even heard what it is yet.”
Another bite. This time a dollop of mustard squeezed out. Illyana loved putting too many toppings on her food. Condiments were her sacrament. You couldn’t find anything that tasted good in Limbo. She liked to enjoy them while she could.
“What if I told you that someone out there had their very essence taken from them by great and terrible beings, and scattered to the corners of creation? That this someone had been created just to be used, abused, and then sacrificed?”
Illyana kept the apprehension off her face, keeping her expression flat and disinterested. She picked up her milk shake, and took a long sip off it, staring him in the eyes.
“What if I told you that you could save her?” Loki said, flashing his teeth in what he probably thought was a handsome smile but came off a tad too predatory.
She knew what he was doing. Wording it in such a way that she’d empathize, relate to the problem. Damn him, but it was working.
“Yes. But my best lies are when I tell the truth. Everyone knows that. And this is one of my very best.”
“Bychit,” she swore.
Loki leaned forward to grab one of her fries. She slapped his hand away. He gave her a wounded expression, and she met it with the same casual indifference.
She needed to get a better read on him. But it was always difficult with Loki. Depending on who you asked and when, he was the God of Evil, of Mischief, of Lies, of Stories, and all the things in between. He was a harmless prankster, he was the most degenerate sinner, he was the most talented bard, he was the ultimate villain of every story.
But Illyana knew evil. She’d been raised by it. Been moulded by it. She had a good idea of when she was in evil’s presence.
Whatever Loki was, he wasn’t evil. Not today, at least. Maybe he had been yesterday, maybe he would be again tomorrow. But not today.
She grabbed a fry and traced it through the blot of mustard on the wrapper. “Tell me more.”
“You help this poor, unfortunate soul—”
“Been watching The Little Mermaid?”
“Ursula is my jam.”
“Of course she is.”
She didn’t want to admit that she’d always felt a certain kinship with the Sea Witch as well. It was the kind of thing that would please him, and she didn’t want Loki to be pleased, she just wanted him elsewhere.
“As I was saying, you help this poor, unfortunate soul back together. Gather her pieces. Make her whole. In a twist of fate, there are five.”
“Is this a giant parallel on purpose, or is there a deeper metaphor with this being about saving myself?”
“I’m afraid I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said in exaggerated innocence. “But if that were the case, you’d be implying that you still needed to be saved. Is that something you require, Illyana Rasputin?”
He reached for another fry. Grudgingly, she let him take it.
“What do I get out of this?”
“Other than the satisfaction that you helped someone in such dire circumstances?”
“Other than that, yes.”
“What do you want? If your request is reasonable, I will pay it.”
She took another bite of her burger, washing it down with more of her milk shake. What did one ask of the God of Lies?
“Your word,” she said.
“Yes. Swear upon your power. Your blood. Your godhood. Give me your word that she, whoever this girl is, won’t be harmed because of this favour. Either directly or indirectly.”
“You’d ask me for my word? That seems a cheap price. I could lie.”
“But the best lies are based on truth, aren’t they? Make this the true part.”
Loki did that smiling thing again. “Oh, I knew there was a reason I liked you.”
She shrugged. “Besides, I know if you swear on your power, you’ll be bound to it. Ancient custom, magical resonance, oaths in blood, etcetera.”
“Ah, yes. I’d forgotten how well-versed you were in the Art.”
“No, you didn’t. It’s part of why you came to me. You obviously need someone trained in magic. But for some reason, it can’t be you. You didn’t go to Strange, so that tells me you’re worried he’ll say no. Which means it’s more of a grey area, morally.”
He shrugged. “Think what you will.”
“Who is she?”
“You should have asked for that in your price.”
“We haven’t agreed to terms yet.”
“No, we haven’t. But I will give you my word that, through action or inaction, either on my part or on yours, there will be no harm done to the one you are to save. You know. Unless you completely … what’s the term? Screw the pooch. But even then, you can’t do any worse to her than what’s already been done. And as an added incentive, I’ll even tell you this for free. No harm will come to you either. Well, maybe. Probably. No harm will come from me, anyway. I can’t promise that you won’t hurt yourself, or that others, unrelated to me or my power, won’t hurt you. But it’s interesting that you didn’t ask if you’d get hurt. Most people would.”
Illyana chewed another fry. He either didn’t know her as well as he claimed, or he was stating the obvious.
“What do I have to do?” she asked.
“Gather the five pieces of her soul. Unite them into one. It’s relatively simple.”
“I’m waiting for the part where you explain why you can’t do it.”
He shrugged. “That is a long story. Suffice to say, I cannot. Not will not. Cannot. Do we have a deal?”
“Just as soon as you swear on your power, your blood, and your godhood.”
His face assumed a distasteful expression. “Very well.”
The ritual was short. He cut himself with a blade of magical energy, spilled it out onto the table, and swore the oath. He repeated the oath again, swearing his words were true under threat of his own power, and then the third, the most powerful of numbers, swearing if his words proved untrue that his own godhood would wither and diminish. He looked positively squeamish as he said it.
It wasn’t often Illyana made a god squirm. She kind of liked it.
“Now that that vileness is out of the way,” he said, “we can get on to the real business of fixing this issue.”
He held out his hand, palm up. There was nothing in it. No glowing power. No mystical energy. No spell prepared. There’d be something to this, though. The clasping of hands had symbolic meaning in the magical world. It was never done lightly. Everything was intent and metaphor, and that was a powerful one.
She kept him waiting longer than was considered polite. She finished her hamburger and her shake. Ate a few more fries. Even went as far as to offer him one freely. The entire time, he sat there, one hand extended, that grin that said ‘I know something you don’t know’ firmly plastered on his face. She knew she was going to regret this. But beyond the next X-emergency that would inevitably come up over the horizon, she really had nothing better to do.
