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SSSSynesthesia Project

Chapter Text

The Dreamworld was beautiful… and empty.

"Hello!" Reynir called, again and again, until his lungs felt ready to burst, receiving no answer. "Onni! Can you hear me? Onni!"

He knew, of course; he knew something had happened, that Onni had done something to save them. It was there, in the wreckage of the battlefield, in Mikkel and Emil's astounded, glassy-eyed stares. To ask seemed so trivial, though; what could Mikkel tell him, except the unimportant details of what he'd already figured out on his own?

To ask Tuuri to translate any of the others' accounts would have been nothing short of cruel.

So Reynir continued to keep silent about things he did not need to know, and focus on what was important. Onni. He needed to know what had happened to Onni. Onni needed to know what had happened to his sister. Maybe he could help, but only if Reynir could find him.

Every night he ventured farther. The water of the endless shallow sea splashed in shocks of crystal ice against his ankles, but Onni's haven, once so close he'd wandered into it by accident more often than not, remained elusive, the threads of its existence seeming to slip from in between his fingers as soon as he thought he finally had a grip on it.

Again and again, Onni had ordered him never to leave his own space. It was dangerous out here; monsters lurked beneath the water.

Onni had told him, once, what would happen if one of them caught him and dragged him into the depths. Without a soul to inhabit it, his body shut down slowly in a sleep from which he could not ever wake, leaving an empty shell to die a slow physical death after the death of his spirit. The people who'd been charged with protecting him would be unable to do anything for him, and he would leave this world without his family ever having known that their brother and son had not died in vain.

Now, Reynir was sure that Onni had been trying to scare him into cooperating. That didn't mean that he had not been speaking the truth.

Reynir hadn't listened to him, even though he probably should have. He certainly wasn't going to start now, not when Onni might be hurt and in need of his help.

The water splashed up in sprays around him and soaked his calves as he ran.

Reynir couldn't use the radio, now. He and Tuuri had to be kept separate, but Tuuri had skills that none of the others did, so Reynir spent his time outside with a mask firmly strapped to his face, helping Mikkel with the laundry or trying to train Kitty, while Tuuri had the run of the tank, scrambling to make repairs while she could and to train a replacement driver. Only when the tank had been thoroughly decontaminated and Tuuri locked away in her quarantine bunk behind the partition was Reynir allowed inside.

Nobody spoke of what they would do once she started to show symptoms.

They talked to each other, sometimes, Reynir sitting with his back against the wall while she whispered her fears in secret. She was the only one who spoke of her fate; wondering whether it was within the scope of the medic's duties or whether Sigrun, as team captain, would consider the responsibility hers. She at least hoped that she would have a say, and that she would still be heard, and that Lalli wouldn't be too sad after she was gone.

Once, she told him that they had radioed Mora after the battle, only to be told that Onni was unconscious and could not be woken and that nobody knew what was wrong with him. She told him that, and then cried half the night.

He would have gotten Lalli to come with him if he could. But Lalli was barely sleeping at all now, throwing himself into his work and spending the rest of his time with Tuuri, snatching only an hour or two at a time—and that never when Reynir was asleep. The one time Reynir did manage to catch him, he barely managed to avoid another tree branch to the face.

So he went alone. He didn't know which way to go; he never had, only letting his instincts guide him as they would.

Sometimes, as he ran, he would look up at the sky, hoping for guidance. It never did him any good, though—the stars were different here, and would not tell him which way to go. That, he would have to figure out on his own.

The farther he went, the more the landscape changed. He didn't notice at first: it was subtle, a slightly warmer breeze blowing past his face, a slightly different kind of rock underneath his feet.

When he slowed, it was not because he had noticed the differences, but because he had finally grown too tired to run. Only then did he stop, and take the time to notice his surroundings.

He was standing on a chunk of land—something like a mage's haven, but barren and without a surrounding barrier. The rock he'd been running on had softened and gone to pieces, turning to sand under his feet, and he hadn't even noticed. His legs ached. Every breath burned in his lungs.

Slowly, Reynir sank down onto the edge of the landmass, letting the ocean lap over his feet. He wrapped his arms around his shins, and buried his face in his knees.

This search was never going to end, was it?

Onni was lost. Tuuri was going to be lost. And here he was, just some stupid farm kid who didn't know what he was doing, banging his head against the same wall over and over again while the world fell apart around him.

At his side, there was a low whine. A head pushed itself under his elbow. Without looking, Reynir lifted his arm to allow the dog to lick his face. A pink tongue bathed his chin once, twice, and then the dog was leaning in against him, pressing its head into his chest. Reynir uncurled from his ball and wrapped his arms around the warm body, burying his face in the soft fur.

He had no idea how long he sat there, fingers tangled deeply in fur while the dog panted and whined in his grip. Eventually, however, it pulled away, and they looked at each other. The dog gave a single bark.

"You're right," he agreed with a sigh. Every time he woke up was a setback—every start, from exactly the same place. If he wanted to go farther, it would have to be now.

Reynir stood, and reached to the sky in a long stretch. He cracked his back. The horizon was as far away as it had been when he'd started.

"Well, we're not going to find Onni by sitting here. Let's go."

If Onni was truly dead, he would find out, one way or another. In the meantime, though, Reynir was never going to find anything unless he looked.

He might only find another horizon—or he might finally reach the place where sky met earth.

Chapter Text

The first time he met her, it was when she was dragged into his surgery with a gunshot wound to the chest.

It had been a bad time for their town, a gang of outlaws ruling the streets with no word of law to put them in their place. Mikkel had not been surprised when he'd heard the gunshots, and by the time his doors had burst open he had his hands washed and his instruments already laid out.

What did surprise him was to hear that the outlaw leader was not in need of treatment—nor would he ever be again.

"Never seen him before in my life," the barman confessed as he handed over the stranger's gun. "Rode into town like he owned it, exchanged a few words with the Big Boss, and next thing they're facing down in the street. Never even gave anyone his name."

"Yes, thank you," Mikkel returned; he had an unconscious person bleeding on the table, and no time to exchange gossip. Thankfully the gawkers took the hint and left.

Only when he began removing the bloody clothing did he realize his new patient was not a "he" at all.

She surprised him, that time: first by not dying on the table, then by surviving the night, and finally by returning to full alertness after several days of bedridden delirium. The first words she spoke after waking and taking in her surroundings were as mysterious as she was:

"Guess it wasn't him."

Mikkel didn't ask. Besides, the words themselves and the language she'd spoken them in told him far more about her than the sentence they formed.

Eventually, he learned her name: Sigrun Eide. Wandering gunslinger, no home or family to speak of.

"Not anymore," were her only words on the matter.

His name, he'd said, was Old Trond. She'd noticed him before and she knew he'd noticed her, but they'd never spoken—not until now, when she was slumped up against the wall of an alley with blood streaming from her nose. With no family, no trade skills, and no property but the clothes on her back, the only way for her to eat was to steal. This time, she'd been caught.

If she'd been a little older, they'd have thrown her straight in jail rather than dunking her head in a water barrel and dealing a few punches as a warning. Then again, if she'd chosen to remain a girl she might have got off Scot-free—but the price of a girl earning her keep was a higher one than she was willing to pay.

"You don't have to live like this, you know." The shadow opposite her seemed to have materialized out of nothing. He spoke her native tongue perfectly.

"What's it to you?" Sigrun asked in the same language, wiping the blood from her nose as she gathered her legs underneath her, ignoring the pain from her bruised ribs—or maybe even busted ribs, it was hard to tell at this point. He didn't seem to have it in for her, but she still wasn't about to be a sitting duck, just in case.

"You'd clean up fair," he continued, as if he hadn't heard her at all. "'Stunning beauty' might be a bit too generous, but you'll be a handsome woman indeed. A strong arm, a good aim, and no fear to speak of… you could make a fine wife for some lucky man, if you cared to play the part."

"Don't want to," she replied, shrugging one shoulder—though she was still leaning against the wall for support, she was on her feet now and felt better for it.

He chuckled, and she knew right then that he'd known what her answer would be before he'd even asked the question. "Then what do you want?"

Sigrun was brought up short.

The second time, she came in on her own two feet, cradling her torn and bleeding arm against her chest and followed by a lanky redhead who was constantly wringing his hands.

"Kid walked into a saloon had no business being in a saloon," she explained through gritted teeth as she pushed up her sleeve. "What did he think would happen when he's got knife magnet written all over him?"

Mikkel ended up giving Reynir, as the young man turned out to be called, a place in his own house. Mikkel's English was good enough to pass for native and Sigrun's draw quick enough that nobody cared about her accent, but the streets were no place for a foreigner who spoke not a word of the local language and had never picked up a gun in his life. Reynir actually did turn out to be a decent assistant, once he stopped trying to help so much.

"You are aware that killing him is not going to bring them back."

"I'm not stupid."

"If you sincerely want to convince me of that, try learning how to read."

In the light of day, he was nothing more than an ordinary old man—a mean old man with glasses and a gray beard and spots all over his bald head, but the gun at his hip and the knife on his belt told a different story entirely.

"You weren't willing to pay the price of safety," he continued. "Will you pay this one?"

In answer, Sigrun held out her hand.

He saw her again, on and off, once every year or once every three. He never knew from one visit to the next whether she would be spending her time dragging him and Reynir out for a drink or flat on her back while she healed from her latest showdown.

"How long do you intend to live like this?" he asked once, while he was dressing a wound on her shoulder—an arrow, this time. "Do you really want to reach old age and be left with nothing but scars?"

"I'm not going to get old," was the only answer she gave. Mikkel said nothing more.

She had everything she needed—a gun, a horse and tack, clothes that actually fit, enough money for a meal and a room if she happened to be in a town. Everything she needed—but no more.

Mikkel had implied, once, that her physical needs might not be the only important thing. Unmarriageable was unmarriageable, but what about family, friends? She only shook her head.

"Tried it once," she confessed as she shrugged back into her shirt. "Didn't work out."

At some point, Mikkel figured out what she was and who she was answering to.

He didn't ask her about the price she had payed or whether what she'd gotten in return had been worth it, any more than he volunteered information on his own dealings with the Old Man. That was his burden, and his alone, just as she was carrying hers. Their paths crossed and crossed again, but each of them was still completely alone.

"Reynir," he said one day. "Can I give you some advice?"

Reynir nodded, and finished washing the blood from his hands, and moved to sit in front of him. The way he cocked his head made him look like nothing so much as an eager puppy.

"I hear there are some nice plots of land up for sale," he started, "and you've earned enough to make a decent investment. Settle down. Marry a nice girl. Go raise some sheep."

Don't become like us.

"You don't want me here?" Reynir looked hurt.

"Reynir." Mikkel placed his hands on the youth's shoulders with an exasperated sigh. "You have been very helpful, but you need to live your own life. I was doing just fine before you arrived; I assure you I can manage without you again."

"To go down fighting. That's what I want."

"Then I can assure you that you will live long enough to take your revenge—but no longer."

A year passed, then two, three, five, and Sigrun still hadn't returned.

By that time Reynir was gone, having taken his advice to heart; the last Mikkel had heard of him he'd taken a wife—Native girl—and started a family. Good for him. He still sent the occasional letter, but rarely came into town anymore.

As for Sigrun… Mikkel was pretty sure he knew what had happened to her.

He could imagine her all too well, out in the badlands or the open prairie or even the packed dirt of some forgotten town's main road, staring up at the open sky with unseeing eyes. Her gun would be lying on the ground next to her hand, and the red stain on her shirt would be matched by the one on the man across from her.

"Somewhere out there there's a bullet with my name on it. Can't disappoint it now, can I?"

Would she have passed with a smile on her face, or a blank look of empty despair?

Once, she had claimed she would never grow old, and Mikkel had believed her. What he hadn't told her was that he wouldn't see old age either, if for an entirely different reason.

Some were cursed to leave this world far before their time, others to linger long after, and watch. Sometimes, their paths crossed.

Mikkel blew out the lantern before pulling up his covers with a sigh, knowing all the while that he would not sleep.

Chapter Text

The crowd was roaring.

From one side of the arena to the other, seated rows of people were now standing, their mouths gaping wide as the very air seemed to reverberate with the force of their screaming. The ground was firm, the sun bright, the sky a deep blue with only a few pale wisps of cloud.

A good day to die.

The cheers, already deafening, redoubled when a tall figure stepped into the arena, a rounded shield on one arm and a sword held aloft in the other. For a few minutes the warrior simply basked in the attention, turning round and round to favor the spectators with a dazzling grin; only when her gaze had swept the full circle did her sword arm snap up, holding her weapon aloft above her flaming red hair.

"Ave, Imperator, morituri te salutant!"

"Heeeeeeey! Are you alive in there?"

He was going to die he was going to die he was going to—

Wait a minute. He understood what the other person was saying. He understood what the other person was saying!

Emil nearly fell over in his haste to run to the door. When he peered out the window, it was to see another face looking back at him: his first impressions were of a large nose, violet eyes, and offensively red hair.

"Hi hiiii," she greeted him again. "You're the new guy, am I right?"

"You can—you can—I can understand you!"

"Well duh." She snorted, as if he'd just informed her the sky was blue. "Listen, if I open the door will you try to run off? Cause that's not gonna end well for you or me."

In truth, he had been planning to bolt the first chance he got. Now that he finally seemed to have an ally, though, he needed to make a good first impression. He didn't want her to think he was some panicky kid. Wordlessly, Emil shook his head.

"Great!" The bolt clicked out of place, and then the door was opening. "Nowhere to go, anyway. Believe me, I've tried." Emil had just enough time to notice that his new friend towered over him before her hand slammed him on the back, so hard that he nearly toppled over. "Name's Sigrun, by the way."


He looked around. They were far from the only people about; though most of them were speaking gibberish, Emil could see that they wore the same rough clothes that he had been given, and that many of them were wielding weapons of various designs.

"Um… Sigrun? What are we doing here? What's going on?"

The grin that she gave him was enough to make him gulp.

"Are you serious?"

"What serious? Emil, we are Norsemen! Fighting is what we do!"

"We're supposed to fight our enemies, not—not—" Oh gods, he was about to be forced into some spectacle for no good reason, for the sole purpose of entertaining these—these Romans

"Hey, I know it's not great." As excited as she'd been before, Sigrun seemed to have picked up on his panic and outrage, and even went so far as to wrap an arm around his shoulders. "But a slave is a slave, and buddy, we're pretty enslaved here. We don't do what they want in the ring, they'll just make us do something else—and trust me, you do not want to know what the alternatives are."

Emil looked away. You were already in Hel, didn't much matter whether you stuck close to the gates or not.

Unfortunately Sigrun didn't seem to think the same way; already she was dragging him toward the weapons rack. "Look, buddy, doesn't much matter whether you want to or not. You don't get your ass moving, one of the guards'll move it for you." She tossed him a blunt practice sword; though he did manage to catch it, the flat of the blade still thwacked him painfully on the forehead. "Now show me what you've got!"

Sigrun was a harsh teacher, but she was not cruel.

"You missed that block five times in one practice session. Do it once in the ring and you're dead."

The dull blade smacked painfully into the crook of his elbow, making his hand spasm so that he dropped his own weapon.


A smack to the chest knocked the breath from his lungs.


The sword cut across the backs of his knees, sending him sprawling facefirst into the dirt.


By the end of the day, his every muscle ached and his limbs and his ribs were peppered with bruises. The absolute worst part had been the way Sigrun had grinned at him cheerily every time he went down, before demanding "C'mon, UP! We're not done yet!"

…even so, she had not been cruel.

Her reprimands, though they stung (often quite literally), were brief, her praise sincere whenever he did something right.

His first time in the ring did not go over well.

Every time Sigrun stood before the crowd, he'd learned, she was greeted by a deafening roar—a popular contender, and an accomplished showman at that. Emil… Emil was a nobody, someone none of these people had ever heard of, standing right next to someone older, better, more experienced, and so much taller than him.

His mouth was dry and his heart was fighting to climb up his throat as he raised his sword. Across from him, Sigrun did the same, the usual cheer in her eyes now replaced by a hard mask.

This time, when she came at him, it was not with a blunt practice sword in hand, but with sharpened steel. As Emil raised his own weapon to counter, he realized that he was waiting for a reprimand, a cheer, a stinging tap with the flat of the blade… but none of those things ever came. Instead, she was all focus and intensity, sword flashing in the midday sun without an opening to be seen, and Emil found himself being driven back ever further with every thrust he tried to parry or swing he tried to block.

She's going to kill me, he realized—immediately before she swept his feet out from under him and slammed his face into the ground.

During the actual fight, he'd been able to hold himself together by pretending that this was just another training session and that when it was over Sigrun would clap him on the back and congratulate him on surviving another day before leading him off to force down some of what she called "that inedible sludge" while he nursed his bruises and tried not to think about home.

This time was different. This time, Emil was on the ground with her full weight on his back and her free hand on the back of his head. His completely defenseless position, the hot sunlight on the back of his exposed neck, and the all-too-familiar knowledge of what her other hand was doing caused the last of his composure to evaporate and he began to frantically struggle, fighting to break free even though his arms were pinned beneath her knees, screaming through the dirt that was filling up his mouth.

The hot sun beat down. The crowd was screaming. The sword he could not see hovered over the back of his neck.

Then, miracle of miracles, the weight lifted from his back, and he was still alive.

Emil barely had time to decide whether he should be grateful or terrified when Sigrun hauled him up by the armpits and stood him on his feet, roughly brushing the dust from his shoulders with one hand while waving at the crowd with the other.

Looking around him, Emil saw a sea of red: the spectators were waving scraps of red cloth, screaming both their names in a chant that filled the entire arena. By the time they walked from the Coliseum, Sigrun's arm around his shoulders was the only thing preventing him from falling to his knees in relief.

"Any fight you can walk away from," she reassured him as they finally passed into the shadows and the semi-privacy away from the sight of the crowd.

Far up in the stands, another tall redhead had continued cheering even long after the gladiators had departed.

This was Reynir's first ever time in the Colosseum—the Colosseum—and he'd never had so much fun in his life.

Though he'd felt more than an occasional pang of regret over his decision to abandon his birthplace with nothing but a note, he knew that he had to see some of the world before settling down on his parents' farm. It really wasn't fair, he thought—his siblings were all adopted, a family of orphans his then-childless parents had taken in because they had the harvest to spare and needed some extra hands, so they all got to do what they wanted. Not him—he was the heir, the one who was expected to adopt a nice boring life with nice boring responsibilities. At least, he thought, he could have a little bit of fun before he went back to tending his sheep.

His first ever gladiator fight had exceeded even his wildest expectations. Sigrun, he'd learned from the people around him, was a crowd favorite, but Reynir's eyes had been on the man who was fighting against her—shorter, unmarked by battle, and far less confident, as was proven by his hasty defeat. When Reynir had waved the red handkerchief, he'd been delighted when the people around him had followed suit—a good fight was a good fight whether or not blood had been spilled, and no one should have to take that kind of defeat after his first battle. In many ways, the younger fighter reminded him of himself.

Reynir paused as an idea came into his head. Actually pulling it off was a long shot, but he'd made it to Rome, and maybe… just maybe… there was a way to get what he wanted.

At some point over the course of his involuntary career, Emil had noticed that his self-appointed mentor was covered in scars.

Many of them were from battles, and Emil knew a lot more than he wanted to about how she'd gotten those, because Sigrun had made a habit of pulling up her shirt or rolling up her sleeve every time he made a mistake, at which point she would describe in graphic detail what would happen if he showed such negligence when up against a real blade. Sometimes, when she was feeling sentimental in the quiet hour between dinner and bed, she would show him an older scar, one she'd acquired before. Even though she spared him the worst descriptions of blood and gore, the details of these were even more painful to hear about: hunts in the mountains, fishing in the fjords, drinks shared around a fire after surviving a battle. They both stayed very quiet after, and retired early, in silence.

Sigrun did have one set of scars she never talked about at all.

He'd noticed them early, when they were both washing up after a grueling practice session (on the banks of the river, which for some reason Mikkel had insisted they use for drinking and bathing rather than touch the water that came from Roman pipes). While Emil was still bracing himself to expose his skin to the chill autumn air, Sigrun had already turned her back to him and pulled off her shirt, and Emil, glancing over, was struck by the streaks of shiny, discolored flesh that reached from her shoulders to halfway down her back.

Feeling his eyes on her, she stiffened briefly, before turning her head a bit (though not enough to actually look at him) and jerking a thumb over her shoulder.

"My introduction to Roman hospitality."

She didn't volunteer anything more, and Emil knew better than to ask.

The first knock on his door was… unexpected.

Nobody ever knocked on his door but Sigrun, and her only in the morning, if he was too slow getting up for her liking. Mikkel was… well, better than the lanista, but still pretty odd.

"It seems that you've acquired a fan," Mikkel informed him with a smirk—or at least that was what Emil thought he said; it was hard to tell sometimes through all of that barely comprehensible mumbling.

Emil only stared. Sigrun was the one with fans, the one who was regularly showered with money and gifts. Emil… Emil was a nobody new to the ring.

"Um… salve?"

The person Mikkel had brought with him didn't speak his language either, as it turned out. Still, that didn't stop him from chattering away nonstop while Mikkel backed out of the room with a smirk on his face. "Have fun."

It didn't take Reynir (a name he conveyed by repeating it over and over while tapping his chest) long to figure out that they were not going to be able to have a normal conversation, and Emil found himself repeatedly cursing Mikkel for getting him into this. When the other youth finally left, Emil figured that they were never going to see each other again—that was, until Reynir came back.

Once, he brought an armful of fresh fruit, and then proceeded to point at each piece and name it before holding it out to Emil and indicating that he should repeat the exercise in his language. Emil hadn't even seen half of them before; he had no words in his own language and the Latin still refused to form in his mouth, sticking stubbornly to his tongue and pressing on the backs of his teeth no matter how hard he tried to push the words out. Still, they ended up sharing their fruit bounty in silence, Reynir handing over the first slice of each piece and watching with anticipation as Emil bit into it.

Every time, he came back with something different. Nothing fine or expensive, but items that were nice to look at and carefully crafted. He nearly cried from relief when Reynir brought him a comb; in these living conditions his hair had begun to grow knotted and drab, and no matter how much care he took his whole head was a mess of scraggly split ends. Though he was reluctant to trust Reynir at first, he eventually persuaded Emil to sit down on the bed, where the young Roman sat behind him with a knife in hand and his tongue between his teeth, carefully shearing off the ragged ends of his hair until it once more sparkled like gold.

The worst part, by far, was always the ring.

Thanks to Sigrun's tutelage, Emil was getting better. He'd already survived a handful of battles, which was more than many new gladiators could say. "Win the crowd," she'd told him, and even though he was never going to be as at ease in the ring as Sigrun was, he could not help but feel his heart soar a bit every time he heard the audience shouting his name.

…except that no soaring heart had ever been worth this.

Emil's sword shook in his hand. His shield had slipped to the ground. He stared at the man on his knees in front of him, not struggling, slumped in defeat, and then at the crowd.

Thumbs up. Thumbs up. Thumbs up. Oh sweet merciful Odin, thumbs up.

They wanted a kill.

He couldn't do it. He wouldn't do it. He couldn't—

The man in front of him tilted back his head, baring his throat. His eyes were closed.

"You might want to decide at the last minute that you're not going to do it. But trust me, that's the absolute worst decision to make. They want blood, they're going to get it, one way or another—and sometimes it's either the other guy or both of you fed to the lions. Believe me, I've seen it happen."

The man opened his eyes, looked straight into Emil's. They had no language in common; Emil had no way of asking what he really wanted. Emil had never even learned his name.

"I'm sorry," he whispered, before tightening his grip on his sword.

"You get used to it."

"You get used to it? You get used to it?" His throat was raw from shouting and bile alike, the taste of vomit still strong in his mouth. "I just—I just killed a man! A man I'd defeated in battle! He wasn't even armed!"

"You didn't have a choice. It was the best thing you could have done."

Sigrun was solid, calm, unmovable, but if anything this only stoked his anger further.