She took his hand.
She expected something. A surge of power, a flash of light, ominous laughter, maybe for the room to go dark. But there was just a gentle warmth. It started in her hand, went up her arm, settled briefly in her chest, but continued on its way. It rippled through her, exploring, as if trying to discover its new surroundings. With a start, Illyana realized this was the woman’s soul. Or a piece of it, anyway. A very small piece, the faintest sliver of one. Illyana recognized a fragmented soul. She was something of an expert.
“Where did you get this?” she asked menacingly.
“It was given me freely. She held my hand, and we were… best friends forever. And then she died, of course. Very tragic. Very terrible. She was made to be sacrificed, you see. I always found that offensive.”
Illyana tried not to bristle. She failed.
“Who?” she asked.
“The person you’re saving? I’m glad you asked, it’s—”
“No. Who did this to her? ‘Made her to be sacrificed’?”
“Oh. Hela. Which will be your next stop, by the by. Remember to bring your surfboard sword. You’ll need it. Hela isn’t in control of Hel these days, but that doesn’t matter much with her. You’ll need a plan. One filled with trickery and cunning, of deceit and mindfulness. You’ll need to be five steps ahead at all times, and be careful, she catches up quickly.”
Illyana grunted. She already knew exactly how to handle this.
“Where are the other pieces?” she asked.
“Scattered. Somewhere out there, beneath the pale moonlight.”
He was making a reference again, and she wasn’t sure what this one was. Being born in rural Siberia did that to a person. Being raised in Limbo reinforced it. She refused to give him the satisfaction of asking.
“And how will I find them?” she asked.
“Oh, the pieces, once untethered, will inevitably want to unite. It’s the nature of souls. Free them from their housing, whether they be from the hand of a devilishly handsome God or Goddess, or from a stone, and they find their way to their proper place. Now go, off, scoot.”
She didn’t particularly care to be dismissed in such a fashion. So, as she stood, Illyana cast a quick spell. It was a small thing, and one that didn’t touch on Loki directly. He’d be able to stop anything she did. She was getting good, but no one was that good.
He noticed, of course, and frowned. “What was that?”
“Oh, a simple word association spell. Harmless. Everyone within a six block radius of here will always substitute one specific word they want to use for another when they try to say it.”
Something in Loki’s eyes twinkled.
“And the word?”
“Your name. When people try to say it, type it, anything, it’ll come out as ‘Buttface.’ They won’t know they’re doing it. But you will. You’re a god. Every time someone says your name, you hear it on some level.”
“How delightfully childish. Going right for my pride. But then, you always had a knack for aiming for Pryde, didn’t you?” The way he emphasized the word, the subtle stress on it, there was no doubt in Illyana’s mind what he meant by it. “Even so, the spell will only last, what? A few hours? It’s your spell, so it won’t affect you, and I highly doubt anyone will so much as whisper my name in such a small area. Why would they?”
Illyana made a cutting gesture with one hand, backed with power. The majority of the spell attack deflected off Loki’s defenses, but it did the damage she’d been hoping for. His glamour had a small rent in it.
“Look, everyone,” she called to the restaurant goers. “It’s Loki, Norse God of Mischief.”
Heads turned in booths, bodies shifted in chairs, mostly in confusion. But as they saw him, really saw him sitting among them with his glamour down, cameras came up.
“I knew I liked you,” Loki said once again.
“You can have the rest of my fries.”
Loki took them, popped one in his mouth and stood, bowing before the people suddenly speaking his name, Buttface, over and over. It’d be on social media in moments, people spreading the name, and then people unaffected by the spell, not realizing why the original posters had done so, would begin to repeat it. Buttface, God of Mischief. Buttface, God of Lies. Buttface, Brother of Thor.
It was the kind of pettiness that made Illyana’s day.
She checked her own glamour, and being led by the sliver of soul she carried, she teleported.
# # #
Sword in hand and now bedecked in her uniform, she entered Hel.
Honestly, she expected worse.
What had once been a pit of despair and misery now seemed almost… homey. The magic people tended to talk shop a lot, and word had gotten out about Angela’s conquest, the ousting of Hela, and all the renovations, but she’d expected much the same. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
It was still a cavernous waste where nothing grew, but it’d been tidied up a bit. Tortured souls didn’t languish in chains around every corner. The whispers of the damned didn’t claw at your ears. And no Hel hounds, or demons, or things looking to tear you limb from limb at every turn.
Instead, souls wandered freely. They spoke with one another. They even seemed to be working on building an infrastructure.
They noticed her, of course. It was difficult not to. It was a Norse-themed afterlife, so people with giant swords and curious headwear weren’t rare, but she had something they didn’t. Life. And they could feel it.
She pushed forward, self-conscious of the scrutiny. She hated people looking at her like that. Like they wanted something from her. And no amount of glamour would be able to hide her from them.
But none approached her. They just watched her with a longing sadness. Somehow, that made it even worse.
Illyana pushed on, led by the soul sliver. It bobbed about in her chest, nudging her down corridors and caverns, leading her where she needed to go. She walked for what felt like days, but given the nature of Hel and her own magical senses, she knew it was closer to an hour. Time worked oddly in places like these. They tried to drag everything out for an eternity.
She came to a throne room, ruined and forgotten. Marble pillars, made for show since they supported nothing, had been toppled. Skeletons wearing suits of armour had been left strewn about. And at the floor of the just before the throne sat Hela.
She was faced away from Illyana, but stirred at her presence. “Ah. Loki’s emissary. I wondered when he would send you.”
Illyana strode forward. She prepared a half-dozen spells, leaving them all hanging in the ether, waiting to be summoned at a moment’s notice. A practitioner would feel them, be ready to prepare for them. All the while, she felt for the presence of the soul she was to save.