"The best thing to do was to murder a person to entertain these Romans! He… he didn't have to die." He had to turn away briefly to wipe his eyes, and when the hand landed on his shoulder he swatted it away. She did not try again. Finally he turned back to her, eyes burning, face hot, and even though he knew he must look horrible he kept his eyes on hers, because he needed to know. "Would you have done that to me?"

Sigrun's silence as she looked away was a far worse answer than anything she could have said.

From then on, they did not train together.

She hesitated, the next morning, when they were choosing their practice weapons from the rack. Emil saw her spot him out of the corner of his eye, watched her stiffen momentarily and turn as if to speak, but he picked up his own sword and shield and walked away without a second glance. When the time came to choose sparring partners, he paired up with the other young men, the ones who couldn't speak his language.

It was better that way, he'd decided. Better not to talk to anyone, to learn anyone's name.

…not to care about anybody at all.

That last part was a lie.

The first time he returned to his cell after the incident to find Reynir waiting outside for him as usual, he didn't even attempt to speak, only sank down onto the bed with his face in his hands.

Reynir only looked guilty and confused. They still couldn't talk to each other, but he pointed to the door with a questioning look on his face. Emil shook his head. So they sat, side by side, in complete silence, their shoulders just barely touching.

What had she been doing with her life?

Once, Sigrun had been a warrior. There'd been a time when she'd offer up life and limb to drag her friends screaming from the bloody jaws of death; now she lived every day knowing they might die by her hand.

When she'd first met Emil, she'd known right away he wasn't going to last very long. He was too green, and too softhearted. She'd done what she could to remedy the former, but there was no fixing the latter (it didn't need fixing, because it hadn't been broken to begin with). Sigrun might be sworn to live and die by the sword, the legend of the ring whose name would be remembered for centuries to come, but Emil? If his life didn't end with the kiss of a blade, slow crushing despair would take him just as surely.

She'd known better than to get attached. The question he'd asked her was no more rhetorical than its answer, and it had been years since she'd let herself get close to anyone but Mikkel. Still, she'd been swept away by excitement at finally meeting another person she could talk to, and somehow the little Viking had managed to worm his way into her heart.

Once, she could have honestly said she would die to protect him. Now, she'd sunk to the point where she would sacrifice a good protégé to save her own skin. Her gods had taught her better than that.

The next evening, he didn't return until well after dark, and a shadow was waiting for him by the side of his door.

"Sigrun!?" Though his anger toward her had cooled over the time they'd spent apart, that still didn't mean he was ready to forgive her—even if at the moment he was too startled to focus on anything but trying to keep his heart from leaping out of his chest. "Are you trying to scare me to death?"

"Shut up and listen." She was holding a sword—not a blunt practice sword, but a sharp-edged weapon. "Do you still want out?"

Something in her voice stopped him from shoving past her, or from telling her to go away. Instead, Emil nodded.

"You don't want to die in the ring. Are you willing to die for this?"

He knew Sigrun well enough at this point to know that she meant it. What's more, if they started this there would be no going back. Even if they succeeded, he might not live to see their victory. If they failed… between Mikkel and Sigrun, he'd heard enough horror stories to know that what the Romans would do to them would make him wish that he were dead.

…Emil already wished that.

"I am." Slowly, he raised his hand, and Sigrun clasped it in hers. Her grin was a terrifying flash in the dark night.

"Let's watch Rome burn."

Chapter Text

Lalli hated Halloween.

Tuuri always insisted this time of year was fun, but that was only because she couldn't do the job that they did. Onni always said it was the most lucrative time of year and they desperately needed the money—and he was right, on both counts—but no matter what he said, by the end of the season he was always haggard and red-eyed and desperately thanking the gods that November had finally come around, and Lalli knew that Onni didn't enjoy it any more than he did.

…not to mention that Lalli had a particular personal reason to loathe this season. Something bad always happened to him at this time of year, without fail. He even had the hospital records and the scars on his back to prove it.

So, when Onni asked him to come to the agency early, he knew in his gut that whatever his cousin wanted, it was going to be nothing good.

His fears were confirmed the second he opened the door to Onni's office: in his experience redheads were always a walking disaster, and that tall redhead with the obnoxiously long braid looked like nothing but bad news.

"Um… hi?"

"Who is he?" Lalli demanded, not even bothering to answer but instead looking directly at Onni. A client? No—Onni would not have told him to come early for a client. Dread twisted his gut at the thought of what this might mean…

"We're shorthanded," Onni began without preamble. "Reynir," he gestured at the stranger, who was now nervously tugging his braid, "has expressed an interest in working for our agency, and I've decided to hire him on probationary terms. I want you to show him the ropes."

"I work alone." Onni knew that.

"Not on Halloween, and not after what happened last year." Lalli bristled; did Onni think he couldn't do his job?

Onni ignored his indignation, instead pushing a piece of paper across the desk at him. It was a coupon for the local bakery. Lalli hissed a bit but still pocketed it, before turning abruptly and leaving the office, Reynir following close on his heels.

"Hello, Hotakainen Paranormal Investigators! Uh-huh. Uh-huh. Would you describe it as corporeal or incorporeal? Okay. Now have you noticed—"

Lalli ignored Tuuri's chatter as usual, and instead stalked back to the containment room to clean out the ghost traps. Reynir followed him like a second shadow he couldn't get rid of.

"Um… it sounds like you've got a customer. Shouldn't we…?" Lalli set a trap on the floor, held his hands over it, and began chanting. They had a massive backlog of the things, but at least the familiar ritual afforded him a bit of quiet. As soon as he'd finished, though, and set the empty trap on the table for cleaning, the annoying new hire was right back at it again. "I mean, someone's calling, aren't you going to go see what it's about?"

"No." He picked up the next trap, set it on the floor, and glared. "Do something useful."

"Um… okay. Useful like what?"

Lalli didn't answer, instead concentrating on his own work. After a few minutes of nervously wringing his hands, the annoyance wandered off, and Lalli breathed a sigh of relief at finally being left alone for a few minutes. He worked steadily until…

"Lalli!" He turned, and there was Tuuri standing in the doorway, a smile on her face and a handful of reports in hand. As always, she was wearing one of those weird outfits she always wore during this season, this one a ragged black dress and a pointed hat on her head. She waved the stack of papers. "Looks like you've got your work cut out for you this morning!"

Lalli sighed, accepted the papers, and went to look for the idiot. He was in the main office, standing on top of a chair with a piece of chalk in hand and scribbling weird designs all over the walls. When Lalli hissed at him, he dropped the chalk on the floor and followed.

"Don't worry about Lalli," he heard Tuuri say as he was pulling on his jacket. "He does that to everyone."

"So what happened last year?"

Lalli had already investigated three calls and was in the process of driving them to the next, and still Reynir was talking. It was all he could do not to pull over and start banging his head against the steering wheel until the horn drowned him out.

"Sorry, sorry! Of course you wouldn't want to talk about it, that was so stupid! Um…" Please shut up now please shut up now please shut up now… "So how did you get into this business anyway? I mean… it seems kinda hard, right?"

"We're mages."

"So is Tuuri a mage?"


"Is anyone else in your family a mage?"


"So, um… Finnish magic. How does it work?"

Lalli shrugged.

"We use runes. You know, like protective symbols? When we want to keep spirits away…"

"So how did Reynir do today?"

"He talks too much." Lalli thought for a few seconds. "And he's rude."

Onni pinched the bridge of his nose. "The job, Lalli."

Lalli shrugged. Reynir hadn't helped him much, but Onni had already said he wasn't supposed to be helping much yet.

A sigh. "Well, I suppose that's as good as I could have expected. At least try to get along with him. He might save your life someday."

October dragged on. The cases continued to get more horrible. Reynir continued to talk too much and be useless.

Sometimes Onni came with them, or took Reynir on himself, but he was more advanced than Lalli and took all of the most dangerous, difficult jobs, the jobs that were no place for a trainee. So most of the time, Lalli was stuck with him.

"Do you think I can't do my job?"

"Right now, your job is training Reynir."


"Lalli." Onni was looking at him from across the desk, his hands clasped together. "Are you sure you're okay after last year?"

Lalli shrugged. "Emil was hurt worse than—"

"I wasn't asking about Emil."

"I'm fine."

Emil had been barely conscious from blood loss, his hands and feet frostbitten without shoes or gloves. He hadn't been able to walk for a month. Even now, a year later, he would still sometimes cringe with pain real or remembered, and Lalli could no longer look at his bare back without encountering a mass of scar tissue. Yet whenever anyone asked, Emil insisted that he was fine.

Lalli had no right to complain about his own scars, when Emil was working so hard to pretend that his weren't still hurting him.

The whole cursed month was nearly over. Instead of relief, though, Lalli could only summon a sick sense of dread.

Halloween never passed without something horrible happening, and last year had been the most horrible out of all horrible years. There was no way that this year would let them simply pass unmarked.

"As you know, this is the final day of the month."

The two of them only stared, Reynir with puppyish confusion and Lalli in bleak despair. Undeterred, Onni continued. "We've survived every Halloween up to this point, and we can survive this one as well." Lalli didn't mention that Grandmother's mistake had also happened on a Halloween—the last time he had, Onni had told him not to bring that up. "Now, we have a job to do."

"Oh good, is Onni done crying?"

All three of them jumped when they turned to see Tuuri standing in the door of the office. Smiling, she waved a slip of paper. "Because we've already got a call."

The phone was ringing off the hook, and Onni was forced to run from the office, cursing, before the morning was even halfway over. Even Reynir had to be put to work, drawing seals over whichever portals to the underworld this year's omnicidal maniacs had decided to open.

"It was a cult."

"Huh?" Reynir was in the process of trying to scrape the paint from under his nails, and looked up, startled, at Lalli's unexpected initiation of a conversation.

Lalli's eyelids were already drooping, and it wasn't even time for lunch yet—not that they'd have time to eat, if things kept going the way that they were. "They were trying to summon something. They needed a sacrifice, so they kidnapped…" no, Reynir did not need to know about Emil, nor about what he meant to Lalli, "…someone. We saved the victim, but the ringleaders got away." Lalli's fingers tightened around the steering wheel.

"Oh." Reynir was very quiet, still looking at his fingers. "Do you think they're going to try again this year?"

Lalli shrugged. Something horrible always happened on Halloween.

The end of office hours, Onni still hadn't come back, and there was a note from Tuuri on the desk recording a message from a panicked caller who had seen something down a darkened alley and insisted it was a manifestation of evil incarnate in spite of the fact that she could provide no description other than "big" and "shadowy".

It's probably just a teenager in a costume, Tuuri's annotation claimed. Or an ordinary serial killer! Probably nothing we need to check out.

…they were still going to need to check it out.

"Did she really mean it when she said it was probably a serial killer?" Reynir asked nervously as he was buckling himself in.

"Could be anything."

"But what are we going to do if it is a serial killer?"

"Call the police."

"Where have you been?" the woman who answered the door demanded, having yanked it open almost before Lalli had finished his first knock. "I called you people three hours ago!"

"Sorry," Reynir volunteered. "We had other cases to work on…"

"What, like teenagers summoning imps? I'm telling you, we've got a real problem here, so do your job and go fix it!"

"Soooooooo," Reynir ventured after she slammed the door in their faces, claiming that "It" would get her if she left the door open for long enough. "What do we do now?"

Lalli turned. He looked up and down the darkened alley. Whatever their frantic client claimed to have glimpsed, it wasn't there now, but he could still tell that something was off. Frowning, he stepped into the alley. His magesight showed him the lingering traces of a presence that had been there at some point in the recent past, a trail that led straight through the alley and into a pair of doors through which loud blasting club music was audible even at this distance.

He pointed. "We're going in there."

Even though he'd braced himself beforehand, the wave of noise and closely-packed bodies hit him like a physical blow the second he stepped in the door. Conversation was almost impossible; Reynir had to lean in far too close and practically shout into his ear, "So what are we looking for?"

"Anything weird."

Reynir looked confused, opened his mouth, stood silent for a few seconds, closed his mouth again, nodded, and strode off into the crowd.

Lalli began moving around the edge of the room, attempting to stay as far away from the people as possible. It was difficult to focus on his magesight when his other senses were being bombarded with blasting noise and flashing lights and the heat from hundreds of bodies packed into such a small space, but he had a job to do. Something was wrong here. It was his job to fix it. He had to—

Lightning pain shot through his shoulders and back, and for a moment Lalli was frozen, not from pain but from terror. No. No no no, not those scars…

Abandoning all caution, he shot his way through the crowd, roughly pushing people aside as he honed in on the vague shadowy thing across the room from him. Behind him, he vaguely heard someone calling his name, but the shout didn't register, fixated as he was on hunting it down.

He was not going to let Emil go through that again.

The cool night air hit him as he burst through the door opposite the one he'd entered, a relief from the stifling indoors that sent energy surging through his exhausted body. Lalli ran faster than he'd ever run in his life, the asphalt pounding under his feet, but that thing was fast.

Onni! he tried to call even as he ran; he had no idea whether his cousin had even heard his summons, and didn't have the time to check; all of his concentration was on moving his legs, on the rush of wind through his hair and empty street beneath his feet.

He rounded one final corner. It was right in front of him, nothing but a shifting shadowy mass that he couldn't resolve into anything solid no matter how hard he squinted, but for all that the very sight of it caused a jolt of fear to shoot through him, not like the fear of failure or the worry of what would happen to Emil and to his family if this summoning he'd only just prevented last year was turned loose on the world, but a sheer primal terror the like of which he hadn't felt since he was too young to even train. The ceremonial dagger he'd drawn on the run slipped from numb fingers. He tried to sing a runo, but his throat seemed to have closed. It was going to…

"HEY!" a voice yelled behind him, just as a powerful burst of light poured from the stone in front of him.

All at once the fear released him; his limbs unfroze, and Lalli threw an arm over his watering eyes. When he lowered the arm, the light had disappeared… but so had it.

"Are you okay?" Reynir was doubled over, hands on his knees as he wheezed for breath, a panting dog sprawled over the pavement at his feet. Even as Lalli watched, the dog gave a single bark, rolled onto its back, and faded from visibility.

"Fine." Looking at the wall where the light had come from, he recognized one of the protective seals that Reynir had drawn earlier that day. Gingerly, he laid a hand against it; the power he could feel in that symbol sent a warm tingling sensation through his fingers.

"Um… Lalli? What was that thing? Did we get rid of it?"

"No." Even as he spoke, Lalli's stomach was clenching all over again.

This wasn't over. Whatever horrible thing this year had in store for him, it was just getting started.

Chapter Text

When she was thirteen, Tuuri made a mistake.

It wasn't a bad mistake. She'd been copying out a scout report when a courier, walking by, had placed a second report on top of her desk. When she glanced up to read the next line, she didn't notice that the report she was now copying wasn't the same one she'd been reading before, and rather than the scout who'd submitted the one she was copying, filled in the name of another scout who'd actually been off-duty that day.

The Finnish military could not afford mistakes. She'd heard Onni tell Lalli, again and again, what even a single mistake could cost in terms of human lives. But Tuuri wasn't Grandma, and she wasn't Lalli—not a scout or a powerful mage, but an insignificant skald. Tuuri didn't make the kinds of mistakes that could get people killed.

A few days later, Tuuri was witness to a ruckus when a scout loudly protested being reprimanded. The officer accused her of missing a critical detail; she insisted she hadn't even been assigned that region. Tuuri, who had never liked to get into the middle of a fight, tiptoed around the office and went to work as usual.

Later that day, she was working frantically on archiving out the latest set of reports when the boss called a meeting. He explained that, thanks to a mix-up in some of the paperwork, a scouting error had gone unnoticed and one of the teams had suffered some minor injuries.

"I know some of you are new to this work," he continued, his eyes seeming to linger on Tuuri for just a little bit longer than the others. She shivered. "But lives depend on our ability to do a good job. So I would like whoever submitted this report to report to me after work hours for additional training."

After work hours, Tuuri went to the garage to help out the mechanics like she'd been planning to all week. After all, that wasn't her report that had been in error. Tuuri didn't make those kind of mistakes. There were a lot of skalds at work on this base; there had to be one or two whose handwriting was similar to hers. Besides, she remembered most of the reports that passed over her desk, and she'd swear she'd never seen that one in her life.

As time passed, Tuuri's work with the skalds continued to excel. It wasn't glamorous work, like the combat jobs in the military, and she couldn't even hope for much of a pay raise. Nevertheless, it was important, and she always made sure to do a good job.

Sometimes, one of the other skalds would make a mistake. Tuuri never did. That didn't happen, not on her family.

Sometimes, at night, she could hear Onni crying. Then again, Onni always made a fuss over a lot of things that didn't really matter.

When Tuuri was eighteen, she made a mistake.

She'd been on her back underneath a tractor, fixing a busted fuel line, when one of her friends had walked by and stopped to say hi. It wasn't until the other woman walked away that Tuuri noticed the large puddle of precious, priceless gasoline that had leaked from the machine she was supposed to be fixing and was now soaking uselessly into the ground.

"Oh—oh, I'm sorry!" she said to no one, before hastily sealing the leak and kicking dirt over the dark spot on the ground. Even so, the smell still emanating from that spot was unmistakable.

"What happened?" the boss demanded immediately after returning from her lunch break; one whiff of the air was more than enough to tell her that something was wrong. "Tuuri. You were working on that tractor, weren't you?"

"I don't know," she replied, nervously wiping her grease-stained hands off on her overalls.

"You don't know whether you were fixing that tractor? The one that everyone else in this garage claims you were underneath today?"

"I was! I mean, I was fixing it, but then it just sprung a leak! I couldn't stop it in time."

It wasn't her fault! She hadn't done anything wrong! Tuuri was an expert. There was no way she'd make a mistake at her own job.

When she was twenty-one, Tuuri made a mistake.

All she'd ever wanted to do was to see the world, or at least something other than the boring old military base whose walls had now enclosed her for more than half her life. A long-lost relative, showing up with the most exciting offer out of anything she could have imagined… it was too good to be true, like something out of those fairy stories her mother had used to tell her when she was a kid.

Of course Onni made a fuss and cried and blustered and tried to hold them back, but Tuuri wasn't a child anymore, and this was the opportunity she'd been waiting for her whole life. An adventure all her own! She was nearly shaking with excitement when the gates of Keuruu opened before her.

This trip was going to be perfect, in every way. Onni always did like to worry over nothing.

Her every breath came out shuddering as Mikkel swabbed antiseptic over her shoulder. Her torn jacket was draped over the back of a nearby chair, the white fabric stained red with her blood. It had all happened so suddenly—Kisa panicking, the floorboards bulging, the monster that burst through the floor, and then a blow that her mind still hadn't quite registered as pain.

"I suggest that you drink that before I get started."


Mikkel sighed. "The painkillers I gave you?"

Oh. Looking down, Tuuri saw that her free hand was still clutching the bottle that Mikkel had handed her before he'd begun pulling down her shirt. Hand shaking, she raised the bottle to her lips and downed its contents in a single swallow.

Maybe being bitten wasn't a guarantee of being infected? Maybe it was only a risk, like taking care of someone who'd caught the flu. Surely Mikkel wouldn't have bothered to tend her injuries if she didn't have any chance… right?

"We will need to take care to ensure that you and Reynir do not cross paths. Even if you're not showing symptoms, you can still act as a vector of infection."

Tuuri only nodded, numbly. The numbness remained as Mikkel bandaged up her shoulder and reminded her to avoid any undue exertion with that arm.

What was she going to do now? What was she going to say to Onni, to the rest of the team back in Mora? There was no avoiding it, though—Mikkel had already turned on the radio, and Torbjörn's voice could be heard through the speaker.

"I need to go see about securing Reynir's safety," Mikkel said before she could even think about moving. "Would you mind bringing out backers up to speed on what happened last night?"

It was fine. It was going to be fine. Tuuri would give her report, and then she would try to figure out what to say to Onni.

There was nothing she could have done to prevent it.

Chapter Text

"Do you like books?" Sigrun had asked him, once, in the beginning.

Emil looked over at her, startled. He could barely see her; even close enough to touch she was little more than a red blur. They were sitting side by side in the small holding cell, nothing more than containment until they were stripped of their weapons and fed. He was exhausted and aching all over but even the thought of sleep brought no relief; it would merely be the prelude to yet another brutal day. "I… guess?"

What Emil wouldn't give for a book right now—any book; a trashy romance novel would be just fine, never mind that these days he could barely make out the words. Or not even a book; a newspaper, a tabloid, an advertisement from the pages of a magazine. Whatever it took to remind him that there had once been a planet called Earth, and that he had once lived on its surface.

"I always hated reading." Sigrun's face looked discolored on one side and she was carefully avoiding using her left arm.

"It's trash, all of it," she continued when Emil answered only with a hum, thinking that when it came to your last human connection it was probably best to just agree to disagree and let it go. Sigrun apparently thought differently. "Books lie."

"Books are fiction," he answered at last. "Of course they tell stories that aren't true."

"Not what I meant."


The exact events always fell to pieces in his mind. He could remember mud and blood, choking smoke and flashes of light. The last he'd seen of the other man, he'd been running toward the ship that was supposed to take them to safety—the ship that had exploded before it could even leave the ground.

He'd had no glimpse of a body to give him closure, only a constant war between reason and hope. Logical deduction told him the other could not have survived even as his heart cried out that it could not still be beating if it were so.

"You want hope? You'd better hope you never see him again."

Sometimes, a few of them would still try to misbehave. Sometimes, they would set an example.

The absolute worst part, with Sigrun, was that Emil was not used to hearing her scream. Yell in anger or excitement, yes, but he'd never before heard her cry out in pain. Being forced to listen was even worse than being forced to watch.

He'd expected, at best, savagely torn skin, odd burns, bleeding from places that were not supposed to bleed. At worst… well, he'd seen things before that still had him waking up screaming. If they'd let him keep his weapons outside the arena, he would have had his knife to hand, because sometimes there was nothing more monstrous than letting someone live.

She came back without a mark on her.

It was a relief, but somehow more disturbing than anything Emil could have imagined. When he tried to check her over more thoroughly (he couldn't rely on his vision, not these days), barely had his fingers brushed her skin than she was warning him away with a hissed obscenity.

No use in asking her what was wrong; she would tell him or not, but there was nothing he could do. So he sat, and fidgeted, and watched Sigrun lying motionless, her face pressed into the cold floor.

"They always promise you a happy ending," she said, later, long after Emil had satisfied himself that she wasn't dying but long before he'd satisfied himself that she was going to be okay. "Good will triumph. If you're right, you win. Tull." She shivered. "We'd've been out of here ages ago if those stories were true."

"Maybe you should stop talking," Emil suggested. He'd tried to drape a blanket over her earlier, but even that had made her react like her skin was being sandpapered and he'd been forced to back off, for both of their sanity. "Get some rest."

"Rest." She snorted. "Listen. There's only one way out of here. You've just got to be ready to take it."

She looked up at him then, a single eye gleaming in the half-light. Emil blinked. His mouth was suddenly dry. He knew exactly what she was talking about.

"I'm tired." She let out a sigh. "Tell me. If it's a choice between the executioner or me…"

"It's best not to think about that." Emil pulled his legs up close against his chest, leaned his forehead on his knees. "Just… please try to sleep?"

She sighed again but did not try to argue. Even long after she had fallen quiet, though, Emil could tell by the sound of her breathing that she was not sleeping.

He squinted across the arena, trying to gauge his opponent, but at this distance all he could make out was a blur.

…a blur of red.

"So this is how it ends." Sigrun's voice rang clear across from him just as the noise of the crowd was cut off by the rising dome.

No… his mind whispered frantically. "Guess so," he heard his mouth saying.

"You know what to do." What she was asking for. Release.

Emil's fingers tightened around his gun. If they didn't get moving…

She moved first.

By instinct and training he responded, throwing a smoke bomb and running straight toward the place where she had been. Sigrun was a close-range fighter who preferred blades over bullets, and her hearing was nearly as shot as his eyesight. He'd hear her before she heard him. As long as she couldn't see him…

…did he want her to see him?