“Something wrong with your chair?” Illyana asked.
“I’m not allowed to sit in it anymore, and Baldur refuses to. So the throne room is forgotten. But you would know all about empty thrones, wouldn’t you?”
This would be part of the game. The chess match. Trading prepared barbs and readying tricks, preparing spells to throw, illusions to cast. Attack on as many fronts as capable. Illyana continued forward and said nothing.
“My, wounded already?” Hela asked, still not turning to face her. “You know, I may abandon Hel. I have no power here anymore. But perhaps I could have power elsewhere. Limbo would be a good fit, don’t you think?”
Illyana kept searching for the soul, focusing as she walked.
“I’d imagine that if I were to take the throne there—”
She began to turn. She’d realized, too late, that Illyana didn’t play by the rules. Not by Loki’s, and not by Hela’s. She was like them, but not them.
The Soulsword descended on Hela. Her eyes widened in surprise, and she raised a hand defensively. Coincidentally, it was the hand that Illyana was aiming for.
Ever since the Phoenix, it could affect physical things if she willed it. But that wasn’t her intent now. The Soulsword could rend souls, disrupt and maim them, even perhaps destroy. But this time, she willed it for something else.
The blade passed through Hela’s upraised wrist neatly. It blurred as it did, fuzzing along the edges, but left no physical mark. Hela still screamed.
The swing was a violent act, but the intent was not. And with magic, everything was intent and metaphor.
Illyana did not reap the soul housed in Hela’s hand. She did not take it, or steal it. She guided it.
Up and along her blade it traveled and into her arm. Illyana felt more warmth, hotter this time, enter her body. This part didn’t explore like the first did. It sat firmly in the palm of her hand and waited there. It wasn’t invasive, or an intruder. It was a guest, and one that seemed intent on following the proper rules of protocol.
The initial soul sliver bounced around as if in joy in Illyana’s chest.
With a start, Illyana realized what it was. What they both were. Loki had said that this woman, this mystery person who so needed saving, she’d been his “BFF.” His best friend forever. That shard was their Friendship made manifest.
This second one, so stoic and awaiting permission, stuck in the palm of Hela’s hand as if forced to be subjugated and how it’d gone in willingly… even now, Illyana felt that some part of it wanted to return, but now that it was free, it would be compelled to rejoin the other pieces of itself. This was Duty.
She couldn’t see what happened. But she knew that this piece of the woman’s soul had been given freely to Hela out of a respect for obligation.
“Whose soul is this?” Illyana asked.
Hela clutched at her hand making animal noises in pain. “You would make demands of a Goddess after affronting her so?”
Illyana shrugged. “I don’t play by the rules, and for all the anarchy you and Loki claim to be all about, you still follow rules. Just different ones from everyone else. And I subverted and used that expectation against you. You thought just because I’m a fellow rule-breaking lady of a dark dimension, that I’d follow by yours instead. So, who is she?”
Hela smiled at her. A small so much like Loki’s. “You’ll find out soon enough.”
Illyana opened a new stepping disc, teleporting to the next location. “That’s ominous.”
# # #
The third piece was the easiest, but unique to Illyana, it was also the most difficult. The dimension Illyana landed in was a land of all white. No features, no people, no props. Just endless white. But there was residual energy everywhere.
There was a predator in the distance, waiting to be let loose and feed. But that was always the nature of places like these. Illyana knew how to hide from such beasts. She’d been doing so since childhood.
Despite the seeming emptiness of the dimension, there was lingering energy everywhere. A layperson wouldn’t be able to feel it, but a sorceress such as herself could. Someone had been making simulacra here. Imitations of reality, but so close to the original that pieces of it would inevitably find their way.
Illyana knew that if she focused her power, she could draw the energy together and awaken the simulacra. See who it had been imitating, and learn the identity of the one she chased. But it felt cheap, invasive, intrusive. Like cheating.
No. She’d see this through to the end.
She held up the Soulsword, and drew in the residual power, taking in only what was familiar. It came elegantly, beautiful white wisps darting through the air, and for all Illyana had seen in her life, she was still surprised she could be moved by anything.
Colours played out in the white expanse as the wisps circled her, as if carefully inspecting her. This soul had been hurt before, and it was slow to trust. But it sensed what she had, and that it was there freely.
It flowed into the Soulsword, travelling inside her much like Duty had. But unlike Duty, this one moved past her hand. It explored. It searched. Not just her body, but her soul, her mind. It wanted to know everything about her. Illyana let it. She had to force herself to relax. This piece was like a dog that had been beaten. She recognized its kind. She was much like that herself.
This was Distrust. It was Innocence Lost. It was a part of her that had been used again and again by powers greater than her and forged into a weapon, and would never be allowed to be used in such a way again.
Illyana forced herself to let her guards down. To allow Distrust to explore, to discover, and to see who and what she was. It couldn’t just be told or reassured that she had no ill intent. It had to know.
And so Illyana found herself reliving pain as memories and feelings long left buried were unearthed. Distrust was merciless in its attempt to root out something sinister, something manipulative. And it found those parts of Illyana, tore into them and exposed them to her so she’d relive all the worst parts of herself.
She fell to her knees, and then to her side, and then huddled in a ball and wept.
But she was strong. Distrust did nothing to her that she didn’t already do to herself daily.
Friendship kept Illyana company while Distrust continued its search. It was a warm feeling in her chest, keeping her company and reminding her that everything would be fine, that soon it would pass. The tears dried, and soon Distrust looked through other aspects of Illyana. The memories of Belasco and Limbo faded, the torment of years under his tutelage waned.
It focused on her meeting with Loki, blazing with white hot heat. She endured it. She’d survived the flames of the Phoenix. This paled in comparison.
Distrust’s anger abated when it saw Illyana’s price, to make sure the woman, her soul, would not be harmed. Its fury died. Distrust conveyed no apology. It moved on.