The sound of running footsteps, and Emil threw himself to the side just in time to dodge the blade that came whistling at him out of the smoke. His dive turned into a roll and he brought up his gun even as he leapt to his feet and trained the barrel on the sound of her footsteps.

"There's only one way out of here, and the only thing holding you back is your own fear of taking it."

"Sigrun!" he shouted.

He pulled the trigger on her approaching footsteps even as a knife flashed at him out of the smoke.

Her blow dropped him to the ground. Emil found himself skidding across the floor, tried to push himself up, stumbled and fell back to his knees. He couldn't see anything—he couldn't even see the smoke.

In front of him, there was a wet cough.

Once again, he tried to stand, but his foot hit something hard (his gun?) and he was sent sprawling once more to his hands and knees. So he crawled (no no no), groping in front of him with his hands (hot liquid was streaming down his face) until finally he hit something soft.

Even as his hands ran over her torso, one finding her beating heart even as the other brushed across a hole that spilled hot blood over his fingers, her hand was on the side of his face, wiping away the tears (or was it blood?) that were spilling from his eyes.

"Damn." Her voice was so soft he could barely hear her, and Emil realized his shot must have punctured one of her lungs. "Thought I'd be able to… take you with me…" The fingers slackened, her arm falling to the floor as she lost the strength to hold it up. "So sorry… Emil…"

He couldn't remember the last time she'd called him by name.

Her heart beat against his hand, beat, beat… was still.

It was only the release she'd wanted, had asked for. Still, pain welled up in Emil's chest that it had been necessary.

"Rest well, Captain," he whispered as he ran a hand over her eyes to close them.

"Ladies and gentlemen, give it up for our new champion: Emil Västerström!"

Chapter Text

"What an imagination you have!" Mother had said, the first time Ensi had told her about this place. Aunt Kaino and Uncle Eino had said the same thing, and as she got older Ensi had slowly realized that meant they thought she was making it up. Aunt Tuuli had seemed to be genuinely interested, but had followed through by spouting off a bunch of nonsense questions that had prompted Cousin Veeti to snarl at her later that she need to stop daydreaming and "do some real work."

Only her father seemed to have taken her seriously, but his answer to her nighttime visions was far more disturbing. "Don't ever go out there."

The world outside of her tiny island was so beautiful and she would have liked nothing more to explore it, but at first, Ensi obeyed—because he was her father, because her parents never told her to stay away from anything without very good reason and because the last time Veeti had tried to pull an act of defiance, he'd ended up half-drowned and lucky to have gotten away with nothing worse than a broken arm. She wasn't going to be like stupid, arrogant Veeti.

As the years passed, though, her curiosity had grown—as had her resentment at being kept away, inside, trapped on a tiny boat by elders who insisted on huddling in fear away from a world that they could not reach. When she was in her mid-teens, she'd started to exercise little rebellions. She'd stick a hand outside the barrier, a foot, and nothing horrible happened. Then it was her whole body, leaping outside of her area to make a splash in the shallow sea, then in, and back out again, daring the still-invisible monsters to come and snatch her.

Had she been Veeti when she'd begun to make a practice of circling the whole area in her late teens, she'd have done so at a run, shouting "Hey Dad! Look at me, I came out!" Ensi wasn't Veeti, though, and she made the circuit at a walk, not shouting but with quiet dignity. This was her decision, and nobody needed to know about it but her.

By the time she had reached her twenties, the defiance had ceased to be a true act of rebellion—but in its place was a constant questioning, the nagging thought that her father was holding himself back by letting his fear rule him interspersed with the knowledge that in this world, those who did not learn caution the first time often did not get a second chance.

…those who ran from the realities of the world rather than learning to live with it didn't get a second chance either.

She went with caution, at first, scanning the landscape for threats and setting her feet carefully on every stepping stone before moving on to the next. The landscape was desolate, so beautiful it took her breath away, and utterly devoid of any life as far as the eye could see.

As time passed, she began exploring farther and farther afield. There were differences in the landscape, depending which way she went and where in the physical world their boat had anchored—they were subtle, but they were there.

When it came, it took her by surprise.

Tentacles shot up out of the water to grab her by the ankle; at the same time wispy hands seemed to be pushing her under the water. Ensi struggled; her gun was nowhere to be found (she'd left it behind in the waking world); she tried to reach her knife but her arm was pinned. Unable to do anything else, she simply thrashed, throwing her body frantically against the grip of the thing that held it.

The water flew up around them, and though Ensi's struggles finally loosened the thing's grip on her, she did not manage to break it. Abruptly she realized the water around them was no longer still—since when had the sea become a river?—and then they were both swept away by the current.

Rocks scraped along her back, her head broke the surface and was plunged under again with no predictability she could use to breathe, and all the while she was thrashing, biting, kicking, anything to survive even as water rushed into her lungs and her body was battered by rocks.

In one of the glimpses she managed to catch, Ensi saw that her struggle had drawn more monsters to her even as the scent of blood will draw predators to the site of a kill. They were rushing down the river now, rapids dunking her under, strangely shaped rocks rushing past her with no surface she could have used to grip. In the distance, around a bend in the river, she glimpsed an opening onto the surface of a lake as smooth as glass, on which a swan was swimming.

No, she thought, without knowing why. She forced herself into the wedge between two rocks, tried to get a purchase on one of her attackers but it slipped from her hands. A firm kick managed to dislodge it instead, just enough that Ensi was finally able to drag herself up onto one of the banks—but no further. She could get a grip on nothing, and her strength was spent. A sinuous tentacle wrapped around her ankle…

…warm hands wrapped around her forearms with a firm grip. Looking up, Ensi saw a man on the shore of the river, pulling her up out of the water with an expression of equal parts warmth and wonder.

Later, he would exclaim that he'd never thought to meet another out here. Later, he would tell her his name.

For now, though, as he looked her in the eyes, he only said one thing.

"Sing with me."

As he raised his voice in a rhythmic chant that thrummed throughout her blood, Ensi found her own voice joining with his, mingling, twining, their words weaving together to guide the dead to rest. Had Ensi been able to look at herself, she would have seen that her eyes were glowing with power.

All the while, the stranger held her against both the current of the water and the rush of souls.

Her father, she would come to realize after she finally woke from the fever that had kept her in a turbulent sleep for the better part of a week, had not been wrong when he'd claimed that place was dangerous… but she had not been wrong either when she'd decided to take the chance.

The song was hers now. It was hers to keep for as long as she lived, and even then she knew that she would pass it on to her children, and them to their grandchildren, so that it would never be forgotten again.

This new world may have given them dangers, but for those who were willing to seek answers, it would also give them the tools they would need to survive.

Chapter Text

Anyone who claimed not to be afraid was lying.

She could see it in the determined bravado of the youngest men and women under her command, in the audible swallows, the hastily straightened backs, the tight grips they held on their weapons to hide the trembling of their hands. The older ones, those who had a few more seasons under their belts, showed it in the degree of seriousness with which they treated the situation. Gone were the playful ribbings and booming laughter. In their place were grim faces, jobs done in efficient silence, and not a smile to be seen.

To be honest with herself… Sigrun was scared too. After all, it wasn't every day you came back from campaign to find a small army of giants lurking outside the borders of your town. There was no shame in feeling fear, though, not in a situation as dire as this. The important thing was not to show it, not to give her subordinates more reason to panic than they already had, and she nodded approvingly at the brave faces her crew was putting on.

A hand landed on her shoulder. "Scouts are back," Karl's voice whispered in her ear. Even through her heavy cloak, she could feel the shaking of her second lieutenant's hand.

Sigrun nodded, and eased back from the ridge she'd been using as a lookout, but could not help but take one last glance back at Dalsnes before she left. One of the town's walls had been breached, smoke still curling lazily up from its base into the early morning sky. The dead body of a giant lay close to the breach, and Sigrun wondered how many soldiers had paid with their lives to keep this one from getting through.

…she couldn't afford to think about that right now. Not about her parents who would have been coordinating the town's defenses, not about the wounded in the infirmary or her friends who weren't immune. Instead, she did the only thing she could do, and returned to camp to take the scouts' reports.

Inside the command tent, they spread a map over the top of a hastily-unfolded table, where they then plotted out the situation as the scouts gave their reports. For every giant, a fist-sized rock was laid atop the map. Trolls were represented by smaller pebbles.

After the last scout had finished setting the last pebble on top of the map, the officers stepped back and took a look. The results were… not encouraging.

The rocks and the pebbles that they'd laid out formed a crescent around Dalsnes, the only possible escape route left open a sheer slope that would be an impossible climb for the old and the infirm. If there was any doubt before that the town was under siege, it had now been thoroughly removed.

It was Sigrun's job to bring her team back home alive. It was also her job—it was all of their jobs—to ensure that they had a home to come back to. That their loved ones who couldn't or wouldn't fight could continue to live their lives with some reprieve from the constant shadow of death or things far worse than death. There were some choices that no Captain ever wanted to have to make, but always had to be prepared for.

"We can give Dalsnes a fighting chance," she said at last, "if we hit them here," her dagger tapped the surface of one of the stones, "and we hit them hard."

Nobody responded. Everyone who was present knew exactly what this would mean for them personally.

Not a single one of them protested, though, and Sigrun felt her heart soar with pride.

Once it was decided what had to be done, they had not a moment to spare. If they wanted to have the best chance at helping Dalsnes, they would have to attack during the day when their opponents were weakened by sunlight, and it would have to be today—any later, and there might not be a Dalsnes left to defend. Camp was struck. Sacrifices were offered, prayers made to Thor to lend them his strength. The mages cut their hands, spilling their own blood to strengthen their protective runes.

Sigrun was the last to kneel in front of Mari. As the mage's fingers traced a familiar design over her forehead, she focused on taking even breaths, on planning the battle ahead of her. She harbored no illusions of a miracle. Whatever befell her team, it was a fate that she would share.

At long last, she stood, her soldiers gathered around her. In one smooth motion, Sigrun drew her dagger. The steel gleamed brightly in the mid-afternoon sun, reflecting back an image of her own eyes, bright with unshed tears.

In another world, she might have celebrated the end of the season with a feast in the Great Hall, a drink with her friends, a night spent in a pair of warm arms that she'd been thinking about all summer. After today, though, they'd be drinking and feasting somewhere else entirely.

She raised the sword above her head.

"To Valhal!"

Chapter Text

This country was impossibly big.

Too big—Sigrun was afraid they were going to get lost in here. It was also impossibly flat, with no landmarks to navigate by and the stars drowned out by light and smog. If her compass was thrown off, there would be nothing but the scout to guide her.

Speaking of which…

Twig, when he came back, was muddy and covered with grime. They were both muddy and covered with grime, courtesy of the whatever gunk was coating every outside surface and floating around in the air. No amount of fastidiousness would prevent it sticking, and no amount of scrubbing would remove it entirely.

Lalli spread the map over top of a flat rock after taking his share of breakfast. "They have lookouts here," he tapped the map with one finger as he gave his report in his usual almost-whisper, "here and here. This place is weird, we don't want to go there. And the air smells wrong on that side of the river. We can camp here, or here…"

She nodded, then they packed, then they were on their feet. The dirt continued to grind beneath their boots, the sky an orange-brown haze above them through which they could see only a vague, smeared-out brightness with very little hint as to the source of the light.

When they camped, Sigrun took first watch; she always did. Lalli would crawl under the camouflaged tarp, roll himself into a blanket until he looked like nothing so much as a human sausage, and conk out until it was his turn to take the watch. Sigrun would sit outside at the entrance, gun at the ready, watching for threats by the light of the nighttime glow that spread over the darkened sky.

At some point during the middle of the night, Lalli would wake on his own. He'd crawl out from under the tarp, hand her the blanket, and take up the position she'd previously occupied, hunkering down to watch. It was far too hot under the tarp, the blanket scratchy and the filth of the place coating the entirety of her skin, but Sigrun forced herself to sleep. Considering where they were going, she was going to need all the strength she could muster.

When she woke at first light, he would scamper off, leaving Sigrun to get the water boiling and set out their rations, such as they were. By the time she'd finished rolling the tarp and chewing down hardtack and the water had cooled to a drinkable temperature, he would be back with a report of what looked like the most favorable route. Sigrun would pile the supplies on her back and they'd set off, him constantly darting ahead and back to tell her which direction was best to go, a routine whose details varied but that in essence was exactly the same from one day to the next.

"When you go out there, you're going to be completely on your own. If you get in trouble, you won't be able to call us for help. If you turn to the locals, you'll be imprisoned on sight—and that's assuming they don't shoot first and ask questions later. In the event that you don't report back by our specified date, you will be presumed dead."

In addition to blankets, weapons, medical supplies, and their so-called "rations", each of them had been given a small packet, to be tucked into a spare pocket of their uniforms. When briefed, they'd only been told that the handful of small white pills inside were "in case the worst happens."

Once, Lalli suffered a collapse.

Upon his return from scouting he'd begun his report normally, only to begin swaying and slurring his speech as blood dripped from his eyes and nose. Then he was keeling over, unconscious, and even though he still had a heartbeat and was still breathing normally nothing she tried could get him to wake up.

They'd only been given the most basic of medical training prior to this mission, and their supplies were even more basic. As far as Sigrun could figure, he'd either hit his head or breathed in some bad air during his last run; whatever the case there wasn't much she could do for him but roll him under the tarp, toss the blankets over him, and hope that this was something he could just sleep off.

The days that followed were by far the hardest ones that Sigrun had had to endure on this mission. Without the aid of a scout, she couldn't move—not without risking enemy fire, hidden minefields, deadly pits, and poisonous fumes. Lalli hadn't exactly been good company but only a few hours in and she was about ready to start singing loud off-key drinking songs just to break the silence—she'd never before realized how much it meant just to have an ally nearby, however strange and standoffish he might seem. She couldn't even sleep—they had to have a lookout at all times; that part of the mission was imperative. So she'd walked in circles, and assumed the most uncomfortable positions she could find to keep herself awake, and occupied herself by watching the reflections of flames dancing against the feverish sky.

They had a deadline to worry about. If they failed to complete their mission on time they were both dead, and when the second day passed without Lalli stirring Sigrun knew she would have to plan for what would happen if he didn't wake at all. Pressing forward on her own would be dangerous enough; dragging another person behind her on the tarp would be deadly slow, and leave a clean trail besides. If he was already as good as dead…

No, she thought, disgusted with herself. She didn't know that. Their chances were horrible no matter what she did; better to stick with the person who'd always done his best not to let her down. She'd already lost far too many people to knowingly sacrifice another.

On the morning of the third day, he woke. He gave no explanation, but at that point Sigrun was too tired to care. She only crawled under the tarp and collapsed into a dead sleep.

Things weren't resolved so easily when she got hurt.

It was on her watch, while Lalli was sleeping. She suspected he was still sleeping off whatever had happened to him a few days prior; otherwise he would have woken instantly at the commotion. As it was, she ended up having to fend off both of the attackers by herself.

The fight was short, but brutal. By the time Lalli woke up the two bodies were already cooling on the ground and Sigrun was cradling her badly-torn arm close against her body.

"We're leaving. Now."

They did not stop again until sunrise. Sigrun had cleaned the wounds herself while on the march, but those knives had cut deep and simple cleaning wouldn't be enough.

"You know what you're doing?" she asked after they had finally made camp again, as Lalli threaded a needle in preparation for suturing the gashes shut.

"Yes," he answered simply. "Not many doctors where I come from," he elaborated when she gave him a look.

"Is it like this?" She knew that some places were, even if they weren't under direct control.


They didn't speak further on that particular topic. As Sigrun glanced at Lalli sleeping under the tarp that night, though, she thought she had gained some understanding of his motive for volunteering for this particular mission.

"Do you by any chance remember what I told you about the existence of certain lines, and which ones should never be crossed?"

"Huh?" Blearily, Sigrun pushed herself up on her elbow to squint through the bars. It was pretty dark in here, but even if her visitor's silhouette hadn't been so familiar his voice would have given him away. "Oh. Hey, Uncle Trond."

An impatient noise came from deep in his throat, and one of his boots tapped smartly against the floor. Yeah, Trond wasn't happy—but then again Trond never was. "'Hey' does not qualify as an explanation."

In answer, she only shrugged and slumped back down onto the floor. (There was no bed in here; she'd heard one of the guards say that being in prison should not be more comfortable than being out of prison—though to be fair, given what her previous lodgings had looked like that was not exactly an unfounded assumption.) "Looked to me like some of those lines were about to crush me if I didn't step over 'em."

"Be that as it may." Trond crossed his arms. "You did make the choice, and choices have consequences. In your case, your choice means you'll never see the outside of these walls again… or at least, you won't on paper."

"Cut the crap, Uncle Trond." She pressed a hand to her forehead, since neither the dark nor the cool cement floor had done anything to alleviate the pounding behind her eyes. "Just tell me why you're really here."

"I came to see whether you'd be willing to make another choice."

She sat up. "I'm listening."

They were going to miss their deadline.

There was no getting it around it, not when they'd already been held up by Lalli's mysterious collapse and by Sigrun having to do all her work with one arm in a sling. Like it or not, success or failure, after the end of their mission they were going to be stuck here.

"Hey, Twig," she asked during one of their hikes. "Think we'll be able to survive off the land once our supplies run out?"

"Depends on how many rats are around here," he replied, deadpan. "And what diseases they're carrying."

Sigrun grimaced. It wasn't the rats that bothered her—there was good eating on a rat, she would know. No, the problem was that it was just now hitting her that they might—no, would—have to spend the rest of their lives out here, and those lives were getting shorter every time she checked.

"Do you think it will end things?"

The soldier sitting next to her was young—younger even than Lalli, she'd bet—yet suspiciously well-fed and well-groomed. There was something soft about him, something that told her that unlike her wisp of a partner he'd never seen a real battlefield. Idealist, she thought, an impression not helped by his baby-round face and wide blue eyes.

"If you fulfill your mission," he continued when she didn't answer. "Do you think things are finally going to get better?"

"Don't know." She shrugged. "But in my experience," she gave her gun a last critical once-over before clicking the magazine into place, "it's like trying to swat plague flies. You drop one, there are three more waiting to take its place."

They must have been vaccinated for a million things prior to the start of their mission. Problem was, out here you could catch a million and one.

For the past few days Sigrun had been noticing some unusual heat in her arm, a deep-seated ache every time she moved. She said nothing. They were about to be through, and could not afford any more delays.

A few times, people had asked why they were sending two people for a job that could have been handled by one. What good would it do for anyone to sacrifice two soldiers when their side couldn't even afford to spare one?

Rumors had abounded even before they left. They wanted to get rid of the undisciplined criminal but didn't trust her to do the job if she was on her own. They wanted to get rid of the antisocial weirdo but didn't trust him to do the job if he was on his own. Some of the higher-ups were actually enemy spies who were trying to rig the resistance so things were in their favor. The higher-ups had been lying all along, and instead Sigrun and Lalli actually had some secret objective that hadn't even been shared with the other commanders.

In reality, she thought that it was something far simpler, and far more human. One person could never have made it all the way out here on their own. She certainly couldn't have done it. Maybe Lalli could have, with his implied background, but no matter who you were you still needed to sleep, needed someone to watch your back during the times when you had no choice but to let your guard down.

Then there were the things that were both more and less essential. An extra pair of hands to clean injuries and change bandages. A cup of drinkable water waiting for you when you came back from a sweaty scouting run. Even just the sound of another human voice.

In another world, they probably wouldn't have gotten along. Under other circumstances, if they'd met in passing, they probably wouldn't have given each other a second glance. They were here, though, in this time and in this world, and the only thing that they had was each other.

The underside of the tarp stank of sweat and blood and infected flesh that would soon go to rot, but they did not dare to speak or to move out from under it.

They'd done what they had to. Now they were hunted and had nowhere to go.

Earlier, when they'd been crouched down next to each other in hiding, Lalli's eyes had widened in alarm at the heat radiating off of her skin. Once under the tarp, he'd grabbed her arm, pushed her sleeve up, taken his knife in hand and opened the wounds so they could drain. Sigrun had wanted to protest, but she couldn't get the words out to tell him she was fine (she clearly wasn't), or that it didn't matter anymore whether she lived or died (it did, she didn't want to die here).

As soon as she could walk, they moved again. They did not speak of where or why; both of them knew they no longer had any chance of retrieval. They just kept moving, in the same direction they'd been going in before, if only because they did not want to lie down and die.

By the time they reached the border wall, they were nearly out of food in spite of their rationing. Already-skinny Lalli looked like absolute hell, his eyes sunken and his cheekbones standing out like knives. It was a good thing she didn't carry mirrors because Sigrun was certain she didn't look any better. They stared at each other tiredly for a moment before flopping down onto the ground by the side of the rancid-smelling river that wound its way through the landscape before disappearing underneath the wall.

She was tired, exhausted as she'd never been for as long as she could remember. Her legs ached. She would cheerfully have committed murder in exchange for one hot meal that didn't fall to dry pieces in her throat—hell, she'd have done the same for a glass of clear water, or a non-itchy blanket.

Beside her, Lalli slumped, his forehead resting on his knees. He, too, looked absolutely exhausted, and why shouldn't he be? They'd done nothing but press on and press on and press on, until they'd hit a point where they could go no further.

Sigrun looked at Lalli. Lalli looked at Sigrun. Sigrun palmed the small packet of little white pills, turned it over and over in her hand. In case the absolute worst should happen, they'd said. What exactly the "worst" was, though, they hadn't specified. Capture? Infection? Starvation? They'd risked all on this mission, and still come out the other side.

Well, they still had each other, and that was all that they'd needed to get this far. Lalli's weary eyes continued to watch her as she tucked the pills away unopened, and stood.

"How are you at swimming?"

When they dragged themselves onto the bank on the other side of the wall, they were both gasping for breath and coated in filth. Sigrun was shivering violently, and as soon as they collapsed on dry land even don't-touch-me Lalli was at her side and pressing right up against her for warmth. Since when had the nights gotten so cold?

Maybe the only thing they had accomplished was to get themselves into a situation even worse than the one they'd gotten out of. As she wrapped her arms around her skinny companion in an effort to ease her own shivering, though, Sigrun thought that at least, for once, it had been on their terms. Whether they would survive a lifetime here, much less the night, was an open question—but at least they would have the taste of freedom still fresh in their lungs.

The haze was not gone. When the sky began to lighten, though, it was thin enough for them to lay eyes on the bright disk of the sun that was rising in the eastern sky to gift them with its warmth.

Chapter Text

The spring air was chill against his skin, the scent of fresh earth and growing things hovering in the clean, crisp early morning atmosphere. Of all the things he'd wondered about over the past four years, this was not one of them: even if not for the security provided by isolation, it was easy enough to see why the other had chosen this place.

He shifted his weight against the branch, being careful not to make a sound or to stir any other part of the tree. The barrel of his sniper rifle remained trained on the house.

Hopefully, his target was going to open the door at some point during the day, but if he got a clean shot through one of the windows, he would take it. Not that he was likely to get a clean shot through one of the windows—in spite of the pleasant weather and beautiful view the house had only a handful of narrow windows set with thick-paned glass. Well, fair enough; it was hardly surprising that the target knew he would someday be hunted.

He waited. It was a boring job, but then again he was a patient man. As the sun rose higher in the sky he began to see hints of motion through the windows, patches of brightening and darkening that did not match the shifting light of the sun, and he knew that the occupant must be awake. Good. Hopefully he would be able to end this soon.

There was the distinct click of a latch. His muscles tightened; he shifted his weight, making sure of his balance on the branch. His finger curled inward to touch the trigger.

Then, he laid eyes on his target for the first time in four years.

As much as he thought he'd prepared himself for this moment, the jolt that shot through his stomach at the sight of the gold hair, the blue eyes, and the breathtaking smile was as strong as ever. Traitor, he tried to think, and, when that didn't work, You broke my heart. Though the latter was far more potent, it was still no use. His arms were shaking; he couldn't make the shot.