The Greatest Hits list came up next. The X-Men, Storm, her brother, Kitty… The first triggered a sense of approval from Duty, the last caused Friendship to flutter like a bird. For some reason, that set her to crying again. She normally never cried. It wasn’t her thing.
Something shrieked in the distance. A monster sensing food. It would be coming for her soon, but Illyana waited for Distrust to finish. She couldn’t hurry this along.
When it was done, Illyana wiped her tears away and stood. She felt as if a poison had been leached out of her. Distrust settled beside Friendship in her chest, which sent the latter in a flurry of puppy dog excitement. Illyana got the feeling that Distrust only barely tolerated it. She could relate.
Three pieces down, she opened the next stepping disc.
# # #
She landed in New York. Of course it was New York. Everything happened in New York.
It was a sunny day in Central Park, and traffic was steady. People walked by on strolls, or rode by on bikes, or bought food from street vendors. Nothing was out of place. There seemed to be nothing on Illyana’s mystical radar. Everything was shockingly normal. No soul on the loose here. But the three pieces that she’d already collected hummed inside her in a chorus. It felt kind of ticklish.
“Stop that, I don’t like it,” she said, and Distrust hummed its disapproval. It hated lies.
She had to shield her eyes from the sun, surveying the crowd. No one noticed her. Her glamour was intact. They’d just ignore her, which was just as well. She despised attention, and people always stared at a super hero in uniform.
And then, she realized her mistake. She stopped actively searching, looking in between people or at people, and started looking with her peripheral vision. Keeping her focus distracted, she allowed instinct to take over.
It didn’t take long. The next piece looked to be whole, more or less, and sitting on a park bench, reading a book. This wasn’t a soul, fragmented or otherwise. It was a person.
She was wearing a green dress that looked a little out of place in modern day New York, her black hair pinned up by gold spikes. At first, Illyana worried this was just Loki in disguise, that he’d somehow tricked her, but as she narrowed her attention, she realized that wasn’t the case.
Walking to her, Illyana stopped in front of the reading woman. The woman continued reading, ignoring her. So Illyana shifted her stance and purposely blocked the sunlight. The woman sighed, muttered something under her breath, and looked upwards. She looked ready to say something filled with bile and anger, but stopped. Her mouth opened, her eyes widened, but she made no sound.
“I’ve been looking for you,” Illyana said.
“I’ve been looking for you, too.” The woman blinked, as if she’d said something wrong, and shook her head. “No. Not you. It’s… you’re not who I’m looking for. You don’t have bangs.”
“What do my bangs have to do with anything?”
“Everything. The woman I was looking for would never dare part with them.”
“Whoever she is, she sounds like she could stand to try something new.”
The woman smiled now, mischief clear on her face. Illyana was once more reminded of Loki, but at the same time, not. There was actually warmth to this smile. Genuine feeling, and not just a sense of smug superiority.
“And how is ‘something new’ working out for you?”
“To be honest, I miss the bangs,” Illyana admitted.
She wasn’t sure what was happening. The woman seemed to know her, and worse, Illyana was responding. She didn’t like new things, new people. They had to earn her trust. She had to get to know them first. But then, she did have three pieces of this woman’s soul inside of her.
“I’m Illyana Rasputin,” she said.
“And you are?”
“Trying to read,” she said, affecting a bored and annoyed expression.
Illyana saw right through it. She’d used the same herself a hundred times over. She also knew how to get through it.
“Green dress, very pretty but not quite in line with the modern era. Gold highlights. Not golden, but actual gold. So, you either have access to wealth, or know someone who does. You know enough magic to put together a very subtle glamour, one even I had trouble seeing through, and I was looking for it. The colour scheme screams Loki—”
The woman rolled her eyes.
“—who you don’t seem to care for, but clearly has some affection for you. Which is rare, since he’s the guy who’s famous for trying to kill his brother all the time.”
“Well, well, look at Inspector Magik go. Do you have anything else for me?”
She shrugged. “You’re connected to the Asgardians. You’re powerful, whoever you are. But you’re not a god.”
The woman snapped her book shut and gave a small nod. “Leah of Hel.”
“Leah,” Illyana said, trying the word out in her mouth. “Anagram of Hela? Is this some kind of trick?”
“Most things are, and most times they’re played on me. I’ve found that I have a bit of a distaste for mischief these days. Except when I’m the one doing it.”
The three soul slivers that Illyana had collected wanted to connect with this Leah. They wanted to be reunited. Some part of her resisted, held on tight. She had to be sure. Not for herself, but for this trust that she’d been put in charge of. She wouldn’t allow them to be hurt.
“I was sent by Loki,” Illyana said. “He told me to go on a quest. Fix something that had been broken. Implied that it was at least partially his fault.”
“Loki, trying to fix something? That doesn’t sound like him at all. He always has an ulterior motive.”
“That’s what I said. But he promised me, he swore on his blood, his power and his godhood that he meant no harm to… the thing I am attempting to fix.”
“The thing?” Leah asked. “What a curious hesitation, I wonder… oh, you meant me. You’re trying to skirt around the topic. You always do when you’re nervous.”
“Do we know each other?”
“Do we? No. Do I? Yes.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You tell me your story, and I’ll tell you mine. What does Loki have you trying to fix? I mean, beyond me. He never could stop interfering where I’m concerned, no matter where we are.”
“He said your soul was split in five parts. He told me to go out and reunite them. I’ve found three. Friendship, Duty, Distrust. I was expecting to find another fragment here, but instead, you’re a person.”
Leah made a small bow of her head. “Indeed I am. And while what he’s said is technically true, it’s not the whole truth. I think he’s trying to assimilate me into this Earth. Make me feel like less of an outsider. It’s manipulative, cheap, and kind of controlling, but sweet. For him.”
“Okay, I told you what I’m doing, now tell me who you are.”
Leah seemed to think it over. She searched Illyana’s face, as if looking for something, and then smiled. Another warm smile, as if she just realized a joke to play, and intended to go through with it.
“No? We had a deal.”
“We didn’t shake on it. But I’ll explain everything in exchange for two things. No, three. Yes. Three is a magic number.”
Leah stood and moved closer to Illyana. A little too close. She hated people being in her personal space. She refused to back away. She didn’t know this woman, but she knew her type. You couldn’t back down from them.
“The first,” Leah said, and reached a hand upwards, “is that you allow me to fix your ridiculous hair.”
“It’s my hair.”
“And you don’t like it. Don’t pretend otherwise. You hate change, and even though you tried it, now you regret it. Let me fix it.”
“Now you’re just being stubborn.”
“You know me so well.”
She intended the comment to be sarcastic, but Leah leaned in even closer. “Yes. I do.”
There was something about that look. It wanted something. Hungered for it. It wanted to take. But it also wanted to give. Illyana shivered.
Maybe it was the trauma of Distrust’s earlier search into her own soul. Maybe it was an eagerness to be done with this quest, or to solve the mystery. Maybe it was the way that Friendship absolutely vibrated in her chest the longer the two of them spoke. Maybe she just wanted the residents sharing her meatspace with her own soul to go back where they belonged so she could be herself again. But she agreed.
“Fine, do it,” Illyana said.
“With pleasure.” Somehow Leah managed to make that sound salacious. Illyana gulped.
Leah carefully gathered up the hair at the front of Illyana’s head and gently stroked it. At first Illyana thought it was a component of the spell, as if she were trying to shape it to her desire, but no. It wasn’t ritual. It was an affectionate gesture. Who was this woman?
There was a brief warmth, and her hair seemed to positively writhe. Leah made a tsk noise, and it settled, forming into the shape she desired. When she was done, she released it, and Illyana blew upwards. Sure enough, she could feel her bangs there, fluttering under the hot breath.
“What else do you want?”
“How many pieces of my soul do you have? I can feel them in you, but they’re… confused. And contrary. But I am a contrary person, so that makes sense.”
“Three. You’re… the fourth. Do they go in you? And then we go get the fifth? Is that how this works?”
“Why are you asking me? One would think you’re the expert in fragmented souls by now.”
Illyana harrumphed. It was so much more satisfying now that she had bangs to blow upwards into again.
“For the second… leave the sword here when you go for the next piece. She won’t trust you if you’re armed.”
Part of Illyana suspected a trap. But it made sense. And Distrust blazed in agreement. It very much wanted her to leave the weapon behind.
“Good. As for the last request, I’ll collect on that in a second. Now, our story, and it is our story, is a long one. But don’t worry. I’ll make it quick. I suspect you’ll see it all anyway, soon enough.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Always so impatient. I swear, you only ever agreed to go through the ceremony at all because you knew how much I wanted it.”
“Ceremony? What ceremony?”
“Our wedding, of course.”
And then Leah leaned forward, and kissed Illyana firmly on the lips.
Illyana stiffened, and her every instinct was to push back, to drive Leah away. She hated people in her personal space. Hated it. Hated it so much. It was a violation, an invasion. No one was supposed to come near. No one except who she let, and not even them, not all the time. She had to make the decision, not them.
And then she saw it. The Shield Wall. The never-ending battle. She saw herself fighting the undead, the machines, and the Annihilation Wave. But she didn’t see it from her perspective. She saw it from someone else’s – Leah’s.
She saw Leah’s hands as they wove complex spells to assist her, to help her in battle. She saw Leah’s hands reach down and take her own. She saw them talk after battle, to confide the most hidden parts of their souls to one another.
This was another place, another dimension. Or perhaps a patchwork of dimensions. So many mismatched and put together in all the wrong order, as if someone had dumped half the contents of a thousand puzzle boxes together and tried to make a coherent picture.
Illyana saw it all. The war, the friendship. She saw Abigail Brand, their leader. She saw Ben Grimm, their Shield, protecting them. The Summers Legion. Death to the Deathless.
She saw it all. She saw it all, and felt like home.
But this wasn’t her home. It was Leah’s. This Illyana that she saw through Leah’s eyes wasn’t her. It was someone else.
And she saw more. She saw Leah coming to this world, stranded and confused. Captured by Hela, freed by Angela. She saw her live for seven years, and give up on ever seeing her Illyana again. And even in the face of that, Leah still loved Illyana.
Illyana returned the kiss. Even though it wasn’t her, even though she could never be that woman, she could do this for Leah. She could give her this. And maybe, in the process, she was doing something for herself at the same time.
Illyana and Leah kissed, and somewhere in the back of her head, she could’ve sworn she heard someone singing.
When it was done, Leah was gone. Inside Illyana’s chest, she felt a new heat. She felt Love.
She had to force herself to keep her composure. She was strong. Strong, dammit. She felt the tears brimming again. She didn’t deserve this. No one was supposed to feel this way about her.
She jammed her Soulsword into the soft ground. No one would see it, courtesy of her glamour. But even if they did, no one could take it up.
Tears streaming down her face, she dropped a stepping disc and headed to the last piece of Leah’s soul.
# # #
The sky was dark and red. The earth was barren in all directions. And sitting on a rock, facing away from Illyana, was Leah. Her green dress was marred and torn. It’d been kept together with magic from the residual energy in the air, but even time had rendered that process imperfect. She had the stoop of the despairing, the determination of the damned.
“Leah,” Illyana called. “I’ve come to save you.”
“No one can save me. I’ve already been saved,” Leah replied. There was a sadness in her voice.