His finger—his stupid, traitorous finger—had fallen from the trigger without him willing it to. Angrily, he renewed his grip, but his arms were even more determined to betray him than his hands and refused to hold the barrel steady enough for him to get a clean shot.

What was wrong with him? He'd never cared before—but that should be making this easier for him, not the other way around! The man had betrayed him. He'd betrayed their team. He'd broken Lalli's heart… and still, he couldn't seem to make himself pull the trigger.

Again, his body betrayed him, and the gun slipped, jostling the branch. Startled by the sudden rustle of leaves on a windless morning, Emil turned, and looked straight at Lalli with widening blue eyes…

Tell me why.

Those were the words he'd held burning inside him ever since Emil had abandoned them without so much as a note. For four years he'd choked them down, swallowed them back during every down moment when he'd asked himself again and again what he'd done wrong. They had just gotten started… Emil had been his first… he hadn't been good enough, hadn't been able to give Emil what he wanted…

Only when Taru had called him in to report that they'd managed to locate Emil, alive and well and living in a remote area of the mountains, had that guilt and betrayal crystallized into anger.

In spite of the fact that he fought quietly, everything inside of him was screaming it over and over as he kicked and punched and bit at every part of Emil that he could reach.

Emil's eyes widened, the breath forced from his lungs as Lalli slammed him back into a tree, but he recovered quickly and ducked under Lalli's arm just in time to avoid his knife. Again he kicked the rifle, sending it flying into the underbrush and well out of Lalli's reach before he could do anything more than brush it with his fingers, before getting hold of Lalli's wrist and swinging him around to send him flying into a patch of briars opposite the trees.

Damn. Lalli was faster but Emil had always been the stronger of the two, a factor his targets had always underestimated those few times he'd had to resort to hand-to-hand thanks to his short stature. If he wanted to win this fight, he could not let Emil get hold of him again.

He tore himself out of the brambles, ignoring the thorns that ripped into his skin. No sooner had he gotten his feet on the ground, though, than Emil was rushing him with a yell and swinging a crowbar straight at his head.

Just in time, he raised his arms to block, and the jolt of the impact reverberated all through his body—he'd count himself lucky if he got out of this without any cracked bones. Moving with the momentum of the attack, he dropped to the ground and swept Emil's legs out from under him.

Emil hit the ground with a thud, the crowbar flying out of his hand. Wasting no time, Lalli leaped to his feet and brought his boot down onto Emil's neck, only for Emil's arms to come up to block him in turn. Then, Emil had him by the ankle, and Lalli was yanked down to join him on the ground.

Before he could roll to his feet, Emil's full weight was on top of his chest, his legs pinning Lalli's arms to his sides, and struggle as he might Lalli could not shift him. (How in the name of all that was holy could someone who was so short manage to be so heavy?) After a few moments of helpless thrashing he was forced to give up, panting, as one of Emil's hands came to rest on his exposed throat.

"Give me one good reason not to kill you right here." In spite of his words, though, Emil's fingers did not tighten.

Lalli said nothing. He had failed; Emil knew as well as he did what the price of failure was. If you had to beg for your life you were already dead.

Still, they waited. There was a rustle of breeze through the branches, the sound of birds chirping in the trees. Presently Emil's weight shifted a little, and he sighed.

"Look, if I let you up are you going to try to kill me again?"

With what? He'd lost his gun, he'd lost his knife, and his whole body was too exhausted and battered for him to take a chance on trying anything with his bare fists, not against a man both significantly stronger and significantly heavier than he was. Resigned yet puzzled at this unexpected show of mercy, Lalli shook his head.

Abruptly the weight lifted from his chest, and Emil's fingers closed around his wrist—Lalli braced himself, but the other man was only pulling him to his feet. Unfortunately, he'd chosen the arm that had taken the brunt of the crowbar, and Lalli hissed as the sudden pressure sent a jolt of pain all the way from elbow to wrist.

"You've been training for this." It wasn't a question.

"Sorry about that." Emil looked awkward—adorably awkward, but Lalli angrily pushed down the wave of nostalgia that rose up in him at the thought of Emil talking to him without malice like they'd never parted ways at all, like they'd only just seen each other yesterday and Emil hadn't walked out on them four years ago… "Would you… like to come inside?"

"Why?" He spat the word as soon as they were inside and seated at the kitchen table, and Emil was laying out bandages and antiseptic in addition to two mugs of very strong coffee. Lalli pointedly did not touch the latter. They were both a complete mess: hair torn and tangled, dirt smearing their clothing, blood drying under Emil's nose, Lalli's face and arms covered with scratches, their skin a discolored mass of bruises and black eyes.

Emil stiffened momentarily before he returned to the table with a small pitcher of cream. He was still avoiding eye contact. "Do you mean, why didn't I kill you just now, or why did I leave in the first place?"

Lalli crossed his arms. As far as he was concerned, Emil had a lot of explaining to do, so he might as well answer both.

"Okay, fine." Emil sat down beside Lalli, reached out with an antiseptic-soaked gauze pad as if intending to swab the cuts on Lalli's face, but then changed his mind at the last second and handed the pad over to Lalli instead. "I wanted out. I couldn't do this anymore." He waited, but Lalli said nothing, only hissed slightly as the stinging liquid met the raw cuts on his face and forearms. Only a handful of swipes and the gauze was already discolored with blood and dirt; when Emil handed him another along with the bottle Lalli snatched both out of his hands so violently that he nearly cringed back. "Are you honestly going to tell me you've never even thought about it?"

"Couldn't." The sound of ripping paper was loud in the room as Lalli viciously tore a Band-Aid from its protective sheaf. "Knew better. You should have too."

Taru didn't look angry, and for some reason that made him all the more anxious. Lalli's palms were sweating, and he fought to make his pounding heart slow down. He hadn't done anything wrong… had he?

"Lalli." Taru folded her hands atop the desk, looking at him in much the same way she did whenever she laid out a mission. "Have you thought about where you are going to live?

"For that matter," she continued, still looking at him with that calm, level gaze that made him squirm in his skin for some reason he still couldn't account for, "how would you live? Do you have any skills that would make you an acceptable hire in any modern-day workplace?"

Lalli didn't know what skills she was talking about—or indeed, what anyone was even supposed to do in a modern-day workplace. Taru was right. He hung his head.

"We treat you very well here, Lalli. Your room and board is free. You are fed. You are clothed. If you need money for anything within the scope of your duties, you are provided with it. You could not find another employer anywhere in this world who would treat you so well. And yet instead of professing your gratitude, you claim you want to leave."

"I go back after I've completed the mission, or I don't go back at all. Even if I fail, there will be others. Do you plan to face every one of them as well?"

He could see Emil truly considering that possibility, wondering whether he would rather be shot, or stabbed, or poisoned; whether it would be worse to die by Lalli's hand now, or by his longtime mentor's later, or at the hands of a complete stranger after doing the same for both of them. He could not keep running forever, and they were not going to stop coming. An example has to be made, Taru had said. Sooner or later, one of them was going to succeed.

"It doesn't matter." Emil shook his head, and his hair caught the light in a way that still had the power to take Lalli's breath away. "I decided I'd rather be killed on the run than live for one more day like that."

Without his willing it, Lalli felt his fist clench against the table. He hadn't—!

The first time Taru had handed him a rifle and invited him to fire at a target that was shaped like a man, he hadn't thought anything of it. Taru was always asking him and Tuuri to do things that didn't make sense; this was just one more weird thing in a whole list of weird things that had come before. Once he could do that, she'd had him start to practice with moving targets: flying plates, small animals… "It's hunting," she'd said when he'd asked. "Lots of people do it." From there, it wasn't long before she had him start firing at people

They'd done bad things. They were enemies of their company, of their family. Taru had told him whatever she needed to to get him to pull the trigger… but in the end, he'd still always been the one who was pulling the trigger.

"I wanted to ask you to come with me." Once again, Emil's voice shook him out of the past. "But even if I had… would you have said yes?"

Lalli looked away. He didn't know what he would have done.

"I don't know whether you would have been able to keep it from Tuuri. And she would have told Taru, who would have told my uncle… Lalli, I'm sorry. But I just… I couldn't take that chance."

For the moment, they both stared at each other. The offer that Emil had never made hung in the air between them, but it was insubstantial, a ghost. Even if Emil were to revive it, Lalli knew that he would not (could not) take it.

Lalli pushed out from the table. "Next time I come, I finish my job."

Emil nodded. "I'll be ready."

"What was your first time?" They were sitting on the sofa, Lalli's head in Emil's lap as Emil's fingers ran gently through his hair. In front of them, the TV broadcast news of the latest terrorist attack, an explosion that had leveled a whole building along with everyone in it.

Of course, the official channels would call it that—but both of them knew who was actually responsible.

"I'd just dropped out of school," he continued when Lalli didn't answer, without needing any answer. "My parents had lost all of their money a few months ago, and it was only just now hitting me that we were poor now, you know?" His hands, as they ran through Lalli's hair, were trembling slightly, but somehow he still managed not to tangle or pull. "Then my uncle called, said he might have a bit of work for me…"

This was the only life that was open to them. Yet somehow, Emil had escaped.

Emil was clearly making money without any help from his handlers. Emil was fed, clothed, housed… things Lalli had always been told that he'd never be able to manage on his own. So what was different?

The rock that he experimentally tossed into the trees produced an explosion that lit the night like a beacon.

Emil had set mines, then. Lalli knew better than to believe that he'd managed to miss all of them by coincidence or miracle the first time he'd come. No: Emil had been expecting someone, maybe not him but someone, and had still chosen to let him through.

Knowing Emil, there would be multiple tripwires and other booby traps, and not only on the ground either. He might not be able to avoid all of them.

Lalli scaled the nearest tree with catlike grace and began his leaping progression from branch to branch.

An empty house greeted him when he pushed open the door.

At first, he moved cautiously, wary that he might be walking into a trap. As he eased open door after door, however, training his rifle on the empty rooms beyond, it was clear that there was no trap, no ambush. Lalli was completely alone.

Emil had chosen to run. Again.

Lalli could not go back with nothing to show. He had no choice but to follow wherever Emil led him—whether to join him or to finish the job he'd started, only time would tell.

During the fight, which had lasted for only a few minutes but carried the intensity of hours, bullets had been flying through the air around them, whizzing past their ears and blowing the bark from nearby trees, accompanied by a series of explosions that had shattered the night with bursts of fire.

Over the course of his career, Lalli had never once missed a shot. Emil knew that, and had set the battlefield specifically to throw him off. Throughout the battle, his senses had been under constant assault from bursts of sound and light that had left him reeling from overload before plunging him into straining silence, only to start all over again before he could regain his equilibrium. Even through the confusion and pain, he could not help but admire Emil's dedication. Lalli didn't think he had ever performed half so well when he was doing it at the behest of others.

Now, they stood facing each other, each with his gun pressed against the other's head. Lalli had refrained from firing earlier, knowing that he could not get a clean shot. Emil hadn't skimped on the bullets, but then again he hadn't needed to: the discarded shell casings lying strewn over the ground told Lalli all that he needed to know about how well-stocked he was.

"I know it's too late now," Emil started, meeting his eyes against the backdrop of flames. "But I'm going to say it anyway. Lalli, I want out. Will you come with me?"

Two simultaneous gunshots rang through the night.

When Lalli came back to the house that night, the lights were on.

He approached cautiously, easing the door open and leading with the barrel of his gun, but there were no traps, no ambush. Instead there was only Emil, unarmed, sitting in the same spot he'd sat the last time they'd seen each other with his hands folded atop the table.

"I know that it's already four years too late," he started, calmly, not flinching even though the barrel of Lalli's gun was aimed right between his eyes. "But I want to ask you anyway." He took a deep breath. "I needed to get out. I got out. Believe it or not, it can be done." Slowly, he raised one of his hands and held it out to Lalli, palm up. "Lalli, will you come with me?"

Whatever happened, it was going to be both of them or nothing at all, whether against each other or against the world. There was no other way.

Chapter Text

When he went to sleep, it was always the same, and sometimes he could not help but wonder whether he was being punished.

"Just following orders." His school performance might have been average, but he remembered enough history to know where that excuse had been used before.

Worse, he'd run away, fled rather than stay and try to change things, because he'd been afraid but also because he couldn't even convince himself that they were doing the wrong thing. After all, there were people in Iceland who needed protection too, and if even one refugee managed to get through carrying the Rash…

There was no right thing to do, and he could not forgive himself. So he punished himself by opening himself up to his nightmares.

Every time he fell asleep, it was to find himself surrounded by horrors. What made it even worse was the sheer beauty of the place in which they dwelt.

The first time he ventured out across that shoreless sea, it was a blind run in a random direction, anywhere just as long as he could get away (though from what, he couldn't have said, because it certainly wasn't the tentacled masses into whose embrace he was running).

Eventually, he ran himself to exhaustion and ended the night by collapsing atop one of the rocks over which he'd been running, the shallow water seeping through his pants to soak his butt and, when he leaned back to look at the sky, through his shirt to do the same to his back. The water was freezing.

There were a few stars visible above him, but he could also see the Northern Lights. They danced and spread their colors across the sky far more vividly than they ever had in life, seeming so close and so solid that if he desired, he thought that he might be able to step atop them and walk to a place humanity had long forgotten.

When he woke, he was shivering violently, and the use of the one thermometer he'd thought to bring with him confirmed that he was running a fever.

Was he ill—not just physically but in the head? Were his nighttime visions an illusion brought on by stress or impending insanity? Had the dream caused the fever, or had the fever caused the dream?

…it didn't matter. He was still going back.

The next time he decided to venture so far afield, he got caught.

Tentacles wrapped around his wrists and ankles and dragged him under toward many hungry mouths; his lungs burned until water rushed into his mouth. It was only pure luck that let him escape; he simply kicked and thrashed until he managed to work his way loose, leaving him floating in the icy water after his attacker had retreated.

As he hovered there in the water, trying to work up the strength to move his limbs after so much time being starved for oxygen, he saw something amazing.

There, reflecting down at him from the surface of the water, was a design. It looked like nothing he'd ever seen before; an elaborate sketch, something that had to have been human-made, but he had never seen another human here. It glowed down at him with a benevolent blue light, and for the moment he forgot how much he needed to breathe as he stared up into it.

This time, he was sick for a week, and ended up with a painful hacking cough that brought up fluid for the better part of a month.

It was possible to walk on top of the Northern Lights.

They shifted and slid underneath his feet and he had to take constant care not to slip, but they held his weight as solidly as any set of stairs. So, though he had no idea why he was doing it (might as well take the insane chances because he didn't deserve to live), he began the long climb up, up up and into the sky.

He knew, of course, that the sky was endless and the earth a mere speck of dust, though he suspected that in a few generations that precious knowledge would be lost. In his dreams, however, he walked among the stars for only a few brief minutes before rising past them and reaching another realm entirely. The blackness gave way to gold sunlight, and then he was looking down an immense branch that had replaced the lights under his feet. He gasped. Worlds spread out before his eyes…

The next time he woke, he could not remember what had happened at all. All that was left to him were the remnants of a mostly-forgotten dream, coupled to a profound sense of loss.

Chapter Text

"So, um… what were we looking for, again?"

The only answer she got was a grunt—but then again, it was roughly the fortieth time she'd asked. "As I already said, I will know it when I see it. Though I don't expect that you will." That last was spoken quietly, a muttering under his breath that was nevertheless just loud enough to carry in the still air.

Mikkel had already made it abundantly clear that he had very little respect for the race of Men—though to be fair to the race of Men, as the General he'd talked to had dryly pointed out, no one mad enough to agree to go on this mission was likely to be a shining example of their race.

Sigrun, infuriatingly, took no offense. "I'm just saying, we miiiiiight want to have some idea of what all we might run into down here."

Again, Mikkel muttered a response—this time in Dwarvish, and even those with no understanding of the language (which, in this group, comprised everyone who wasn't Mikkel) felt their ears burn. As usual, Reynir Halfelven took this as his cue to step between them and attempt an intervention, which in turn only made things worse. Behind them, Emil sighed.

He was at the back of the group, as always—it was not a place he chose, it simply happened that way, though he was sure that the others had planned it like that. Of course they wouldn't trust him, just because—

"Which way do we go next?"

"Sigrun, I am thinking."

"Um…" Tuuri piped up. Everyone turned to look at her. "Actually, I've been taking some notes. And since we took a right then a left turn coming down that last passage, and we were going downward…"

While the little Hobbit prattled on about geometry this and architecture that, Reynir stepped back to join Emil. Despite both of them sharing Elven blood, they'd never had much to say to each other. Oh, Reynir had attempted some friendly overtures at first… but that was before he'd found out that Emil was, by association, his mortal enemy. Even now he kept giving Emil looks, the kind of looks that said he wanted to be angry, but was actually more afraid, even as he pretended not to be in the interest of keeping the peace…

"Well never mind! Looks like the scout's coming back!" Sigrun's voice echoed cheerfully through the empty caverns, and Emil braced himself in case she had aroused… well, something… and his face grew hot at what he had caught himself almost thinking. As footsteps approached he braced himself, hand on his dagger, but no: it was only Lalli, luminous eyes shining at them out of the dark.

As he approached Tuuri stepped back with a hiss of fear, her eyes wide, while Mikkel glared with barely-concealed hostility. Beside him, Reynir had a look of revulsion spreading over his face. Of the others, Sigrun alone seemed unaffected, but then again Sigrun was crazy.

Lalli ignored them all, opting instead to perch himself atop a nearby rock—just out of axe-swinging range, Emil noted. "We have to take the right tunnel," he said in that soft voice that always seemed to come out in a half-whisper. "Left one's flooded. There are cave-trolls nesting in that area, though, so we'll have to be quiet."

"And how can we trust," Mikkel began through gritted teeth, "that you're not simply leading us into a trap?"

Sigrun rolled her eyes and flopped—loudly—down onto the ground. This was yet another discussion they'd already been through, and far more than several dozen times—it must have been hundreds that Mikkel had accused Lalli of deliberately leading them astray, a futile effort when the thick-headed Dwarf stubbornly refused to any evidence to the contrary. …though Lalli did not exactly help his case by responding with a shrug.

Emil decided to intervene. "If Lalli had brought us down here with the intention of killing us, he would have done it by now. He has had every chance to murder us in our sleep, and he has not. If this is part of a trap he is leading us into, it must be quite an elaborate one."

"Orcs are bloodthirsty and vicious," Mikkel responded, with a tone that was surprisingly level for one who was glaring so viciously. "But they are certainly not stupid."

"Okay, okay!" Sigrun pushed herself to her feet right as Emil was opening his mouth to retort and moved to stand between them. "You think the guide is about to lead us into a trap. We get it. So which would you rather do: turn back, or get rid of him and try to find the way ourselves?"

Emil gritted his teeth. Though she hadn't spelled it out, they all knew what she really meant when she mentioned the possibility of "getting rid of" Lalli.

After a few tense seconds, Mikkel turned aside with a muttered oath, and Emil released the breath he had not been aware he was holding.

It wasn't the first time he'd had to ask himself which side he'd choose if the uneasy alliance reached its breaking point.

This was his last chance to reclaim his people's legacy—and worse, not even his own people seemed to care.

To top it all off, of all the indignities, he'd been saddled with a bored shieldmaiden looking to make a name for herself, a bored Hobbit who'd wanted to explore the world and so naturally had chosen one of the most dangerous parts in it, two bored Elves who'd somehow managed to miss the journey to the Undying Lands, and—of all things!—an Orc for a guide.

What was the world coming to?

He would have set off by himself. As a matter of fact, he was quite ready to do so. The only problem he seemed to have was people inviting themselves along.

She was old, for a shieldmaiden. Even in Rohan, most women her age would have long since married and hung up their swords for good. Sigrun, though, loved combat and freedom far more than she had ever loved any man.

"Wait, you're going to Moria?" He'd expected her to repeat what everyone else had been saying—that he was out of his mind, and it was better to cut his losses before he followed the rest of his kin. Instead, what had come out of her mouth next was: "Mind if I join you?"

"No!" he yelled, slamming his mug back onto the table.

"Great! When do you leave?"

With Tuuri, it had been a similar story.

"Moria!?" she squealed. "You-mean-that-mine-that-the-Fellowship-passed-through-on-their-way-to-Lothlorian? That Moria?"

The one Hobbit he'd ever run into outside the Shire would just happen to be a relative of the Baggins family obsessed with tracing her distant cousin's footsteps.

The other two… well, none of the possibilities he'd considered had ever explained why Elves would ever want to have anything to do with a mine. Reynir was nothing more than some dimwitted youngling who'd fallen into their laps on the way, and whom they could never quite seem to get rid of no matter how hard both Mikkel and Sigrun tried, and as for Emil…

Well. Emil. Now there was a problem.

Emil, whom they'd encountered close to the abandoned and crumbling ruins of Rivendell, had listened to their quest without comment before saying only, "I might know a guide." Though he'd shown no interest in either the objective or the journey, he'd still insisted on accompanying them anyway. Of course, now Mikkel knew why.

After the number of lives they'd paid to keep Middle Earth safe from the likes of them, here one was among them, talking to Emil like a friend and acting as their guide. You could never trust an Elf, he thought as he drifted off to sleep with his axe in hand.

Reynir did not sleep.

The constant damp irritated his throat, the rocks hard against his back so he could not find a comfortable position. Plus he was nervous being down here among so many dangers, he missed the sun and moon and stars, and he was expected to sleep with an Orc running around in the dark…

Most of all, however, he couldn't sleep because of what he'd learned about himself.

For all of his life, his mother had told him that it was the dawn of a new age, and that this was the age of Men. The Firstborn had left the world, save for a very few who in time would all linger and fade. To him, Elves had never been anything more than a fairy tale for him to be entertained with at bedtime—until suddenly they weren't.

The small details were ones he'd noticed gradually. There were few mirrors in his household, but over time he'd gathered, with every glance into a polished tin plate or the still surface of a lake, that he looked like neither his siblings or his mother. His senses were keener, his step lighter, his appreciation of beauty deeper, his spirit more attuned to the natural world. Then, one day he'd finally noticed that Bjarni spoke of their mother's long-dead husband not as "our father," but as "my father," and had worked up the courage to ask. Bjarni had been surprised; he'd seemed to think that Reynir had known all along.

In a way, he supposed he had. That he had a different father from the rest of his siblings only made sense. What troubled him far more was that he'd never known who or even how; his brothers and sisters had stories and memories, whereas Reynir had only the reflection of his own face.

"Oh goodness, it was barely more than a year after Father died," Guðrún said when he asked her. "We needed money badly, so Mother had been going into town a lot to sell the wool. We… didn't ask too many questions."

The only other person who knew anything was his mother, and after she'd kept it from him for so long Reynir didn't want to ask her—the only thing worse than not knowing after being kept in the dark since his birth would be a refusal or a lie. The only thing that left him with was his own name—so he'd gone out into the world to see where it would lead him.

It wasn't until his journey had taken him to the ruins of a valley that had once belonged to the Firstborn, where he had met Emil, that anyone else had recognized him for what he truly was.

He'd wanted to stick with Emil—because it was his first (and most likely only) chance of meeting anyone else of his own kind (well, half of his kind), because it was a connection, however tentative, to his father, because Emil managed to tell him one thing that he'd never been aware of before, that he could choose, never mind that he didn't have the first idea how to choose… All in all, he'd been so excited that he'd never bothered to ask why Emil had lingered. When he'd found out, though…

Then, Emil had given him another piece of information he'd never known before.

"What do you mean, they used to be like us?" Reynir could not keep the horror from showing on his face.

"Orcs were Elves once," Emil continued dully as he laced up his boot, ignoring Reynir's horrified stare. "Elves who were kidnapped and tortured deep underground, in the realms of shadow, until they forgot everything they'd once been…"

In every one of the stories he'd heard, the Elves had treated the Orcs with nothing but merciless revulsion, and now, Reynir knew why. Still… Emil was an Elf, and Emil seemed to consider Lalli his friend.

Once, Reynir had tried to approach him as well. The only reaction he'd gotten had been one of violent disdain, and he wondered whether it was because Lalli had been able to sense his pity and disgust.