Illyana stepped forward. “I’ll get you out of here.”
“No. You won’t.”
She circled around Leah. This Leah was different. Just as worn and dirty as her dress. Her hair was in disarray, and dark circles were under her eyes. Wherever this was, she’d been here a long time.
“I brought you your soul. The other four pieces. Even the … even the one that doesn’t belong here.”
She bent down to one knee. She felt kind of like a knight from old times.
“None of me belongs here, Illyana Rasputin. I’ve been watching you, ever since Loki sent you on this mad quest. I’m a thing. All of the pieces of my soul are things. I’m just a piece in someone else’s game. First Hela’s.” Leah reached forward and touched Illyana’s hand, where Duty resided. “Then Loki’s.” She reached out, her fingers skirting over Illyana’s collar bone, and up, to her throat, where Friendship was hopping. “Then Mother’s.” Illyana’s shoulder, to where Distrust curled. “And now yours.”
Her fingers ghosted to Illyana’s chest, over her heart, where Love beat in time with it.
Illyana placed her hands gently over Leah’s, and kept it there.
“I don’t know you,” Illyana said. “Not before today. I… I don’t have any plans for you. I don’t have plans for anyone. Not even myself. If you want to leave, I’ll take you from here. If you want these pieces back, I’ll give them back. But if you want to stay here, that’s fine. We don’t have to go anywhere.”
Leah blinked. “We?”
Illyana shrugged. “I don’t have anywhere else to go. I’ll do what you want, except leave you alone.”
Leah sniffed. Looked away. Sniffed again. Illyana waited. She could be patient. She recognized the signs. She’d internalized it better, but she knew this kind of despair. She wasn’t Love’s Illyana. She was from the Shield Wall. She’d never been married. Probably never would. She didn’t feel anything for Leah except a certain kinship. But she knew how to handle this.
She just had to be a friend, like Kitty was for her.
They sat together for a while. Hours, maybe. Days. It was impossible to tell. Time was different in this place. The sun never came up. Leah watched the sky, the ground, the rocks. She looked at everything but Illyana. In turn, Illyana looked at nothing but her.
She hated being this close to people, to being the one they had to rely on. But, and part of Illyana hated herself for thinking this because it was such an utter cliché, with Leah it was different. They both suffered. They’d both done it alone. And now they were doing it together.
“I…” Leah said. “I can’t do this. Please. Leave. Please?”
Illyana set her mouth in a grim line. Kitty had never abandoned her. She had to live by that example. She opened her mouth to say something, a refusal, an affirmation that she would never leave, but was stopped by the sound of clapping.
“Bravo,” Loki called, appearing out of nothingness. “You really did it. You gathered them all. All the little Leahs. And you brought them to her prison.”
“What?” Illyana said.
“Don’t act surprised. I’m the God of Lies.”
“You swore on your blood, your power, and your godhood that she wouldn’t be harmed.”
“And she won’t be. I put her here in the first place so she’d be safe from me. All I’m doing is a continuance of that. So long as she is here, all of her, she is protected from the thing that would do her the most harm. Me.”
“I can just teleport her out,” Illyana countered. “Take her out anytime I want.”
“Hmm. A good point, but no. You see, the second you came into this place, this time, carrying her soul, you triggered the trap. You’re anchored here by her. And just as I promised, you won’t be harmed either. Nothing can befall you here. You’re both perfectly safe. Just like that, my oath is kept.”
Illyana readied a spell, but Leah grabbed her wrist.
“It’s no use. He’s not actually here. He never comes to visit, not really. It’s just a projection. He hates himself for what he’s done, and can’t stand up to me. I’m sorry.”
Loki shimmered, his image fading. Illyana could feel the residual magic. It was true. He’d just been a projection.
“He’ll scry on us, of course,” Leah added. “He likes to check up on me. Make sure his BFF is really safe. You should go. This isn’t a good place to be for a long time.”
“He said I couldn’t leave.”
“So long as you have the pieces of my soul inside of you, you won’t be able to. Just cast them out. I don’t want them.”
“No,” Illyana said, offended.
After all that work, after feeling what Love had felt? After seeing what Distrust had gone through? What Duty had sacrificed so much of herself for Hela? And she had to privately admit that she’d gotten kind of attached to Friendship, even if she wished it’d stop jumping around inside of her for just five minutes.
“You’re either taking them,” Illyana continued, “or I’m staying here for eternity. Those are your options.”
Leah didn’t respond. So Illyana shoved her slightly on her rock perch, enough to make room for herself, and sat down beside her. They were sitting for about an hour before Illyana realized they’d been touching the entire time, shoulders and hips brushing up against one another. It felt… not bad. She blew at her bangs. Friendship hopped around inside of her some more, and Love buzzed with a kind of approval.
“You are not setting me up,” she grumbled.
“What was that?” Leah asked.
“Nothing. Go back to feeling sorry for yourself.”
“I… that’s… I am not feeling sorry for myself.”
“Leah, I wrote this book. I know all the moves. Maybe you’re fooling yourself, but you’re not fooling me.”
“I didn’t ask you to save me.”
“I didn’t ask anyone to save me either. I did what I could, but I needed my friends to help me through the rest.”
“I… The only friend I ever really had was Loki. And I don’t think he’s going to help me out of this.”
“Well, that’s what I’m here for.”
“You don’t know me.”
“I have four pieces of your soul inside of me. One of said parts was married to me and showed me our entire relationship. I don’t know you, but I have a pretty good reference primer.”
“Well, I don’t know you.”
They were quiet again for a time, content to be alone together. Leah swung one of her legs back and forth, which would sometimes connect with Illyana’s. She did it back. It developed into a game. One would try to touch the other in some seemingly innocent way. A nudge here. A poke there. A shoulder brush, followed by a thigh pressed against the other’s.
Eventually, Illyana broke the silence. She started off simple. She described the endless skies over the Ust-Ordynsky Collective where she’d grown up. How blue they’d be during planting season, and how long the nights would become during the winter. Those memories gave way quickly. She’d only been on the farm so long, and remembered so little. She went into tales of her brother, the artist who played at being a soldier. She focused on his paintings, his gentle nature, and his love for her. Others might remember his strength, but that had always seemed secondary to Illyana.
Time dragged on. It was impossible to tell how much. She suspected it didn’t move here at all, or maybe just very slowly. She never got thirsty, or hungry. Never felt sore. But there was a steady weight pressing down on her, as if the gears of time itself wanted to grind her to pieces. She fought them back with more stories.
She spoke of Kitty, and she knew Leah sensed the longing in her voice. They’d been friends, though, nothing else. Even so, Illyana could speak of Kitty for what felt like days. Others came up. Ororo, of course, and Kurt. Doug, Sam, Dani, and the other New Mutants. Magneto, and his fearsome reputation as a villain, and how she really knew him as a nearly socially inept teacher and father figure. She skirted around the darker parts at first, but Distrust made threatening growls. That part of Leah’s soul wanted her to be honest at all times, so eventually Illyana spoke of Belasco, and Limbo. S’ym and the Inferno. The Elder Gods and the Phoenix. And finally the Darkchilde.
“May I see?” Leah asked, and then blushed. “I mean… I can understand… I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have asked. It was rude.”
“No,” Illyana said. “It’s okay. We’re stuck here together forever. You might as well see and know who your roommate is.”
She hopped down from the rock, and willed that piece of herself forward. That piece that she hated the most in all the world. The one who had succumb to darkness, who didn’t care about consequences, only herself.
There was nothing subtle to the transformation. Her own magic shifted and changed her clothes to allow for the coming differences. Boots disappeared and pants shortened to allow for her legs to transform into those of a goat. A long, sinuous tail erupted from her back, and her crown, or affectionately called “head thingies” by Kitty, vanished as they were replaced by a curling ram’s horns. Her teeth shifted, canines elongating, and though she couldn’t see it, she knew her eyes had turned to a solid gold.
People always looked on her in fear when she was in this form. Her brother. Kitty. Even stoic Cyclops would clench his teeth and brace himself.
Leah stood and stepped forward, running a hand along Illyana’s cheek. She leaned into it.
“You’re beautiful,” Leah said, and that was all Illyana needed to hear.
She changed back, and the two resumed their space on the rock.
“Thank you,” Illyana said.
“Why are you thanking me? You’re the one keeping me company in eternity.”
“The other Leah, from that other place… the one that’s in me now. She’d love this. This was all she ever wanted. Just her and her Illyana, alone together forever.”
“Well, I’m not her, and her Illyana isn’t you. Their story isn’t ours.”
“No, it’s not.” Why did she feel so sad saying that?
Eventually Leah opened up about her own story. There wasn’t as much to it. She hadn’t been allowed to have as much of a life. She told Illyana of her creation by Hela and subsequent friendship with Loki. Of how her essence had been needed to restore Hela’s missing hand, and how Loki created a new version of her to fill the void and defeat the Serpent. How he’d banished her here, while another creature called the Mother made yet another version of her to try to feed on Loki. When that had failed, that piece had been dispersed, leaving what Illyana now called Distrust. The Leah from the Shield Wall was a mystery to this one.
“You could welcome her in,” Illyana said. “Merge her with your own soul. Get to know her.”
Leah smiled wistfully. “But then you’d leave, and I’ve grown fond of the company.”
She snapped her fingers. “Foiled again.”
“Illyana, I just want to say… thank you. For staying here with me. I don’t… I think I would’ve killed myself by now if Loki hadn’t cast spells to prevent it. And sometimes I’ve wondered if I’ve gone mad. You are really here, aren’t you?”
Illyana shifted her gaze, and the two, sitting side by side, stared at one another. Illyana smiled sadly at her.
“Of course I am.”
“But what if… what if I’ve been here so long, I just made you up?”
“Must be quite the imagination. I have a lot of continuity.”
Leah shrugged. “I doubt sometimes. Is it okay? That I doubt something as good as you came to me?”
“No,” Illyana said, and then leave forward and kissed Leah on the cheek. “It’s never okay to doubt that good things are allowed to happen to you.”
Illyana blushed, realizing what she’d just done. Her own defenses went up, she started to stand up, but Leah grabbed her by the arm and pulled her down, forcing her to sit, and then rested her head on Illyana’s shoulder.
“Thank you for sticking with me,” she mumbled. “Even though we can’t tell the days here, I want to tell you that every day, so long as you’re with me.”
Part of Illyana wanted to run. Or fight back. She was very good at both fight and flight. Mostly fight. She was one of the best at pushing people away. But there was nowhere to go. And this wasn’t so bad.
It felt like days – days interspersed with Leah thanking her for staying – later that Illyana finally realized the flaw in Loki’s plan.
# # #
Loki appeared at once. Tears flowed freely from his eyes, his hair was dishevelled, his clothes awry. He didn’t look like he knew what to do with himself. But as he appeared, Illyana noted with some grim satisfaction there was no magical aura beyond his usual one. This wasn’t an image. This was the real thing.
The Darkchilde sat waiting for Loki upon her rock. And it was her rock now, no longer shared. There was no one left to share it with.
“What have you done?” Loki shrieked.
Illyana smiled, showing her fangs. “You made an oath. You betrayed me, but kept the oath. So I made sure the oath was broken as a result.”
Loki stared at her, and then to Leah’s lifeless body on the ground.
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“You swore. On your blood, your power, and your godhood. You swore that as a result of this quest, no harm would come to Leah. And then you trapped me here with her. Did you think there’d be no consequences?”