Now, Reynir could not help but wonder what he would become, if he were stuck down here long enough.

She was a shieldmaiden of Rohan. No one could force her to do anything she didn't want to do—but that still didn't mean that no one talked.

Shieldmaidens were usually… well, maidens, trained in combat so that they could protect themselves… but only until they found a man who could protect them instead. There were many people back in Rohan who wondered why Sigrun hadn't yet settled down, especially now that there were so few battles left to fight.

Even the men, she knew, were fighting less, training less, turning their skills from harrying the thinning population of Orcs to herding and sport. Such pastimes required the sacrifice of none of their hard-won skills or of their beloved horses, but still… it wasn't the same.

Sigrun had been born right before the war had reached its peak. She'd been trained mercilessly to defend herself against an enemy that would show her less mercy still. And then…

And then, nothing. When Rohan rode to Gondor's aid, Sigrun had still been too young to join the battle. By the time she had been old enough, even most of the clean-up had already been completed. They'd let her come on a few orc hunts, and she'd gotten a few good fights out of it, but mostly it had been standing around in the rain, or killing an opponent that was pathetically weaker than oneself. She could get no enjoyment out of such a one-sided match.

So here she was, a soldier trained for a war that was long since over, her only skills rendered all but useless, with no interest in the only other option that was open to her. So she'd wandered, saddling up her best horse and letting the road take her wherever it would.

It was not hard to live on the road, if you knew what to do with a bow and sword. When hunting didn't work for her, she could put money in her pocket by hiring on as a guard, or even taking care of the occasional group of troublesome bandits. Sometimes, it was enough to quiet the restlessness in her bones. Never was it enough to bring her true peace.

Eventually, the road had led her to a place that even she could tell belonged to the Old World. It had been abandoned, but not very long ago; the architecture still held firm, and she wandered its halls freely, sword at her side even though she knew she would not need it here, letting her footfalls echo in the remains of a recent but untouchable past.

"I suppose you have to give the Elves some credit," a deep, disgruntled voice said beside her. Startled, Sigrun turned—she'd been so lost in thought she hadn't heard the other person's approach, and she'd been alone so long that she'd almost forgotten the sound of a voice other than her own.

Standing beside her was a Dwarf—a very grumpy and disgruntled look Dwarf, but a fairly young one she'd guess, with wavy golden hair on his head and face. Sigrun grinned.

"This is Rivendell, right?" The Dwarf only grunted. "So what brings you here?"

"I could ask you the same."

"Eh. Bored. Just wandering around, really."

As it turned out, she was in luck: Mikkel had come here on a quest, to find the one last key he needed to get into Moria. Sigrun had never been there, of course, but she'd heard tales of the famous mine. Of course she'd be coming along!

When she was holding off the Watcher in the Water after the others' efforts to clear away the cave-in had woken it, her sword was no longer a weapon but an extension of her own arm, the blood singing in her veins in a way it never had on any ordinary hunt. After, badly bruised, soaked to the bone, and coughing up so much water it was a wonder she hadn't drowned, she'd nevertheless felt alive in a way she hadn't known was possible, and she knew right then and there that she was meant to fight. No other purpose in her life would serve.

The first time they'd met, the Fourth Age was only just beginning.

Emil had dragged himself shamefully away from the aftermath of a battle he hadn't wanted to fight, in which he'd thoroughly disgraced himself as a coward. The rest of his kin had already done their part to ensure the future of this world, and so could leave it in peace; he had failed that duty, and so he must linger.

Emil had never liked killing. Call him a coward, but putting even an Orc or a Warg out of its misery only made him cringe every time he heard that final cry. Knowing what the Orcs had once been… well, that knowledge only made it worse.

So, when in his wanderings he'd come upon a single wounded Orc sheltering just out of sight of the fading trees of Lothlórien, he simply couldn't make himself do it. He'd honestly intended to—he had his sword in hand as soon as he'd managed to discern what it was. He would only be putting it out of its misery, he told himself. Even if he showed it mercy, its only thanks would be a knife in his own back the second his guard was down.

His hand shook uncontrollably.

Then, the Orc raised its head to look up at him with gleaming silver eyes, and Emil froze completely. His own kin had always taught him that Orcs had nothing left in them but hatred and bloodlust, but the look this one was giving him was not of hatred, or even fear of its impending demise. It took Emil a few seconds to recognize it as resignation.

"Do you want me to?" he whispered—not the rightful slaying of a hated enemy, but an offer of release. The Orc blinked at him a few times, the expression on its face shifting slowly to one of surprise, but then shook its head, once. Emil respected its wish.

The days that followed were tricky, if not downright dangerous. The journey to the Undying Lands was beginning, and many others passed this place on their way to the coast. The very first thing Emil did was to carefully conceal the Orc's hidey-hole with carefully placed brush, though he knew it would never stand up to the eyes of a trained hunter.

The first time he'd approached with food and medicine, he'd been warned away with a hiss and a brandished dagger, and had been forced to leave the food just within reach of the entrance and take the medicine home. When he returned, it was to find that a small portion of the food had been chewed and then spat out, and that the rest of it was untouched.

He tried different things. The meat became rarer, the bread harder. He traded with the nearest settlement of Men. Eventually, the Orc started to take what he gave it, albeit with a look of constant disgust on its face.

When it finally let him get close enough to treat the wound, a gaping hole in its ribcage that had grown infected from lack of care, it had struggled and writhed as if being burned, and Emil had come away from the encounter with a multitude of scratches all over his face and arms. When asked, he'd told as much of the truth as was safe, that he'd had a close encounter with an Orc. The others had only shaken their heads and assumed that it was only thanks to his own cowardice that he'd come off the worse.

Then, there came the day when he came back, and there was not a trace of it to be found.

Soon after, he heard reports that some of the scouts had found evidence of an Orc holed up close to the forest, and there were plans to hunt it down before it killed someone or even made off with a child. Emil squirmed with guilt at the thought of the number of innocents his act of mercy had endangered… but no deaths materialized, and the hunting parties that were sent out after it all came back empty-handed. He was able to breathe a quiet sigh of relief.

Then, before the last ship sailed, they met again.

Emil had been all by himself, wandering. Though he knew that it was no longer his world and that he could not stay, he somehow did not feel as if he would belong if he were to go, either. So he kept the only company that did not make him feel like an outsider, his own, and wandered alone among the dying glory of his people and a fading world that was losing its wonder.

When he first spotted the movement among the trees in the evening's dying light, he thought he was about to be subjected to an ambush. Instead, the face that peeked around a nearby trunk was one that he recognized.

"You… you're okay." Somehow, it was the only thing he could think to say.

"You did not kill me." The other spoke only after a long, long pause, and Emil was surprised to hear how soft his voice was—he had somehow expected all Orc voices to be ugly and hoarse. "Why?"

"You… you were hurt." Now that he actually had to explain it, it was difficult to justify how stupid his decision had been. "It would have been dishonorable to kill someone who can't fight back."

More silence. "Any one of your people would have done it," he said at last.

This blunt truth made him squirm uncomfortably. He knew how they'd have justified it, too: they were putting the twisted, unnatural thing out of its misery It would have done the same to them. Though it had always been evident that an Orc would not see things quite the same way, it had never before occurred to him that an Orc's opinion regarding its own life or death would be worth considering.

"If you hadn't been hurt," he asked at last, "would you have killed me?"

"Probably. Would have thought that I had to. Kill or be killed, when it comes to most Elves."

"That's usually what we think, when it comes to Orcs."

Somehow, they achieved an understanding. It had never before occurred to him that Orcs would have names. Lalli (no longer it, but he) seemed equally surprised by the revelation with regard to Elves.

They did not spend much time together. Lalli could not bear the light of the sun, whereas Emil could not bear to be too long without it. So Lalli wandered the ruins of the once-great mines, while Emil became a ghost among the emptying halls of the Elves, drifting from Lothlórien to Rivendell and slowly back again.

He missed the final ship.

She'd cut her teeth on stories of Bilbo Baggins and his grand adventure—then, when she was a little older, on stories of Frodo Baggins and his grander adventure, the one where he'd saved Middle Earth from falling into an age of darkness.

As a child, Tuuri would play at being Bilbo and Frodo, would swipe a knife from the kitchen and run off into the fields, where she'd pretend it was Sting and the trees were goblin armies, and she'd swing it this way and that until some older Hobbit happened on her, took the knife away with a stern admonition that she'd cut herself, and took her back to her parents or grandmother or older brother to tell them to that she'd been at it again and to stop filling her head with tales.

"We have a good life here," they would all tell her sternly. "If you have nothing better to do than play at adventures, then make yourself useful." At which point she would be made to pull weeds or wash dishes; to her, the soapy plates and silverware became a mountain of treasure she was digging through in search of the Arkenstone, the garden the dark forest of Mirkwood where every unknown sprout and crawling spider presented a deadly peril.

Even by the time she should have grown well out of her childish fancies, she continued to revel in the tales of her idols, reading their autobiographies cover to cover until they began falling apart, duplicating the maps of their travels in loving detail down to the last mountain and rune. Tuuri was aware that the rest of the Shire was beginning to think her… a bit strange, to say the least. Somehow, she couldn't bring herself to care.

"Why would you want to go out there?" her brother, who was older than her and couldn't be bothered to care about anything but his boring and respectable job, asked whenever she shared any of her fantasies. "There's nothing out there worth seeing or experiencing but danger and going hungry. You should know that, if you've actually read those books."

"There's everything out there worth seeing and experiencing, Onni! There's treasure and monsters and great buildings and so many other races of people! Haven't you ever wanted to see anything outside of the Shire?"

Apparently, he hadn't. Since the more adventurous Hobbits had either left the Shire or died or settled down and decided they'd had enough of adventure, apparently she was the only one.

Eventually, she realized that if she didn't make the decision on her own, nobody else would come by to invite her. The only person who could initiate her adventure was her.

So she packed up her things. She tucked away the maps she had spent so much time meticulously copying. She changed into her hardest-wearing dress, and took up the walking stick her brother had carved for her.

She didn't expect to save the world. She didn't even expect her journey to be worthy of a story. Somehow, though, if she could trace the path of the others' stories and feel their reality for herself, that ought to be enough.

By the time they neared the place they were seeking, nobody had died, whether by outside attack, accident, or murder. That was the only positive thing to be said for their quest.

Sigrun, after the exhilaration of that first fight, had had no battle, only continuous boredom. Tuuri, Emil, and Reynir badly missed the sunlight, and all but Emil were severely beginning to regret their participation. The only reason Lalli had not yet received an axe through his head was that he had been careful to stay well away when he was not giving a report. Whatever it was Mikkel was searching for, he had not found it, and had grown increasingly grumpy and snappish as their journey went on.

"Did you say there were cave-trolls down that passage?" Rather than cautious, though, Sigrun's voice sounded suspiciously hopeful.

"Yes, but the cave-trolls here have all been sickly. Even if we do encounter them, they won't give us much trouble."

"Quiet, all of you," Mikkel growled. He glared at Lalli. "We needn't keep the guide around if he's not doing his job."

Lalli took that as his cue to put some distance between himself and the others. Emil glared.

"You could at least try to give him a chance."

"Far too many of my kin were lost to Orcs for me to make friends with one of them."

"You're right. You don't need him." Emil stepped in close. "I'll find him, and tell him his help is no longer wanted, and you can find the way out of here on your own. This is your mine, after all."

Tuuri, meanwhile, was slumped against a rock, eyes closed.

"Are you okay?" Reynir asked, coming up to crouch beside her.

"I miss the Shire," she muttered, and let out a sigh. "I wonder what my family's doing now."

"Yeah." He drew his knees up to his chest. "Me too."

When Lalli returned from his scouting run, he looked a little worried.

"What's wrong?" Emil asked immediately. The others all perked up as well, weapons springing to hands and lingering sleep gone from every eye.

"There's something interesting that way," Lalli continued, reluctantly. "But there's also something dangerous. Something we can't face."

"Great!" Sigrun was already on her feet, sword in hand; she gave it a few practice swings to warm up her muscles before sheathing it once more. "Let's go!"

"If you're leading us into a trap…"

"Many dangerous things in here." Lalli shrugged. "Not every one of them is my doing."

"So what did you find?" Emil asked, before they could go at each other's throats again.

He shrugged again, and turned, but not before Emil got a glimpse of his face. There it was again: resignation. That same look he'd had when he'd thought Emil ready to slay him in cold blood.

Cold dread flooded Emil's gut, and he opened his mouth to call Lalli back, but the others were already pushing past to follow him, and Emil had no choice but to come after.

Coward, they'd called him. Then again, if someone needed to flee the battlefield with the tiny Hobbit and naive half-Elf in tow, there was no one better than a coward to do it.

Finally, Lalli stopped. They all crowded around him—all, that is, except for Mikkel, who stepped unhesitatingly into the cavern at whose entrance even the Orc had stopped. Nobody saw exactly what had caught the Dwarf's eye, nor what he had slipped into his pocket from inside of one of the room's many alcoves.

A collective shiver went among them all. Even Mikkel seemed to feel it as he came back to the group, the triumph fading as his quest was completed. They stopped, no talking, no restless shifting of weight, and looked, really looked, at the environment into which they'd willingly stepped.

After one had been in the dark for long enough, one's eyes tended to start playing tricks, casting images and dancing shadows to make up for the lack of light. This, though, was no hallucination. Whatever they were seeing, it was real.

Reynir was the first to let out a gasp. Tuuri followed, though it was unclear whether it was due to something she'd noticed, or a simple response to the others. Emil was far too shocked even to make that much noise. He was frozen where he stood.

There, in the air all around them, hung wisps of shadow and flame. Lalli seemed to have the keenest eyes for them; he hissed, his overluminous eyes darting here and there, but still he drew no weapon. Sigrun did have her sword drawn, and Mikkel his axe, but even they seemed to know that such weapons would do them no good here.

They waited. The shadows did not dissipate, but they came to no harm. Slowly, the fear eased, but in its place there followed an overwhelming sorrow none of them could name.

A soldier without a battlefield… a despised hunter who had become the hunted… a lone lingerer with no people… another wasting his years chasing material ghosts because he'd long ago lost everything else that mattered…

Emil was thinking of bright sunlight, water trickling through fountains, and the sound of many voices raised in song. Tuuri remembered the green of the fields, a light breeze on a summer's day, the smell of dirt and stewing vegetables. Mikkel smelled the smoke of a forge and felt the weight of a hammer heavy in his hands. Sigrun thought of the open plains, the powerful flanks of a horse moving under her, the wind in her hair. Lalli wished to run freely through the darkest night, the fresh cool air lending him the speed of the wind. Reynir thought of home, his siblings' smiles and his mother's warm embrace, but hidden behind them all that other world that he would never know.

The new age had come. There was no longer any place in the world for people such as them.

Reynir and Tuuri went home. They at least had a place that would welcome them back. Tuuri settled down in her Hobbit-hole. Reynir made the choice that was no choice at all, and gave his loyalty wholly to the race to which the world now belonged.

The others no longer had any place that they could call home. They had nowhere to go but to wander the ruins of their former glory, and they would all, eventually, fade.

Chapter Text

The only warning they got was the blow of the horn.

The earth shook to pieces under her feet and she sprang up from the bench alongside the other warriors, half-eaten meals left forgotten on the table. Then, they were rushing out, weapons in hand, fighting to keep their feet as the ground bucked and heaved beneath them.

Sigrun had known, for all of her life and death, that this was coming. Still, there was a difference between knowing of the end and actually living through it, and nothing she had seen or heard since her death had prepared her for the sight of the rainbow shredding itself into pieces and crumbling right out of the sky.

This was no mere plague or training drill. This was Ragnarök.

The skies were dark as they donned their battle gear, the wind colder even than the Dalsnes winter that seemed to blow right through them. How long had it been like this without her noticing?

Odin rode at their head, his armor gleaming, his gaze set on the horizon without a trace of fear in spite of what they all knew what was coming. Sigrun gripped her sword.

Guess this is it, she thought as the earth continued to shake under her feet. For real, this time. Before, she'd always been fighting with the knowledge that she might die but with the hope of a place in Valhalla. Now… she'd reached Valhalla, and knew she was about to die (again), but with no knowledge of what was to come after. Maybe there would be an eternity of pain. Maybe there would be nothing at all.

The wolf was on the horizon, jaws sweeping the distance from earth to sky. Every world she'd ever known was about to be destroyed in a maelstrom of fire and ice. The gods to whom she'd pledged her loyalty were about to fall, and knew it.

Sigrun raised her sword.

Their collective cry rose to the sky as they rushed forward.

They could barely keep their feet as they ran to engage. The sun was all but gone, its bright face consumed in black; a cold wind blew past them. Somehow, the air seemed thinner; every breath was a struggle, seeming to strangle her even as the much-needed air rushed into her lungs.

Odin met the great wolf head-on, and their clash shook the very air so violently that the nearest einherjar were knocked clean off their feet. Water lashed their faces as she rushed the great wolf, far larger even than the giant that had taken her life.

Her sword struck home in one of Fenrir's toes—the only part of it a puny human like Sigrun was able to reach. Though there was no sign that her blow had had any effect, she continued to hack away because this wasn't just her village, this was the world, and her destiny was preordained to fight while it fell…

Nothing. This was getting her nowhere; the gigantic toe didn't even flinch. Even the mightiest hacks of her sword were barely enough to draw blood, but even though her blade was soon reddened from tip to hilt, still the wolf showed no sign of noticing her presence.

As the paw shifted, and she had to run for all she was worth just to deliver a single blow and then run again, Sigrun took the only other option that she could think of. The next time the great foot came down, she drove her sword hilt-deep into the flesh with one hand, grasped its fur with the other, and began to climb.

The warriors swarmed up the wolf's flanks, grasping onto the swords they'd driven into its flesh and hairs as thick as Sigrun's forearms. The sting of their blades did little more than scratch it, a blow that would have inflicted a mortal wound on any other opponent now little more than a nuisance… but they were a lot of nuisances. If they worked together, they might be able to make a difference.

Taking her stance atop its back, Sigrun drove her sword deep into the wolf's flesh with all of the strength that she could muster. Then, the massive body moved beneath her, and she lost her foothold, fell, grasping at rough fur with one hand and her sword with the other. She managed to bring herself to a screeching halt against its leg before she hit the ground. The bodies of other warriors were knocked free as she collided with them and fell back to the ground. Those who could get up, did. As for the others…

One man was little more than a bloody splatter on the rocks below. Another soldier, a woman, was less fortunate; she still lay gasping on the ground, half of her ribcage crushed. As Sigrun watched, a massive spear came hurtling in her direction, and ended her misery.

Sigrun had lost comrades in arms before. Never until now, though, had the loss been forever.

Something slammed into her with the force of a giant-hurled brick wall, and Sigrun was thrown to the ground, body tumbling end over end through the half-frozen mud. Slowly, she pushed up with her arms, failed, and collapsed, head spinning. She was dazed; one stupid fall shouldn't do this to her!

She managed to focus her swimming vision just in time to see the wolf swallow its primary opponent.

The whole thing could not have lasted more than a minute. As Sigrun watched that last boot disappear down Fenrir's throat, though, she knew that that was the memory that would stay with her. The boot seemed to hover there, taunting anyone who dared to reach in and grab it, but suddenly everyone on the battlefield was moving like honey in winter, and then Odin was gone.

Sigrun had spoken with the All-Father exactly once, when she'd knelt before his throne to swear her fealty. She remembered the gleam in his single eye, and his deep voice when he'd told her to rise.

"All who fought bravely in life, and who died fighting bravely, are welcome here. When Ragnarök comes, we will have need of every strong warrior we can get, for it will be the end of everything."

She'd known, from the legends she'd heard in her life and from the words of the gods themselves, what his fate would be. Still, sitting on that throne and towering over her, the picture of calmness and wisdom, he'd seemed invincible and eternal like the god that he was.

Who were these gods, then, for whom she fought and for whom she would die? What was she to them?

The air, she finally realized as she dragged herself to her feet, was poisoned. It was Jormagundr, the serpent, spewing its venom into the sky. Every breath was a struggle. Her lungs burned.

There was one last blow of a hammer that shook the earth underneath her. Turning her head toward its source, Sigrun saw the Serpent fall, saw one last poisonous cloud spewed into the air. Thor rose from the ruins of his own battle, gasping for breath. He took one step, two, five, nine… and fell.

Gritting her teeth, Sigrun forced her feet underneath her, forced her legs to bear her weight as she pushed herself upright. She was off-balance and swaying. Her sword hand shook uncontrollably.

She was not going to fall here without having earned it.

When she called, those einherjar who had not yet fallen rallied around her upraised sword. The battlefield was littered with the bodies of fallen gods and fallen giants alike, and here were tens of thousands of fallen humans scattered in among them, their blood soaking the ground amid this clash of the divine.

Sigrun didn't know whether, in this deadly clash between gods and giants, a mere human would still be able to make her mark… but she was no coward, and she had a job to do. It would shame the life she'd led to not at least try to do it well.

The humans might have been tiny, and insignificant to a wolf whose jaws spanned horizons or a serpent whose length spanned the seas of the world, but they were still a part of this battle and they were still going to uphold their courage. Sigrun looked around at her troops, such as they were. All were bloody and smeared with dirt. Most of them could barely breathe.

"Are you with me?" she shouted. Not "them"—the gods had fallen. Now, it was time for humanity to fight for itself. The answer she received was a deafening roar.

The first time she'd died, it had been in a battle with a giant. Sigrun had a reputation to uphold.

The silence was deafening.

Sigrun had once thought she knew what silence sounded like—the exhausted collapse after a bad battle, the kind where you'd lost people, and the survivors had nothing to do but sit in solidarity until they could find sleep. Then, though, there'd always been the crackling of the fire, the whistling of the wind, and even the occasional hastily-stifled sob.

Now… there was nothing, and it pressed down on her ears so intensely she could feel a pressure that was almost physical. No wind. No birdsong. No lapping of waves from a living sea, just the endless stillness of the freezing water that had already encased her legs and was slowly rising to engulf her chest, one millimeter at a time. The only reason she hadn't drowned yet was because she'd been flung against one of the mounds of rock that the battling giants had ripped from the ground in their fury. Even when the time did come, there'd be nothing she could do about it: she'd felt the hard collision of rock against her back, she couldn't feel or move anything from the waist down, and she had a pretty good idea of why.

Sigrun had kept her vow. She'd fought to the last. Now, though, the last was here, and she was alone and dying in a world that was already dead, with nothing but strife behind her and nothing but uncertainty ahead.

In the pressing silence, the rustling of cloth was audible even through her own ragged breathing. Sigrun opened her eyes to anemic sunlight, an endless expanse of water, and, before her, the face of a familiar mage, walking on water.

"I was hoping I'd be the one to find you." Reynir knelt before her, no longer the helpless pet they'd picked out of a crate of tuna but a full-fledged mage, with a carved shepherd's staff in his hand and staves braided into his hair. "You've suffered enough in this world. Are you ready to move on?"

"No idea," she admitted, hoarsely, honestly. "You think that the next one's going to be any better?" Or that someone like me will be able to live in it, her unspoken sentence hung in the air.

"To be honest? I don't know either." He held out a hand. "But you're going to be taking a chance either way. Might as well go for the chance where you're not dying injured and alone."

Well, when he put it that way… Sigrun raised her hand. The second their fingers touched, her body and memories were gone: there was only the essence of her self, cradled gently and carefully in the weathered hands of an Icelandic mage.

"You were made perfectly for this world," he sighed as he stood. "Let's hope you're as lucky the next time around."

At long last, the water began to recede.

Chapter Text

It was cold, and dark. The wind seemed to blow right through him with the force of a knife.

Lalli shivered. He might have been small and skinny, but his ancestors were made for cold; a mere autumn chill should not be a bother. It was more than just the wind.

He'd returned to their small apartment, looking forward to having a chance to relax after having finally reached the end of the worst season of the year. He'd spent the whole day fantasizing about a hot bath and a nice long sleep, and previous experience said that Emil would have gone out of his way to do something nice—a sweet from the bakery, perhaps, or a hot drink that they would share together before retiring early to catch up on some much-needed sleep.