“You were supposed to abandon the pieces of her soul here and leave!”
The Darkchilde shrugged. “I’m spiteful. Queen of Limbo. Really, you should have known better. How’s your power feeling, by the way? Your godhood? Those starting to wither yet?”
He blanched. Stood up straighter. Looked about to say something that was supposed to be witty, but was overridden by grief and shock instead. Instead, he moved to where Leah was sprawled, checking over her. She was even more pale than she had been before, her hair splayed out over the rocky ground.
“I took her soul,” the Darkchilde said. “Now I have the whole set.”
“I could. But you know what comes next.”
“You want to bargain.”
“Da. I want you to release both of us. I’ll give her soul back once she’s free, and your oath you never harm or imprison her again.”
“Free her, or she dies?” Loki asked. “What kind of terms are those?”
“The ones she herself demanded. But I’m content with you not doing it. You know how many souls I have now? I could make a new sword. Learn how to dual wield. Watch you turn mortal. That’ll be fun.”
Loki looked from the Darkchilde to Leah helplessly.
“I can’t!” he said. “I made the spell that keeps her imprisoned here very specifically. I can’t tamper with it. The only reason why I’m even able to come in and out is because I’ve left myself an anchor. Something to pull me back.”
The Darkchilde snapped her fingers, and shifted back into Illyana. She’d hated doing that, but the appearance, the persona, was crucial. Illyana would never harm Leah, but no one could ever predict the Darkchilde. Never mind that they were the same person. People just expected her to be more evil.
“Thanks for the tip,” Illyana said. “Now I understand Leah’s request.”
Illyana hopped down from the rock and picked Leah up, cradling her in her arms. “The one the other Leah made. She told me to leave the Soulsword behind. Now I know why. Dasvidanya, bitch.”
Without a soul, Leah could leave at any time now. She was just a hollow shell. But with all five pieces, Illyana never could. Not without an anchor. She lined herself up, her very being with the Soulsword, and dropped her stepping disc, carrying them both out. Loki’s horrified and surprised expression was priceless.
They came to in Central Park, right next to where Illyana had left her Soulsword. She looked around, taking in her surroundings. She hadn’t taken the time to memorize them before, but it looked like the same crowd of people than when she’d left. No time had passed at all.
Illyana put Leah down on the bench that the other Leah had previously been sitting on, and took the time to straighten her hair, fix her clothes with magic, and clean her off. It wasn’t perfect. She didn’t want to be invasive about the procedure. But it felt wrong for her to be so filthy when now she had her second chance at this world. Or was it her third? Or fourth? Fifth?
Illyana was going to need a flow chart for this backstory. That was okay. She expected Leah would need one of her own for Illyana’s.
And just like that, Illyana realized she was already thinking of the two of them as a pair. Something that came in a set. That they’d continue to do things together.
She smiled at that thought. It didn’t sound too terrible.
She placed one hand on Leah’s, and said, “Okay, everyone out. All of you. You’re getting evicted.”
The pieces all flowed into place. First Leah’s essence. Then the other Leah, Love. It was followed by Duty, and then hand-in-hand, Friendship and Distrust joined. When they were all inside, Illyana leaned forward and gave Leah a quick peck on the lips. Nothing too dramatic. It just… felt appropriate.
Leah opened her eyes, like something out of a fairy tale. She smiled. It was beautiful.
“How did he take it?” Leah asked.
“Positively livid. Horrified. He realized he’d been outsmarted and bested.”
“Is he really going to lose his godhood?”
“I doubt it. Probably only for so long as you were ‘dead.’”
“Too bad. I’d kind of like to see him mortal for a while. Might knock him down the requisite pegs.”
“So… now that, you know, all of you is in there… which one of you is in charge?”
“Why does anyone have to be in charge? We’re all here. I’m all me. I’m Leah. I’m all the Leahs.”
“A nation unto yourself?”
“Something like that.” Leah looked up at the blue skies, and sighed contentedly. “I never thought I’d see that colour again. The only reason I kept you around at first was because you kept describing them, you know.”
“Oh, yes. You had such a choice in your selection of company.”
“I absolutely did. Speaking of choices, wanna get married?”
Illyana choked at that, and Leah laughed.
“Sorry,” Leah said. “I just had to see your expression. Only fair since I didn’t get to see the one of horror on Loki’s face.”
Illyana gave her a playful shove. Leah shoved back. It somehow ended up with both of them rolling around together on the grass and kissing and laughing.
Leah shot up, staring at the bench. “Where’d it go?”
“Where’d what go?”
“The book I was reading! I left it here, when you absorbed me. Leah. The other Leah. Me! Oh, this is confusing me, and I’m me.”
Illyana shrugged. “I must’ve left it here.”
“Oh, sure. Glamour your sword for protection, but can’t spare a second for my poor book.”
“I’ll buy you dinner. Lunch. I’m not sure on what time it is right now. I’ll get you food. How do you feel about a burger, fries, and a milkshake?”
“I love milkshakes.”
“Well, it’s a date.”
# # #
Loki watched it all through a scrying pool, a smile playing over his face. Hela stood beside him, still rubbing at her wrist from where Illyana had cut her.
“This was your plan?” she asked.
“All of this effort, just to play matchmaker?”
Loki shrugged. He’d never be able to explain it, not to Hela. But all the same, she had to see this.
“You know I’ll come for the Rasputin girl eventually. Either Baldur or Angela will slip up eventually, and my domain will fall back to me. And then I’ll have power enough to crush the Queen of Limbo.”
“No,” Loki said ominously. “You’ll leave them both alone. Any grudge you bear should be directed at me.”
“Really? You’d go to such lengths to defend the Rasputin girl, this Magik?”
“No. But to defend Leah? In a heartbeat. She’s my BFF.”