Instead, he'd come back to a cold wind blowing through the dark and silent apartment. Glass crunched under his shoes as Lalli stepped up to the broken window—broken from the outside. There were signs of a struggle. A chair was overturned. A book and a glass of water alike had been knocked off of the table, and now the book was lying in a puddle, its soggy pages splayed across the damp floorboards.

To anyone looking at the building from the outside, the broken window would look like a Halloween prank, a group of teenagers taking their fun a bit too far when the residents were not at home. To the police, once they got a look at the inside, it would look like an ordinary kidnapping: malicious and to be treated with care, but with nothing otherwise strange or other about it. To Lalli, though, who'd felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end from the second he'd turned the key, it was an omen. Whatever had happened, it was not of this world alone.

He closed the door quietly behind him before racing off into the night.

The traces were thin and wispy, but Lalli had seemed somehow attuned to them, and he'd run, without hesitation, along the path of that faintly glowing trail. It wove through the dark streets and back alleys of the city; obviously the kidnappers did not want to be found. The meandering path they'd taken had led him through a series of dark alleys, the basement of an abandoned building (where some ominously fresh stains were visible on the walls and floor), a long-disused set of railroad tracks with weeds poking through, and finally to the gate that stood before Lalli now.

The Old Cemetery. The one where no one had been buried for ninety years now, since before his grandmother was born.

When they'd been children, Onni had always admonished them never to come here. Even on visitations, when their foster families brought them to see each other and later whenever he'd made his weekly phone call, his first and last words had always been "Have you gone anywhere near the graveyard?"

Then, Lalli's answers had always been "No" and "Okay." His foster family would never have let him near there anyway; they hadn't wanted him going anywhere without supervision, and even then he was supposed to talk or not talk on demand, and keep still, and "Lalli, we don't do that in public, look at me when I'm talking to you, are you even paying attention to what I'm saying?"

This was the first time that Lalli had seen the place up close; the only other times he'd laid eyes on it had been from a distance, from the window of a moving car. What he did know, though, was that the lock on the gate was probably not supposed to be broken, and that the seal some mage had tied around the gate to keep spirits in was definitely not supposed to be broken.

Whatever this was, it was very, very bad.

Call for backup, a voice like Onni's urged inside of his head. There's no time, another, more urgent voice whispered, and it was right: there was no time.

Lalli slipped through the gate.

Immediately, the air temperature seemed to drop. Worse, he was beginning to see ghosts: the shades of humans over ninety years buried, now crawling up from the dirt that covered their bodies to drift inward, away from the gate.

Why had they not yet gone to rest?

Hastily, Lalli whispered a spell to shield himself from the eyes of hostile spirits—not to mention hostile humans. It was tenuous, and would work only so long as he refrained from physical contact and nothing was actively seeking him out, but it was all that he had.

Still humming softly to himself to keep the spell going, he slipped in among the ghosts and went the same way that they were going, toward the heart of the old graveyard. Even with the spell he was careful to keep out of sight, concealing himself behind the trunks of trees and in the shadows of mausoleums. If this was as sinister as he thought it was, he didn't want to take any chances.

The ghosts were getting thicker the farther he pressed on—not to mention older. Many of them were so old they were forgetting the forms that they had once held, instead reshaping themselves into twisted things that vaguely resembled a mockery of horses or bats or other creatures that did not exist in this world. They were also getting more energetic, swirling around in waves of cold wind.

Lalli heard the signs before he saw them: from the heart of the graveyard, someone else's chanting reached his ears—and from the way the voices overlapped and wove with each other, there were many someones involved. No sooner had he heard the voices than he noticed the flickering lights, too unsteady to be electric, that nevertheless did not get blown out by the howling ghost-wind.

This was bad. This was very, very bad.

The other voices got into his head as he got close, wove into his mind, threatening to break his rhythm, but Lalli raised his voice slightly and refused to let go of his protection. As he got close, he saw that the participants were carrying torches, and that they were all wearing hooded black cloaks that concealed their faces.

Most of them had their backs turned to him. They were congregating around something, all watching a few in the middle that were performing some sort of ritual…

Then, there was a muffled scream.

Lalli stuffed a fist into his mouth, biting down into the first two knuckles of his hand and determinedly continuing his humming until the pain brought him back to where he was and what sort of situation he was in. Even as he crouched down behind a gravestone, his heart was hammering in his chest. He'd recognized that voice, but he was badly outnumbered and from the looks of it outmagicked as well. He would not help Emil by rushing in recklessly.

Okay, think. He had seen Summonings before, but those had mostly been amateurs, lone teenagers desperate for love or revenge who'd gotten the wrong bottle, the wrong book, and a bad idea at exactly the wrong time. Whoever these people were, they were not a jilted lover or a thrown over best friend. They knew what they were doing, and that made them dangerous.

What were you thinking, not calling for backup, Onni's voice said again in his head, but Lalli ignored it. Going in alone had probably been stupid, but he couldn't change that now. He had to focus on the problem at hand.

Interrupting an amateur Summoning was dangerous enough, but it could usually be contained by a quick-acting mage. If he just jumped into this without thinking, who knew what might happen?

Another scream. He didn't have much time.

Ignoring the increasingly excited ghosts that were swirling around him, Lalli stood, and made a slight alteration to the chant that he had never stopped humming. New perception flooded his senses, his vision shifted, and Lalli's eyes widened at what his magesight was showing him.

This was far worse than he'd thought. Whatever it was they were doing, they'd been preparing for it for a long time. Lines of power spread all throughout the ground, connecting graves and mausoleums, forming an intricate design whose purpose he couldn't even begin to guess. His stomach heaved. Blood had been spilled in order to make those marks, Lalli knew.

"Don't mess with something if you don't know what it does!" Onni's hand swatted his away from a bloody design that had been drawn on the wall of the building they were investigating. "You could more safely defuse a bomb with a pair of pliers than mess with strange magic!"

…if he did nothing, he would never forgive himself.

He pushed his way in among the cultists; nobody noticed him as he slipped into their ranks. When he got to the center of their ritual, he froze, horrified at what he saw.

Emil had been stripped naked, gagged, and tied facedown on a stone bench that sat at the very heart of the cemetery. The bottoms of his feet were red and swollen to almost twice the size they should have been, the backs of his legs sporting a series of raised red weals all up and down their length. Even more horrifying, however, was the state of his back, where one of the cultists who appeared to be the leader was busy carving yet another elaborate design, holding the blade of a ritual dagger to the flame of a nearby torch before bending down to make yet another cut…

He couldn't wait. If he didn't act now, Emil was going to die.

Lalli stopped his chanting, and shot his arm into the air.

Power exploded from his body as a giant, silver-white lynx, the very essence of his soul, burst from under his skin right in the middle of the assembled cult. With a startled yell, most of the cultists scattered and fled. Even as his compatriots were running, though, their leader had zeroed in on Lalli, who, sluggish and weak-kneed from the powerful magic he'd just done, had slumped to the ground and was leaning against the bench. The only warning he got was the widening of Emil's eyes, and then a streak of white-hot pain burned across his back.

The cult leader was enraged; far different from the careful cuts on Emil's back, these were wild slashes made in the height of a towering fury, and Lalli could barely lift his arm to defend himself. Instead, he simply let himself collapse atop Emil, shielding the other from further abuse with the protection of his own body. Emil was shaking beneath him; Lalli only gritted his teeth and made the push to call on his luonto to do one last thing.

There was a flash of white, the sound of a blow, and then a series of curses as a body impacted with the ground. A low growl emanated from above then, and then a set of footsteps beat a hasty retreat.

The lynx stuck around just long enough for the footsteps to disappear from hearing range. Then, there was one last flash, and the light faded.

Lalli already had his own ritual dagger in hand, and was carefully cutting the ropes that bound Emil—in between the knots; even he knew that much about this unfamiliar magic. Emil's wrists had been chafed to bleeding from struggling.

"Lalli," he sobbed as soon as the gag was out of his mouth; tears were running down his face from fear and pain. "I thought… thought I was going to…"

"I know. I got here as soon as I could." Shrugging out of his jacket, Lalli draped it over Emil; the other winced as it made contact with his torn skin, but he had been without clothing for hours, and the night was dangerously cold.

The only question was, what now? It was obvious Emil could not walk, and in spite of his best efforts Lalli's limbs were heavy and his eyes slipping closed. Without his luonto, he could not do more magic or even call for help. None of their allies knew where they were, and as long as they stayed here the only people who did know where they were could come back and finish what they'd started at any time.

You having second thoughts about that backup yet? Onni's voice relentlessly demanded in his head.

Shut. Up, Lalli thought back. You're not helping.

"I failed," he said out loud. "I can't get you out of here."

Emil was not angry with him, and that somehow made it worse. He only shivered, and nodded. "Don't leave me."

"I won't." To illustrate his promise, Lalli climbed up to lie right next to him on the altar, and wrapped his arms around him, and pressed Emil's frozen hands and feet into his own armpits or stomach. He didn't ask himself why he was worried about Emil losing fingers when it was all too likely that neither of them would survive the night.

The ghosts were still thick in the air. Now, though, with their purpose gone, they were drifting aimlessly, once in a while coming close to the pair to peer at them almost curiously. Lalli hissed a warning whenever one of them got too close, but it was an empty threat: he no longer had the strength to drive them off.

Lalli didn't know whether it was the flashing lights that roused him, or the light of dawn slowly creeping over the horizon. For hours he had been drifting in and out of consciousness, pressing in close to Emil, occasionally waking enough to panic at the other's stillness and shake him until he let out a groan or a gasp of pain. Once, he'd cracked his eyes open and thought he'd seen an owl perched in a nearby tree, and though he knew this was important his thoughts had been too fuzzy for him to remember why.

Now, Onni was in his face, grasping his wrists and crying as he begged Lalli to speak to him, and Emil was gone. As soon as he realized this he panicked, and tried to sit up, only to realize that there were other people there who also had a hold on him and were trying to load him into an ambulance, and that he was still too weak to fight them.

"Emil?" he asked instead, desperately, as they strapped him down. His voice came out in a barely audible whisper.

"They already took him to the emergency room," Onni informed him. "He was in bad shape the last time I saw him, but still alive."

"What did they want with me, Lalli?" Emil asked the next time they let Lalli see him, after they'd stitched his back, kept him hydrated until his luonto returned, and the nurse on duty had asked him a lot of weird questions about what he'd really been doing and that if they were manufacturing drugs, it would really go better for everyone if he'd just own up to it now. Then he'd had to answer more questions from the crazy police officer and her partner, who informed him that they were trying to hunt down those responsible but had so far had no luck.

"I don't know," he answered honestly. "That's not my kind of magic."

"They were trying to summon something," Onni interjected; he hadn't let Lalli out of his sight ever since they'd been rescued. "No one has yet figured out what or why. Whatever it was, though, it was something powerful—and dangerous. No one goes to those sorts of lengths to contain a minor spirit."

Emil nodded, and shuddered. One way or another, he was going to carry the scars of that night for the rest of his life.

"Try to get some rest," Onni advised him as he pushed Lalli from the room. "Whatever it was, it's over now."

They looked at each other as they left the room. It wasn't over.

Chapter Text

Part I: Override

They were woken by the blasting of the raid sirens.

Emil banged his head on the bottom of the bunk above him in the process of leaping out of bed and fell back, cursing. Already his head was pounding, from the blow and the cacophony of the sirens alike.

"Västerström!" an all-too-cheerful voice shouted over the loudspeaker while he was still rubbing his head and cursing under his breath. "This is an attack, not a drill! Now get your ass down to the hangar!"

"Morning, Emil!" his tarma called when he finally made it, waving cheerfully down at him from atop her mech. Turui was still wearing a sweater over her undersuit; though necessary for interface, she thought that the skintight, black-and-white one piece was unflattering to her figure. "You ready to kick some Beholder butt?"

"Yeah. Ready. Whatever," Emil grumbled as he stepped aboard the lift. He'd been ready for a nice hot cup of coffee and a shower.

"All right, people!" Sigrun's face appeared on his viewscreen before he'd even finished strapping himself into the cockpit, the livid burn scars over half of her face only serving to make her grin look even more manic. "This is what we've been drilling for all this time, so you know what to do. Now go get 'em!"

"We have two attack forces congregating on our port side," Mikkel's voice interjected, his much calmer face appearing on an adjacent viewscreen. "Your primary objective is to keep them away from both the ship and the station. Good luck."

Lights flashed on every screen in the cockpit as their mechs powered up. Then, they synchronized.

To someone who'd never experienced it personally, it was almost impossible to describe what a tarma bond felt like. It wasn't as if their minds merged and they became a single entity, as many outside of the practice liked to claim; they certainly didn't. Even while synchronized, Emil was Emil and Tuuri was Tuuri. It wasn't an emotional or a soulmates or a True Love thing either, as all too many romance writers liked to claim. They were just… aware of each other, on a level at which no human being could be aware of another under any natural circumstances. If one of them moved, the other could cover them without looking. If one of them was hurt, the other felt it. If one of them died…

…yeah, let's just say that things would go a whole lot better for everybody if neither of them died.

Two fighting machines shot out of the side of the battleship like bullets. The ships' captains hadn't been kidding about them being under attack: already there were multiple explosions and all sorts of debris floating around, and the sides of the battleship were littered with a multitude of black scars, though thankfully it didn't look like she'd taken any critical damage. And there, drifting among the wreckage and the bodies of those unlucky enough to have been caught outside, were a series of Beholder pods, battle-scarred and bristling with weaponry.

They attacked as one.

Particle beam guns fired silently in the vacuum of space; explosions that should have been ear-shattering instead only produced deep vibrations within one's bones. Emil banked and rolled to avoid being hit, but then…

"Watch where you're drawing their fire!" Sigrun's voice crackled unsteadily over his com link, but she sounded annoyed. "We're going to be the next fireworks show if we take any more hits!"

"Whoops, sorry!" It was weird to hear Tuuri speak aloud when they were linked, weird to hear her nervous giggle even as their bond was telling him that she was in no immediate danger. "We'll try to lead them away from you, okay?"

"You do that, Fuzzy." Already Sigrun's voice was crackling into static; there was simply too much interference.

When the first explosion shook the bridge, she knew they were in trouble.

"Mikkel!" she yelled, gripping the edge of the control panel to keep herself from being thrown out of her seat. "How bad are we hit?"

"One of our reactors is out, and we've got two more running at 25% capacity. Deflector shields are down to 50% capacity, and the ventilation filters—"

"Don't give me that mumbo-jumbo! Are we going to be tonight's light show or not?"

Mikkel sighed. "One more direct hit and we're probably dead."

That was exactly what she'd been afraid of. Sigrun swore, and opened a channel to the pilots.

After several minutes' worth of chewing out anyone and everyone she could reach, she got off the radio and turned to Mikkel, who raised an eyebrow.

"Do you really think those kids have what it takes?"

"No idea." Sigrun shrugged, still watching the viewscreen. "But we had to prove ourselves out in the field, and so will they."

Though she kept her voice calm, her hands still trembled slightly, fingers twitching to twiddle the controls with which her damaged nerve endings could no longer interface. Even so, Mikkel noticed, because of course he did. Mechs or no mechs, you didn't share a tarma bond with someone for five-plus years without learning to read each other really, really well.

"We need intel," she continued before he could truly start wrestling with whether he should say something or not. He wanted to, maybe, but once you'd spent so much time not needing to talk to each other, suddenly trying to use words was awkward and clumsy and not at all helpful. "Where's the enemy base?"

Mikkel sighed, lowered a hand to the controls on the arm of his chair, and maneuvered himself from the viewer to the datascreen that linked them with the rest of the base. "This is us," his hands danced over the 3D map, panning and zooming, "and the red dots are the enemy mechs." Sigrun raised an eyebrow. There were a lot of red dots hovering around.

"Right now, it looks like one big mess," he continued. "But run the battle backwards in time," his hand swept over the map, "and it's possible to trace the trajectories back to their common origin."

"The far side of the moon."

Tarma was not about exact equality. You needed to be alike enough to work together, and to function as one even though you were two, but what it was really about was balance. A real tarma bond happened between people who would always be able to watch each other's backs by covering for each other's weaknesses. That wass how it had always worked when the two of them were out in the field: Mikkel's focus had always been the objective, the big picture and the long term. Sigrun was the one who kept them alive long enough to achieve it, the one who noticed the details, where they would need to move to avoid getting caught in the crossfire. Mikkel would figure out that they needed to get from Point A to Point B; Sigrun would plan the route.

Their roles hadn't changed much, even though neither of them could ever pilot a mech again. Even as Mikkel was explaining their origin and the projected numbers of their forces, Sigrun was telling him to pan here and zoom there, asking where were the enemy forces and where were theirs. Finally, she nodded, and fired up the comlink.

"Anybody still out there?"

Emil was startled in the midst of his pitched battle with three Beholder pods by the crackling of the radio, and narrowly missed a particle beam straight through the chest of his mech; Tuuri's return fire was the only thing that threw off its aim. "We're kind of busy right now, Sigrun!" he said through gritted teeth. If he'd engaged that kind of backtalk with any of his former commanding officers, he knew, he'd have been grounded and scrubbing latrines for a month—but Sigrun was not your typical commanding officer.

"Well you're about to get busier! You've got new orders now, soldier!"

Part II: One Night in Space

They might not be doing the right thing, abandoning the base when it was under attack and might very well need protection now more than ever. Still, orders were orders, and everyone they'd left to fend for themselves was a soldier who'd put their lives on the line by their own choice.

The stars stayed fixed in front of his viewscreen, the barren surface of the moon drifting slowly by to the side. And of course, on his other side, another mech identical to his own, piloted by someone with whom his mind was inextricably linked.

This journey would take them some time, and unless they were very unlucky it would be a while before they saw any action. As was their usual, though, they did not talk, but devoted themselves to watching the pockmarked moon or the stars outside of the viewscreen.

Growing up as a young child on sheltered Earth, the whole war had been so glamorized to Emil. He'd read book after book, and watched TV show after TV show about the heroes who piloted the great fighting machines to confront the bitter enemy. Never had those stories mentioned the bone-crunching exercises, or the lack of sleep, or the long boring interludes when the only thing you could do was sit in your mech and stare out of a viewscreen knowing that all of the action—and the people you worked with—were somewhere behind you.

Once, space had been full of wonders, the final frontier. Now, it seemed entirely barren and soulless.

Her brother had always told her that space was boring, that once you got above the Earth's atmosphere there everything was dead and cold. There was nothing out there for her experience, he'd said. She should stay on the ground where she could breathe, he'd said.

Her brother had been wrong. Once she was out in it, space had blossomed into a world of wonder.

Out here, she knew, the stars shone at wavelengths that could never be seen on Earth, because the atmosphere blocked them out. Out here, in constant freefall, the your weight fell away from you and you were finally allowed to drift free from the insistent pull of the ground that her brother had not wanted her to leave. Even now, the war still trapped them within the orbit of the Moon; when the war was over, the whole of the universe would be open to them, the final frontier. Think how much they still had left to discover!

As for the war itself…

Even though they had been at war for the past several decades, no human had ever seen a Beholder face to face. They were so named for the appearance of their attack pods, round and bristling with weaponry, and for the viciousness with which they attacked those different from them without mercy or negotiation, but they still did not know what one looked like. In her childhood fantasies, Tuuri had always been the first to make that discovery: the first to negotiate a surrender and board their ship, the first to disable the self-destruct mechanism of an attack pod and pry it open, revealing a being far beyond human imagination—even if what they looked like was limited by her own imagination, that only meant that the real thing was bound to be so much more exotic than even her wildest dreams.

The stars were beautiful even through her viewscreen. To pass the time, Tuuri picked them out one by one, dredged up whatever she could remember of their ages and temperatures and the presence of planets, and made a list of the ones most likely to have hosted their enemy—and possibly, in some distant future, that might one day host them.

Part III: Oxygen

"Think any of the kids have made it yet?"

Contrary to popular belief, Sigrun was capable of taking the long view, and she was capable of making difficult decisions. She'd known exactly what it would mean for her when she'd ordered the troops to engage the enemy directly.

"I don't know." He looked at Sigrun, slumped on the floor of the bridge and barely clinging to consciousness; he too was gasping for air that the crippled ventilation system could not give them. "But the last time we had radio contact, they seemed to be well on their way."

She nodded in understanding, and Mikkel leaned his head back into his chair. Even though they were in space, and even on the gravity-controlled station the g's were kept lower than on the surface of the planet, all of a sudden everything felt so heavy.

There was a reason that any humans fighting the Beholders in close combat had to go in twos. Their intense hatred of others not like them seemed to be somehow infectious, so that any humans who got within their sphere of influence would turn on each other over even the slightest of perceived differences. The only way to counter it was to bring humans close enough together that, though still different people, they were no longer fighting apart. He and Sigrun had had that, once.

You didn't get to choose your tarma. Had Mikkel had the choice, he certainly wouldn't have chosen the reckless loudmouth with no sense of personal space—but then again, perhaps that was why he didn't get to choose. The synchronization had seen something in her, or more specifically, it had seen something in them. Apart, they were barely competent. Together, they could be great. If not for that final battle…

When the doctors had told him he would never walk again, there had been some significant but long-buried part of him that had resented her. She had been the one to lead them into battle. She had made the hard choices and taken the risks. Even in the end, when the whole thing was over, she had gotten away with mere scars, and left him with damage that could never be undone.

Her apparent oblivion had only caused the resentment to fester until what had once been between them had soured, their once-comfortable silence now heavy with unspoken bitterness. This was why they could no longer take the field, a reason that went far beyond burned-out nerve endings or a damaged spine. If they were let anywhere near the enemy now, they would turn on each other just like anyone else.

Now, when he had finally realized the need to speak, there was not enough oxygen left to power his words. The irony of the situation was not lost on him.

Emil sat, panting, in his suit in the control room of the enemy ship. It was only thanks to repeatedly choking it down that he hadn't thrown up inside of his mech.

"What…?" Tuuri sounded confused, confused enough to speak out loud on the battlefield, to echo his own mind. "But… this wasn't… they weren't… are you sure we've got the right ship?"

"We've got the right ship." He nudged the attack pod with the foot of his mech; the pod—and the unmistakably human body inside of it—tumbled out of sight.

They were human. They had always been human. How they had been unable to see it… Emil shook his head.

There was nothing more to say. They'd won this battle. It was time to return and see at what cost.

Chapter Text

"Sigrun, tell me something. Have you ever heard of a concept known as personal space?"

"Hm?" Sigrun leaned even further over her shoulder, the shadow cast by her head blocking out the light and making the report nearly impossible to read. "Are you doing reports again?" Sigrun asked, completely ignoring her. "Do you have some rule against having fun or something?"

"This needs to get done," Agneta replied through gritted teeth. "And since I know that you're not going to make any sort of effort…"

"Ah, you're no fun." Sigrun didn't so much sit as fall into the chair across from her, propping her feet up on the desk. Agneta pushed them off with a sigh.

"If you must have a desk for a footstool, would you at least use your own?"

Sigrun only gave her that same old grin, and leaned back in her chair.

It was several more hours before Agneta dragged herself home, exhausted, and fell directly into bed. She was therefore more than a little disgruntled when she woke up to an insistent chiming from the doorbell and answered the door in her pajamas with her hair sticking out in all directions, only to see her partner on the front step of her apartment sporting a huge grin and a box of donuts.

"Really?" Instead of doing what she should have done and slamming the door in her face, though, she sighed, left the door open, and waved Sigrun inside.

As expected, she immediately bombarded Agneta with a continuous stream of blather.

"…so anyway," she continued whatever monologue Agneta couldn't be bothered to pay attention to from the beginning, licking chocolate off her fingers while Agneta finished brushing her hair, "I figured that since you don't have any friends in this town, if I didn't come over and do something you'd spend the whole weekend sitting around the house doing paperwork or reading or whatever boring thing you do when you're on your own." She pushed the box across the table. "Donut?"

Agneta crossed her arms. "You know I'm trying to limit my sugar intake."

"Your loss." Sigrun shrugged, and dipped her hand into the box again. She had a smudge of chocolate on the side of her face.

"How you manage to stay in shape with such a horrible diet is beyond me." Agneta pulled up a chair before dipping a spoon into her own breakfast: a bowl of plain porridge. Sigrun wrinkled her nose.

"Not. A. Word." She emphasized each syllable with a jab of her spoon before digging in.

While Agneta poured herself a cup of very strong coffee, she offered Sigrun water, fruit juice, soda… anything but what she was drinking, because as far as she was concerned the absolute last thing that Sigrun needed was coffee.

Walking home late that night, with a tall redhead leaning on her shoulder for balance while talking Agneta's ear off when she wasn't—gods help them—cheerfully singing, Agneta wondered why she continued to put up with this.

It wasn't as if they were best friends or anything. Sigrun was her partner, not her… her… whatever you called someone who regularly showed up at your house uninvited with sugary treats and then dragged you out to bar after bar on a whim.

"Could you tone it down just a little?" she hissed as Sigrun started singing yet again. "Most people are trying to sleep at this hour."

"But we're not most people, now are we?" Sigrun grinned in her face. Her breath stank of alcohol, and her speech was slurred. "Og vi skåler for våre—"

"Sigrun, for heaven's sake—!" The woman was a far happier drunk than she had any right to be. Granted, Agneta had not exactly behaved herself either; her face was flushed with heat, and she was slightly unsteady on her feet—but she at least knew her own limits!

Sigrun was also far heavier than she had any right to be. Once again, Agneta wondered how someone who regularly lived on donuts could possibly maintain so much muscle—it just wasn't fair.

Though Sigrun had not come by car (she didn't own a car, thank all that was good in this world for small mercies), Agneta still did not want to send her home alone—she remembered all too well the last time Sigrun had put her fist through the window trying to jam her key through the glass when she couldn't find the keyhole. (She also remembered because Sigrun would show off the scars at every opportunity, except then she'd tell a gallant story about taking on a whole gang armed with knives. Agneta usually spent these bragging sessions standing in the background and rolling her eyes.)

So she took Sigrun back to her place, and dumped her on the couch, dropped a blanket on top of her, and told her to get some sleep. Then, eyes prickling with tiredness, she brushed her teeth and collapsed into her own bed.

No sooner had her head hit the pillow than she heard an off-key tune coming from the direction of the living room.

"Og vi skåler for våre—"

Agneta checked the headphones one last time, loaded the clip, and aimed her gun.

"Hey heeeeeey!"

…and lowered it again. "You are aware that if I accidentally shoot you because you startled me while I was holding a loaded weapon, I am absolved of all responsibility."

"Oh, psh!" Sigrun threw an arm around her shoulders. "Like you'd ever be that careless." Agneta shrugged her off, and aimed once more.

A few minutes later they were both shooting. It was one of the few contexts where she'd ever known Sigrun to concentrate, without a single goofy grin or careless movement in sight. Here, she was all focus, eyes on the target, hands steady, feet spread apart in a balanced stance.

By the time that they left, they had both hit their mark.

"What was the call?" The lights were flashing, the siren was blaring, and cars and pedestrians alike hastened to get out of their way as Agneta wove the car through the crowded streets.

"Hotakainen kids again." Sigrun was dead serious, and it was never a good sign when Sigrun got serious outside of the shooting range. "Onni said they caught someone trying to summon another demon."

Great. Agneta hated this supernatural stuff. Anyone who wasn't a mage would be in over their head by default, but Sigrun at least was granted some degree of protection from her own gods. Agneta didn't even have that.

"How can you still be an atheist if you know that magic exists?" Over and over again, they asked her that. Over and over again, she said "None of your business," or simply crossed her arms and glared until they shut up, because no matter how many times she tried to explain it, they'd never understand. Agneta had seen protection rackets in action; it was part of what had motivated her to join the force to begin with. The price of worship was a higher one than she was willing to pay.

The irony was not lost on her that the only person who'd so far refrained from asking her unwanted and invasive questions was the one who acted like a five-year-old on a sugar high all the rest of the time.

At least no one seemed to have been beheaded this time, or kidnapped and tied to a gravestone. The elder Hotakainen—the stocky one—was scowling as he waved his arms in the air, chanting in some language Agneta didn't know. "I need to put these to rest before I can do anything else," he told her during a pause, before going right back to his almost-singing.

Agneta would have protested. Sigrun might have talked her into "They-can-do-something-about-it-and-we-can't-so-how-about-letting-them-do-their-job," but actually catching the criminals was their jurisdiction. Before she could even open her mouth, though, Sigrun was saying "Great! See you later!" and running in the direction that Onni's new assistant had pointed out.

It was teenagers—it was usually teenagers, when it came to summoning things they couldn't control. One of them bolted as soon as they were spotted; Agneta just barely managed to catch the other. By the time she had him handcuffed and was ready to check whether her partner needed any help, Sigrun had the other on the ground and was snapping on the cuffs as well.

"These your guys?" Sigrun asked as they returned to the scene, delinquents in tow. The braided redhead only nodded.

Agneta doubted that they had learned their lesson. Even after being caught red-handed, they'd get a slap on the wrist due to their age and the public's reluctance to ruin young men's lives—never mind how many of their intended victims' lives would have been ruined if they'd managed to go ahead with their plan.

Still, it was not her job to mete out punishment. She could only do her own job, and hope that it was enough.

"You ready to call it a night?" Sigrun asked as Agneta filled out the last bit of paperwork. She'd even done her fair share, for once.

"You know what?" Agneta said, pushing the mound to the side of her desk. "I could really use a drink."

Chapter Text

"Emil… you were really lucky that this wasn't finished."

Reynir made a slight hissing sound as he traced a finger over the scars on Emil's back. Even though Reynir was barely touching him, Lalli could see him flinch slightly as the other mage made contact, and had to resist the urge to violently throw him away from Emil.

"So what's wrong with me?" Emil's voice was coming out in a near-whisper, his eyes wide with fear.

Lalli, as it turned out, wasn't the only one whose scars had ached that night. When he'd dragged himself back to the apartment late that Halloween night, worried, exhausted, and resentful yet immensely grateful for his new partner, it had been to find Emil not asleep as he should have been but wrapped in a blanket on the living room sofa, with various pieces of furniture shoved in front of the windows and every light in the apartment turned on as bright as it would go.

When he'd looked at Lalli with a terrified, pleading expression, Lalli's heart had sunk. No no no, not this again, he would do anything to keep Emil from going through this again…

"They were intending to use you as a conduit." Reynir's voice was soft, completely unlike his usually cheerful self; he'd answered the door yawning, but had snapped to immediate attention when he'd seen Lalli on his doorstep, accompanied by a shivering Emil. "I… don't think you want to know what that means. But you wouldn't have survived to the end of the ritual."

Emil nodded, and shuddered again. It took a few deep breaths before he was able to find his voice to ask the question. "And now…?"

"I don't know what they were planning to summon, but whatever it was, it was big, and powerful. They couldn't have prepared for something like this without putting a whole lot of magic into it, and that magic didn't just go away when they were interrupted. Instead, it got… trapped. I'm sure that there are some traces left in the cemetery where you were found, but a lot of it also ended up inside of your body.

"Leaving it as is could be very dangerous for you," Reynir continued. "The human body wasn't made to conduct this much magic, especially not for this long. If something happens to trigger its release—another magical encounter, or even a cut on your back that interrupts the design—the results for you would be catastrophic."

"Is there any way to prevent that?" Emil asked, but Lalli already knew the answer.

"I'm… sorry, Emil." Reynir did look genuinely apologetic. "But the only way to do it is to break the design deliberately."

Emil gasped, nodded, and wrapped his arms around himself. He was shaking. Lalli laid a hand on his shoulder, and turned to glare at Reynir. "Find another way."

"A lot of mages have tried to do that." Reynir did not seem to be angry, but he was as immovable as a stone. "It usually cost lives."

"Lalli." Emil's hand came up to cover his fingers, and even though his skin was clammy and his breathing too fast, his voice was resolute. "It's okay."

Reynir had told them it would take a bit of time to get ready. Nevertheless Emil decided to stay and watch; Lalli didn't know why, but stayed with him. After using a piece of chalk to sketch a series of runes on the walls, floor, and ceiling, Reynir rolled up his sleeve with a grimace and pulled out his ceremonial knife.

"I really hate this part," he muttered, more to himself than to either of them it seemed, before pressing the tip of the knife into the crook of his elbow, where Lalli could just make out a latticework of fine white scars.

He did not let himself bleed too long—the bowl he used to collect the blood was smaller than the size of Lalli's clenched fist. Still, when he mixed it in with some other unidentified liquid in a much larger bowl, he ended up with an impressive volume of red fluid that was nearly the exact color and consistency of blood.

"It's not quite as potent this way," he explained with a sheepish grin as he dipped a brush in and started using it to paint atop the chalk designs he'd already drawn. "But I need a lot, and I'd rather not faint again."

Finally, they were ready. Reynir had dragged a cot to the middle of the room, turned off all of the electric lights, and lit a large number of candles which he'd placed at strategic intersections at the edges of his rune drawings. Emil swallowed, and pulled off his shirt.

His eyes never left Lalli as he lay facedown on the cot, and Lalli knelt in front of him, maintaining eye contact. "Don't leave me."

"I won't." He held out his hands, and Emil grasped them both.

"Are you ready?" Reynir had been cleaning his ceremonial blade, but he shot a concerned look at the two of them as he did it. Emil gritted his teeth, scrunched his eyes shut, and nodded.

When Reynir made the first cut he let out a strangled cry, and flinched involuntarily; Reynir, who'd also been clenching his jaw, hastily pulled the bloodied blade away and pressed gauze to the wound. "It's okay, it's okay…"

What did he think Emil was, a dog? Lalli ignored him, though, and ran his thumbs back and forth across Emil's knuckles. "I'm still here," he said, softly, so that only Emil could hear.

"I'm going to have to do a few more," Reynir informed them. "If you need a break…"

They waited while Emil shuddered and drew in harsh breaths. After a few minutes, though, he gave a small nod.

It didn't get easier. A couple of times, he screamed. Once, his body jerked while Reynir was working, and Lalli had to hold him down. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry," Reynir was muttering over and over again as he finished the cut. Lalli had his hands tangled in Emil's hair, Emil's fingers leaving bruises on his wrists.

"I'm still here," Lalli murmured, the same thing he'd been saying over and over ever since the start of the horrible procedure, "I'm still here," then, because he could think of nothing else, he raised his voice.

Lalli's magic wasn't for healing. The spells he knew were for interacting with spirits, whether it was controlling the hostile ones or guiding the lost ones to rest. Even so, he sang, making up the words as he went, keeping up the rhythm of his native tongue, even if the magic was weak or didn't work at all, if nothing else so Emil could hear his voice.

Reynir gave him a weird look when he first started singing; Lalli glared back at him, daring him to intervene. After a moment Reynir seemed to decide that Lalli's magic wasn't going to interfere with his own, shrugged, and went back to work.

Slowly, Emil quieted. He was still shuddering, his breath coming in choking gasps, but he was no longer struggling or screaming. As he sang, Lalli would squeeze his hand or lean in close until their foreheads touched, to make sure Emil hadn't fainted or gone catatonic, to let Emil know that he was still there.

"Done." Reynir pressed one last bandage to Emil's back, wiped his sweaty forehead, and stood. He cast a doubtful look at Emil, who was still grasping Lalli's wrists and shaking. "Should… should we take him to a hospital?"

"What are you going to tell them when they ask questions?" And there would be questions, especially if they had to deal with that one nurse who insisted on believing that magic wasn't real…

"No hospital." Emil had his head buried in his arms; they could barely hear his voice. "I'll be fine."

There was no further argument from either of them. Reynir brought in several blankets and a glass of water, then made Emil sit on the sofa, wrap himself up, and drink. Lalli sat beside him, and watched as Reynir said one last prayer of thanks before scrubbing the runes from the floor and walls.

As they sat, Lalli hummed slightly under his breath. Emil sighed, and leaned in closer, his whole body limp with exhaustion.

"Thank you." His eyes were closed, his voice a dry rasp.

Lalli shook his head, and pushed the glass of water into his hand. "Drink."

They would not be going home that night. The ritual had taken hours, and Emil was so shaky that Lalli did not want to try to bundle him into the car and then across town and up the stairs to their own apartment. Instead, by unspoken agreement, Reynir brought them pillows and blankets, and Emil stretched out on the couch while Lalli made a nest for himself at its foot.

"Lalli?" Shortly after they had turned off the lights, Emil's voice came from above him. "Would you sing to me again?"

So, Lalli did.

Chapter Text

Of course, he had already seen Sigrun in just about every state of undress that was humanly possible—hard to avoid, when he'd pulled more bullets out of her over the years than he cared to count. Then, she'd usually been bleeding and half-conscious, and the situation had left no room for lust.

This time, though… this time had been completely different.

When she'd shown up that night completely out of the blue, it had been well in line with her usual routine. Even though she hadn't been hurt for once, though, there had still been a change. She'd been antsy, jumpy, not at all like her usual cheerful self, and Mikkel wondered, but did not ask, what could have happened to put her in such a state.

Her restlessness had been far from the only unusual thing about her behavior.

Now, it was morning, the rain was pouring down, and Sigrun was nowhere to be found.

"Are you… okay?"

Reynir's hair was sopping wet and half-straggling out of its braid, his pants splattered with mud up to the knees in spite of the heavy boots he wore. He'd been out when Sigrun had arrived, riding to the next town over to deliver some medicine, but he wasn't blind; he had to have seen the extra place that had been set at the table, and the traveling pack that she had dumped in the surgery.

"Fine." He waved a hand. "Now take that off before you drip any more mud on my floor."

There had been no dialogue between them on the matter; there had been no need. When someone shows up naked in your bedroom right when you're getting ready to turn off the lights, there usually isn't much question as to what she wants, and though he'd raised an eyebrow he'd still thrown aside the covers in silent invitation.

There had been nothing gentle or loving about it, not like the relations he'd engaged in previously, back before he'd met the Old Man when he'd still had some hope of a normal life. From start to finish, the whole thing had been rough: her callused hands, her sharp elbows, her nails down his back, her wiry arms pushing and pulling him mercilessly against the bed. Mikkel was far from passive; he gave as good as he got. His hands knew the location of every scar on her body, every jagged ridge of skin that he'd sewn shut when it was still a gaping wound. When he pressed his fingers into them, she gasped and snarled, and he could not tell how much was feral pleasure and how much remembered pain.

It looked as if the rain was not going to let up.

Good for the crops, and good news for the town. Mikkel had once been a farmer himself; he knew the value of a good rain.

"Hey, Doc!" people greeted him as he made his way through town under cover of a thick oilskin, Reynir in tow like an eager puppy whose company he'd never quite been able to shake. He nodded or waved back, but not many people were inclined to stop and talk, not in this weather.

When he did stumble upon her, it was completely by accident. As it turned out, she'd taken refuge in the saloon, slowly nursing a whiskey while the fingers of her free hand curled and uncurled around the butt of her gun. The other patrons were ignoring her, and she them.

When Reynir raised his hand to wave at her, Mikkel grabbed it and pushed it down.


"Leave it." Mikkel's voice brooked no argument, and in spite of Reynir's evident confusion, he did not offer an explanation.

"What is this?" She pushed a finger against the glass on the table in front of her, eyeing the dark liquid inside with an expression of disdain. It was the closest they'd come to having an actual conversation since she'd rode into town.

"I would recommend that you take it." He kept his expression neutral as he dried off his hands. "Unless, that is, giving birth within the next year is a risk you want to take."

He noted the way she stiffened as he said it, the intensity of her glare as her eyebrows drew down into a stormy frown. It was the first time either of them had made any verbal acknowledgement of what they had done.

For a few minutes, she only clenched her fists against the wood of the table. Mikkel waited. Finally, though, she reached out, and curled her fingers around the glass. "He would let that happen," she muttered to herself. "Bet he'd think it was hilarious too."

She downed the whole thing in one long swallow.

One thing was clear: they were both regretting it.

They did not speak of it, because there was nothing to talk about. They'd both known from the beginning that there was no hope of them ever having anything more than that one night.

In retrospect, he thought, he should have said no. Much as his logical mind had known better, though, he was still only a man, with a human body and human weaknesses. It had been decades since the last time he'd touched a woman, and when he found one willing, it was all too easy to give in to the weaknesses of the flesh.

It had been more than flesh answering, though, and he knew it. His family was gone. His last hope of marriage had died with his bargain. Even though everyone knew his name, there was not a single person in this town who he could call friend. The presence of a warm body beside him had aroused not only lust, but long memories of loneliness. In the end, he'd been weak enough to seek solace when and where he could, even if only for just one night.

As for Sigrun, he could only guess at her motives. She gave him a hint, though, the day before she left.

Three days straight, and the rain was still coming down. She was itching to be on the road, he could tell, but not yet to the point of being willing to slog through ankle-high mud.

"He's out there," she growled. "He's out there, and I finally know where, and I'm stuck here waiting out this stupid rain!"

Mikkel leaned against a wall, arms crossed. "You are that determined to hunt him to the death, then."

She stopped, then, and turned to him. For the first time in the overcast light, he noticed that her eyes were rimmed with red.

That was when the shouting began.

By the time they'd finally finished having it out, Reynir had run from the house with his hands over his ears. Mikkel's ears rang. Sigrun's voice was coming out hoarse.

"I lost everything!"

"And what makes you suppose that I haven't?"

She knew. Though he had never told her, she'd figured it out all the same, just as he had for her.

"Just back out, break it off, forget the whole thing? And how well has that been working out for you?"

He said nothing. There was nothing to say.

Later, he'd wonder whether she'd known then that she was soon going to die. When she rode off the next morning, though, he was still too raw to speculate. Here he was again, left with nothing but his own long, empty life.

Whatever chance he might have once had to find or make a purpose, he'd lost it long ago. Sigrun was both like and yet so unlike him in that way.

All they could do was take one stolen night, and pretend.

Chapter Text

For as long as he could remember, there had been something wrong.

Worst of all, nobody knew that anything was wrong but him. His parents, his aunt and uncle, even the commoners in the nearby village… all of them assumed that they knew who and what he was better than he did, and that if they only made him pretend for long enough it would stop being wrong.

"It's just a phase she's going through," his mother explained to his aunt as she dragged him away from the rough-and-tumble game he'd been playing with the sons of some visiting noble who'd brought his family with him to the castle; though he dug his feet in and tugged against her hand, he was not yet big or strong enough to break her grip. "She's always been a bit confused in that way."

It was one of his first memories.

Everything about his life was wrong.

Every time he thought that there was no possible way that things could get any worse, the gods or fate sent something else along to prove that it could always get worse. First it was the loss of his parents' fortune, and he had to watch their home grow cold and dark as the fires were banked and the candles rationed to save precious resources. One by one, the prize horses whose company he'd enjoyed far more than that of any human were sold to pay their debts. Every meal was a bland, cheerless affair; he no longer ate with pleasure, and more often than not went to bed with his stomach still rumbling.

When a series of warm winters brought hordes of ravenous giants and trolls down from the mountains, his parents sent him away to stay with his aunt and uncle.

"Let me stay and help!" he begged, even as the two servants left to them were loading his things into the wagon.

"A town under siege is no place for a young lady," his mother said, immovable, as she guided him out to the wagon with an arm wrapped firmly around his shoulders. He'd already heard this lecture over and over again, and tuned her out as he slumped into his seat, arms crossed. His uncle's castle was much better fortified, and in a more defensible location. He would be kept safe there, away from the horrors of the battlefield.

Safe. Locked up. With no say in his own life.

The one servant they were sending with him—a red-haired boy not much older than he was—smiled at him cheerfully as he snapped the reins, but he was still too resentful to care. The two of them had often played together when they were children, before his parents had found out and informed him that a young lady of quality did not run around in the mud with servants. He'd already learned to hate the phrase "young lady" by that point, and had refused to even look at Reynir when he'd come up to him the next day and tried to show him a carving he'd made.

Reynir did not seem to have held it against him. His parents had probably had a talk with him too, about the repercussions of having any but the most professional of associations with a lady so far above his station.

His uncle's home, when he got there, was even drabber and more uncomfortable than his parents'. It was always raining, and nothing ever seemed to dry out no matter how long they let it hang. The cliffside location meant a constant unrelenting chill wind, and the drafty corridors left his fingers and toes constantly numb.

Less than two weeks after his arrival, he woke to a clenching pain in his lower abdomen. Pulling the covers aside to check, he found a sluggish flow of blood oozing out from in between his legs.

A few times, his mother had vaguely informed him that he would know he had truly become a woman when he first started bleeding. His Aunt Siv, when the servant who changed his sheets informed her of the development without him being aware, sat him down and explained in more detail that he could now bear children, and what he would need to do to stanch the flow of blood. She told him over and over again that he would get used to it, and that it was perfectly natural and a beautiful thing.

After she had left, he lay curled on the bed in a ball of pain, repeatedly driving a fist into the spot just below his stomach in impotent anger at his body's betrayal. Eventually, he wore himself out and could only curl up on the bed and sob, but the next day he felt so sore and bruised both physically and spiritually; regret brought a fresh round of sobbing, but he could not heal, and he could not let go of his anger.

His uncle's home was well-fortified, and an important point strategically in their ongoing war to eke out an existence against wave after wave of troll attacks. They had a lot of soldiers coming through.

Aunt Siv warned him to stay away from the soldiers, just as his mother had once told him that he was not to fraternize with a servant boy. Still, as more and more came in wounded and they could not afford to pay anyone to assist the healer, he and Aunt Siv were eventually obliged to roll up their sleeves and help tend to the wounded themselves.

There was a boy among them, not much older than he was. Stick-thin, with piercing eyes and exotic silver hair, he stood out in a room of men nearly twice his size.

It hadn't taken long for him to figure out what his aunt had really been warning him about. The men addressed him as familiarly as if he'd been a servant girl in truth. Sometimes, when he was in the midst of changing a dressing or cleaning a wound, an uninvited hand would land on his arm or his knee or even in his lap. A few of them even whispered things in his ear, suggestions so vile they made his face heat and his fists clench at his sides. He wasn't sure which was worse: the ones who had no idea how uncomfortable they were making him and thought it nothing more than a bit of innocent flirting, or the ones who knew exactly what they were doing and pressed as hard as they could just to see his anger, and reveled in the fact that he was helpless to retaliate.

This one, though, was different.

He'd been brought in with a severe head injury, a blow that had left him unconscious for several days on end. "Leave it," the healer had said when he'd asked. "Few recover from trauma this severe. The best we can do is keep him comfortable while he breathes his last, and devote our resources to those still within reach of our help."

He couldn't leave it.

That night, well after he should have been asleep, he got up and snuck to the curtained-off alcove where the boy was being kept. When the young soldier thrashed about in a panic, or began to scream in his sleep, he would gently lay a hand over his eyes or stroke his hair until he calmed down or, if that failed, offered his own body as a target for him to act out his violent nightmares so he wouldn't hurt himself instead. In the morning, he told his uncle that the scratches on his face were from one of the cats.

Even after he beat the odds and woke, it looked as if the healer's dim outlook had been right after all, and that his injury had reduced him to idiocy. He stared at them unnervingly, and refused to answer questions. When he did speak, it came out as nothing but garbled nonsense.

Only after a few minutes of listening to him did anyone realize that he was speaking in another language.

None of them knew what it was, and after only a few minutes Aunt Siv and the healer had both given up. He stayed, though, and when the other tapped his chest and said a single word, "Lalli," he knew what was expected of him and repeated the gesture in turn. The girl's name that his parents had given him tasted of ash in his mouth.

When he changed the bandages on Lalli's head, he took care in a way that he never had with any of the older, hardened men who'd come through. He sat at Lalli's bedside, doing nothing and saying nothing until the healer or Aunt Siv called for his assistance, just for the sake of keeping him company. When Lalli touched him, not possessively like the others did as if they thought his body was their property to do with what they would, but slowly, tentatively, as if ready to yank his hand back at the slightest protest, he not only tolerated the contact but welcomed it, leaning into his hand and placing his fingers over Lalli's own where they rested against his face.

When he'd been a child, his mother had said that he was confused. Now, though, he realized that she had only been saying that to cover for her own lack of understanding, because he hadn't been confused in the least. Now, though… now he was confused.

He was a boy. He'd always known that he was a boy, even when everyone from complete strangers to his family members to his own traitorous body insisted on telling him otherwise. Yet, his mother and his aunt had always told him that part of becoming a woman was to start liking men… and the pleasurable throbbing that erupted between his legs every time Lalli touched him, and when he lay in bed late at night and guiltily preoccupied himself with fantasies of doing things with Lalli, was definitely not manly by any measure of the word.

Was he just confused? Was he really just a girl who only wanted to be a man because she envied their freedom?

It was a question he did not dare ask his aunt and uncle. He did not have the words to talk about it to Lalli. So it continued to eat at him until one day, in an act of sheer desperation, he blurted something out to the healer when he'd been conscripted to help scrub out some dirty linens.

"Men who 'like touching and kissing other men'?" The healer raised a single bushy eyebrow, and his face began to burn under the big man's scrutiny. "What on earth have you been—no, never mind. If you've been spying on soldiers or reading lewd novels, I don't want to know.

"To answer your question," he continued, seemingly unaware that his would-be student was seriously considering simply slipping head-first into the suds and never coming back up again, "from my observations, there are indeed some men who love other men the way that most men love women. It is rare, but it does occur." One corner of his mouth quirked up in a slight smirk. "Far more often than your priests would lead you to believe."

He very nearly opened his mouth to ask where the healer had obtained such information, but then decided at the last minute that he didn't want to know.

So the question of whether it was possible to love a man without being a woman was answered. His relief was short-lived, though, when it occurred to him to wonder whether Lalli could love a man.

After Lalli had healed and left, he had thought they'd never see each other again. Lalli had quickly proved him wrong.

His visits were fleeting, brief. He'd poke his head out of the nearby forest, smile, and run off again. He'd appear at the window at the dead of night and stare through the blinds until the window was opened, then dart away with a single stolen kiss. Beneath the thrill and his thudding heart, though, there was always a single, pervasive thought:

He's not kissing me. He's kissing some girl who doesn't even exist.

On his sixteenth birthday, his uncle requested his presence.

"I have excellent news!" Uncle Torbjörn announced, waving a letter that bore his father's seal. "Your parents have arranged a marriage for you!"

It was a good thing that there was a chair within reach; otherwise he might have fallen straight onto the floor. "M-marriage?" he stuttered. His mind did not have the room for any other word.

"Isn't it wonderful?" Aunt Siv was hugging him. "Your parents must be so proud—their little girl, all grown up!"

"It's an excellent match, quite suited to your station," his uncle continued, still mistaking the cause of his silence. "You should not want for anything with your new husband: riches, lands, servants…"

As his uncle prattled on about the prestige of the match and the riches it would bring to their family, he could only sit in shock, and he could think of only one name. Lalli…

What if he were to tell his family that he loved another, that he didn't want to marry this stranger? He could picture the smiles sliding from his aunt and uncle's faces, their eyes going wide with shock. No, he knew what they would do: they would explain away his feelings for Lalli as a child's dalliance and his objections as cold feet, just as they'd always explained away his true self as confusion, a phase. They would act nice about it. They would convince themselves that they had convinced him, but they would still leave him no choice.

"I thought you might try as much."

He jumped what felt like half his own height off the ground, dropping the clothes he'd been trying to tie into a bundle. Whirling around, heart pounding, he saw the healer leaning against the edge of his doorframe, arms crossed. He hadn't even heard the man come in.

"When I got word that you were soon to be sent away," he continued, as casually as though they were back at the washbasin scrubbing sheets, "I surmised that you had been sold into a marriage not of your own will. Given your recent… activities… with our young miracle patient, your next course of action was fairly self-evident."

"Are you going to try to stop me?" Though he had meant the delivery to be forceful, the sentence ended on a squeak. The other man was a lot bigger than he was, and a wall of solid muscle besides. If the healer decided to intervene, there was nothing that he'd be able to do to prevent it.

Instead of answering, the man shook his head. "I am going to prevent you from running into the forest in the middle of the night alone, unarmed, and inadequately supplied at the height of troll season. Tell me: did you think this plan of yours through beyond sneaking off? Or was getting eaten actually included in your original objective?"

He said nothing, though his face burned. When he'd began packing, his only objective had been "get out". He hadn't even thought past the first village gate, let alone the first troll.

The healer sighed. "Come with me."

As always, he was left with no choice. So he sighed, and left his meager supplies, and followed, bracing himself for the man to escort him straight to his uncle's chambers and inform his relatives what he'd been about to do.

Instead, he led him around to the village gate, where the night watchman was dozing and Lalli was waiting.

Lalli seemed confused when he ran up and threw his arms around him, gasping out his feelings not in words but in a series of choked sobs. As he cried Lalli patted his head, his back, his arms, softly, gently. Eventually, his tears subsided, though he still felt raw and empty inside.

The healer was still there, as he realized when the man gave a slight cough. Reluctantly, he pulled away from Lalli to look at the big man instead, not caring that his nose was still running or that his face was red and blotchy. "Thank you," he said, and meant it.

The healer only sighed. "I mean to give you a choice, not deliverance. Keep in mind that love is not the only thing that matters—you could have a good future with this man your parents have picked out for you. Security is no small thing in times like these." He looked at them again, hand in hand, shook his head, and handed over a bundle of his own. "Promise me that you'll at least consider all of your options. Discuss it between yourselves—well, as much as you can. And…" He produced a small dagger, and handed it over. "I doubt this will be much help if you manage to get into any real trouble, but a knife is never a bad thing to have. Whatever you decide, I will not interfere further." With that, he departed with a wave. They watched him disappear into the night.

Lalli tugged his hand. Numbly, he followed, the relief at his narrow escape slowly giving way to a sick sense of dread that pooled in his stomach. It was the same dread he'd been living with ever since he and Lalli had shared their first kiss, except now, there was nothing standing between him and the stark truth.

Back when he'd still been a noble teenager living by the decrees of the adults around him, he'd occasionally entertained thoughts of eloping with Lalli as a girl. It wouldn't be exactly what he wanted—but then again, since when had life ever given him what he wanted? If nothing else, he would still have love, and he'd thought that maybe, just maybe, he'd be able to make it work. Now, though, running through the dark and trying to keep up with Lalli even as he repeatedly tripped over the hem of his dress, he realized that he could never do it. All his life, he'd been living a lie. Stepping from one lie into another would not make him free.

Lalli was quartered in a small, one-man tent on the edge of the encampment, next to a stream that also passed through the village. His lodgings were sparse and cold, the cramped space barely enough for one let alone two, and it was enough to make him feel ashamed of the amount of whining he'd once done over the draftiness of the castle he lived in, or having to make do with two servants in place of several dozen.

They sat down across from each other, their knees brushing up against each other in the small tent. Lalli looked at him. He took a deep breath.

"Lalli," he started, "there's something I need to tell you. I'm—"

The words, however, would not come. How could he explain what he himself had never needed words for, to someone who wouldn't understand the words even if he found them? Instead, after his mouth had worked for a few minutes and still nothing came out, he placed a hand over his chest and told Lalli his name: his true name, the one he'd always called himself in secret whenever his parents were not around to hear.


He waited, the breath caught in his throat, caught between anxiety that Lalli would not understand and fear that he would. He did not dare to look at Lalli, did not want to see the expression of shock and disgust that would spread over his face when he realized he'd been kissing a man—or maybe when he thought he'd been kissing a woman who wanted to play at being a man; he wasn't sure which was worse.

How could he ever have been so foolish as to think that this might work? Lalli was a man, and though he knew now that some men could love men, he also knew that Lalli had spent the past year kissing and caressing someone who looked like a girl, who dressed like a girl, who had spent his whole life pretending to be a girl. Clearly, Lalli liked girls.

It wasn't Lalli's fault. It was Emil's fault, for leading him on when he should have known better, for letting him think he was something he wasn't. Emil didn't deserve the attentions of someone like Lalli—and Lalli deserved far better than a fake like him.

"Consider all of your options," the man had said—but he had no options, did he? If he returned to his home and married the man his parents had picked out, he would spend the rest of his life living a lie. If he did what he'd been planning to do and ran off, his heart's desire would be within his reach… but then he'd be lying to Lalli, or forcing Lalli to lie to him. That, he could not bear to do.

The dagger the healer had given him still lay by his hand. He felt his fingers curling around the hilt; before he'd even consciously realized what he was going to do, he was picking it up, lifting it towards himself until the blade rested against his heart. The hilt, he held out to Lalli.

"I'm so sorry," he whispered. He could easily picture what the reactions of the other soldiers would have been, and even though he'd always known that Lalli was different, he couldn't be that different. Worse, his rage and disgust would be perfectly justified, and Emil would not deny him that justice—at this point, he would welcome the release.

Lalli's hand brushed his fingers, and he released his hold on the dagger. Everything was up to Lalli now, and whatever Lalli chose to do, he would not resist. Lalli's other hand reached around the back of his head to take up a fistful of his hair. Emil squeezed his eyes shut, tilted back his head, and waited.

For the briefest of seconds, his hair was pulled taut… and then the blade sliced through, severing the strands.

His eyes snapped open in shock as golden locks tumbled to the floor of the tent. Lalli was meeting his eyes, smiling gently; the hand that was laid against his cheek gave him all the reassurance that no words ever could.

Lalli had not received the training his former handmaidens had; he did not know how to do this carefully. Nevertheless, as clump after clump of hair was severed and fell to the floor, Emil felt as if a heavy burden was being lifted from his shoulders.

Lalli continued to trim back his hair until Emil told him to stop. It was still long for a man, but he was used to having it long and was not yet ready to make a change that was too extreme. He could always cut it again later, if he changed his mind.

The contents of the bag the healer had left him included a supply of bandages. With a combination of these and with the scraps from his torn dress, Lalli helped him to wrap up his chest until his breasts lay flat, pulling and adjusting and correcting until they found a result that looked acceptable and which did not hamper his breathing too much.

Lalli's clothes did not fit him well, and he suspected that the only reason he could get into them at all was because they did not fit Lalli well. Still, even as they scratched and rubbed and pulled too tight across his shoulders and chest, he wouldn't have traded them for all the fanciest silk dresses in the world.

When they were finally finished at the crack of dawn, Lalli held the dagger out to him so that his face was reflected in the polished blade. He saw… a man. Not big or burly or a picture of masculinity like many of the soldiers were, but still a man. It was not exactly what he would have chosen if he had had the choice, but then again life never gave anyone exactly what they wanted. Ever since he'd been born, life had asked him to bear the unbearable, and tonight he had finally refused… but in doing so he had learned that he could bear a great many things that his old self would have turned up his nose at.

The remnants of his previous life—his tattered dress and shorn hair—they threw into the stream. To anyone who saw them drifting by in the morning, it would look as if he had tried to run away in the night, but had not made it far. He hoped that the healer, at least, would know better or guess the truth.

Lalli took him by the hand. They both turned to face the dawn.

His old self—the person who had existed only in the minds of others—was dead. He might not have known what the new day would bring, but with Lalli by his side, he thought he was finally ready to face it.

Chapter Text

No matter how long she drove, it was nothing but cornfields.

It did things to your mind, all this corn, the same old sameness of the same flat horizon. Not for the first time, she began to wonder whether she wasn't actually driving down a straight road, but was instead on one of those movie sets where there was no real scenery outside of the windows, only a screen that had been painted to look like real scenery, and you could drive and drive and drive for the rest of your life and never actually get anywhere.

Like she said. It did things to you.

Eventually, she knew, she'd come to another town. There'd be more dust in the air, another broken-down gas station, more kids playing in the streets and more suspicious looks.

Maybe, just maybe, there'd be another woman.

The last one, as it turned out, had been married. She hadn't bothered to say anything about it, and it wasn't until Sigrun had caught her hastily attempting to hide a ring that it had all come out, and in the end, she had chosen to stay with her husband. The one before that had been a cop, and she had chosen her job. If she ever laid eyes on Sigrun again, she'd said, she'd arrest her on the spot—that was, if she didn't shoot her first.

Before that, there had been others, a long string of others. It had never ended well. Fear, family, the church, jealous men… all had conspired, eventually, to drive them apart.

Dust kicked up under her wheels as she pulled up to the gas station. A stray dog sniffed around the door of a broken-down hardware store. Children stared, and so did adults.

She dressed like them, in her worn jeans and worn boots and worn button-down shirt. She drove a truck like theirs, big and rust-eaten and desperately in need of a fresh coat of paint. Still, she wasn't one of them—she was too loud, too talkative, too insistent on straddling some invisible line. Women with painted faces and flowery dresses whispered at her behind their hands.

It didn't matter. They could think whatever they wanted; Sigrun knew who she was.

Right as she was replacing the nozzle, she noticed a worn pickup driving past on the dusty road. She watched, eyebrow quirked, as the driver—a girl, she noticed, her unique silver hair pulled back into a loose ponytail—paused at the stop sign a bit longer than was necessary, watched as her eyes lingered on Sigrun with an interest that was just a little too intense for mere curiosity.

Sigrun took a chance, and winked.

She had the satisfaction of watching the girl's eyes go wide as a pink flush slowly spread over her face. She drove off hastily, and Sigrun watched her go with a satisfied smirk. Terrified of her own desires, or scared of being caught out? It was unlikely that she would find out, but it was always satisfying to get a reaction that didn't consist of being spit or cussed at.

A quick stop for gas became a stop for dinner, which then turned into a trip to the bar. That same girl was there, silver-haired, wearing a summer dress. Sigrun raised an eyebrow when she first noticed her there; she must have been older than she looked.

"Tuuri," she introduced herself, her voice breathy, after they'd both spent enough time circling around and around until they finally came within each other's circles. "Tuuri Hotakainen."

They shook hands. Her palms were callused, Sigrun noted with surprise, and whatever cleaning up she'd done had not been quite enough to remove the grease stains from underneath her fingernails. A worker, then. Mechanic, she confirmed.

Interesting. Very interesting.

So, a trip to the bar turned into an overnight stay.

The house Tuuri shared with her brother and cousin was ramshackle, broken-down, and dirty, just like everything in this town. The windows were covered with grime, the paint peeling, the front steps warped with too many rains and not enough finish. As they got out of the truck, a pair of glinting silver eyes attached to the head of a skinny silver-haired boy peered out at them from behind the trunk of a tree.

"Not a word to Onni," Tuuri admonished as she dragged Sigrun past the tree and into the house. The eyes continued to follow them long after they'd gone inside.

Tuuri slept in the attic, a single room littered with equal parts books and tools. The light of the single bare bulb reflected from the surface of the single grimy window. Tuuri sat on the bed, turned to her, and grinned, her face still flushed.

Sigrun hesitated.

What was she waiting for? Tuuri was of age. She was willing—eager, even—and Sigrun was already sick of spending her nights alone. So why the sudden cold feet?

"I'm only here for the night," she said at last, arms crossed. "Once that sun comes up, I'm moving on."

"Oh, I know." Tuuri smiled, and patted the bed. "Guess it's a good thing, when my brother is only gone for one night."

Taking what she could get, then, just like Sigrun. Sigrun stepped forward.

Later, she'd think that maybe what had bothered her most was that Tuuri hadn't been bothered.

One woman, one town, one night… over and over again, it was always the same story. Eventually, though, you got tired of taking whatever you could get. Eventually, you started to want what everyone else out there took for granted.

Maybe, someday, she'd find someone who was willing to take the risk, who cared more for being true to herself than for the dictates of what others thought was "normal" or "right". Maybe someday, she'd find someone who would ask her to stay. Until then, though, she had nothing but the road in front of her and yet another mess she'd left behind.

All this corn. It did things to your head.

Chapter Text


Everything that had ever gone wrong could be traced back to the day that Taru showed up.

Ever since they had returned, Lalli had been acting oddly, and he refused to speak of why. Tuuri, when asked, claimed that everything was fine and that Lalli was throwing a fit again over nothing, but Onni knew better. When it came to Lalli, Onni could always tell.

"I'm taking them home," Onni had growled when Taru had brought up the possibilities for handling the unfortunate aftermath of the mission. Lalli had not resisted the notion of a return to Keuruu; even Tuuri had been shaken enough at that point that she had accompanied him without a fight, though Onni knew that his word would not hold sway with his sister for long.

Even as he'd tried to prevent them from leaving, there'd been a small part of him that had hoped that this mission would be good for Lalli, that he'd make friends and finally be given an incentive to push past the crippling social isolation that had plagued him ever since he'd been a child. Instead, it seemed, he had only gotten worse.

"Didn't you say you made a friend during the mission?" he prodded, once, during one of the rare quiet times when Lalli seemed approachable.

"Yes. One." Instead of surly or guarded, though, Lalli now sounded utterly miserable.

"I don't know," Tuuri said when asked. "They were getting along fine by the time we came home."

Onni had no idea what had gone wrong, and he was utterly helpless to stop it. Finally, at his wits' end, he met up with Taru and gave in to his despair and rage.

"Look," she said after he had finally shouted himself out, as calm as the rocks beaten by a raging ocean, "this was the Silent World, and Lalli is a soldier. Sometimes, traumatic things happen out in the field, and there's nothing we can do about it, even if we speak out against some of the more foolhardy courses of action—which, for the record, I did."

"Doesn't seem to me like you spoke too hard."

Taru shook her head. "You are, of course, perfectly free to spend the rest of your life hating me. But that's not going to change whatever happened out there; what's done is done. In which case continuing to take is out on me is not going to do anything for anyone other than yourself."

Of course, that did nothing to cool his rage. Though what she said was true, she was still responsible for this mess, and the least she could have done was do her part to try to clean it up! Now, though, Onni knew that she had no interest in doing that, and she was right on one count: using his time and energy to fight her would not help, not when his family needed him most. So, Onni did the only thing he could do, told her to never come near them again unless it was to make reparations, and went home.

"What about that friend of yours?" he asked Lalli at last in a last, desperate gamble. "The one you made on the mission? Why don't you try to get in touch?"

In response, Lalli only shook his head. "He has his own problems."


"You knew! You sent me out there, and you knew how likely it was that I wouldn't come back!"

"Emil, it wasn't like that—"

"Then what was it like?" He crossed his arms, leaning against the wall.

"We thought it was going to work." Torbjörn looked ready to tear his hair out. "It should have worked! I don't know what went wrong—"

"You don't know what went wrong?" Emil exploded, pushing himself off of the wall. "You don't know what went wrong? You sent us out there on a shoestring, you shorted us on everything from rations to medicine, half of the crew barely had any training, and you're trying to tell me you don't know what went wrong?"

For a few moments, they could only stand and stare at each other in the dark. Siv was the first to break.

"We're ruined," she whispered, sinking into a chair and leaning her arms on the table. "We put everything we have into this mission. Without anything to show for it…"

Emil said nothing. He hadn't enjoyed seeing his family sink into poverty, but… they might not have had much compared to their previous fortune, but it was still far more than what he'd had to live on while out in the wilds. They had enough. Plus, if there was one lesson he'd learned during his time in the Silent World, it was that there were things that mattered to him far more than money.

"I'll still be by," he said on his way out the door, "to make sure the kids are okay." Neither of them answered; his unspoken meaning had come across loud and clear.

Emil held his head high as he walked down the street. Whatever the Silent World had taken from him, it had also given him something in return. From now on, he would make his own fortune.


"How long have you known?"

The reunion with his family had been tearful, but tense. After all, his little adventure had been the first time in his life that he'd defied his parents. It had also been the first time that he'd started to question them.

"Known what, honey?" his mother asked, but Reynir could hear the dread in her voice indicating that she already knew what he was going to ask. He did not answer her verbally, but pulled some pieces of paper from his pocket and spread them over the top of the table.

Runes. Runes made to ward off ghosts and trolls, to light up a dark night, to heal a wounded crewmate. He'd scribbled them on paper he'd pulled from Tuuri's typewriter and on blank pages he'd ripped out of books; he'd painted them on doors, stitched them into clothing, carved them into disks of wood, pricked his own fingers and drawn them in blood. By the time they'd made it back to civilization, everywhere the team had been had been littered with failed runes. Reynir had made careful notes of every experiment that had worked. He'd asked Onni to teach him about the Dream World and the spirits even knowing the older man could never teach him magic. He'd asked Sigrun to show him how to pray even though he couldn't understand a word she was saying. He'd known nothing, yet had had to learn everything because he absolutely could not fail.

"If I'd had some training," he said, softly, "there are a lot of bad things I might have been able to prevent from happening. But that doesn't matter, does it? Because if I'd known some of the things I should have known, I never would have ended up there in the first place."

"Reynir," Guðrun started, "I'm sure Mom and Dad were just trying to protect you—"

"Protect me from what?" It was amazing, how calm his voice sounded even though he was shaking inside. "From ever having to make a decision for myself? To ever see anything outside of Iceland? To ever see anything outside of this farm?" His hands, he realized, were shaking, his fingers clenching into fists against the wood of the table. "Did you think that I wouldn't know the outside world existed just because you never let me see it?"

They said nothing. There was nothing to say.

The Academy would take him. He'd be sitting in classes alongside children a third of his age, and he'd probably be nearly the only male in his class, but they would still take him. Iceland did not turn up its nose at good mages, or even at mediocre ones. Reynir might not have had much money, but he was a hard worker; he could earn his own wages and pay his own way. It was only too bad that he would have to wrest his future away from those who should have been ensuring it.

There was no undoing what had already happened. Now, all they could do was do what they could to salvage the future, and wonder what might have been.

Chapter Text

They knew it was going to be bad when they waited for the cold of winter to finally set in… and waited, and waited, and waited, while the trolls, beasts, and giants grew ever bolder and their own numbers thinned without their usual respite to heal and train the recruits.

Asbjørn and Solveig did not speak to each other as they changed into uniform, as they sharpened swords or loaded guns, or even when they said goodbye to their baby daughter. They could not afford to: when their village was under siege, they were comrades in arms first and spouses second. Any special attention they paid to each other—any second either one of them let a distraction get the better of them because the other was in danger—would put the whole village at risk.

The one conversation they had had after the call to arms had gone out had not gone over well.

"What are you doing?" he asked, alarmed, when he entered their bedroom to find Solveig changing into her uniform. Technically speaking, they were both still on parental leave, and her body had still not fully recovered after giving birth.

"Defending my village." Her eyes moved up and down his body, taking in the fact that he was already wearing his. "Same as you."

It was not a good idea—but the warm weather would not relent, Dalsnes was in danger, and they had no good options. Right now, they needed all boots on the ground.

Every day, more soldiers came back wounded from the front lines. Every day, time that should have been spent caring for their daughter, or feasting with their comrades, or simply enjoying each other's company, was instead spent bent over maps after a night of no sleep or dragging wounded from the battlefield or standing watch in the cold. Through it all, they kept to the pact that every couple took who shared the front lines:

I am your fellow soldier before I am your husband, before I am your wife. The best way to protect me is to fight your own battles and let me fight mine. If you truly love me, you mustn't love me now.

The unnaturally warm weather did not seem to want to let go, and a thick clinging fog rose up from the melting snow when the days reached temperatures that were just above freezing. More often than not, Asbjørn spent his days slogging over paths that should have been frozen solid, his boots mud-splattered and his uniform covered in blood.

He got hurt. All of them did. In conditions like this, though, you counted yourself lucky to get away with nothing worse than a thwack on the face and a missing tooth, and soldiered on.

Some degree of leeway was allowed to Solveig, due to her circumstances. She did not always take the field, but spent much of her time in the command tent, marking out points on a map with her baby at her breast. Sometimes, though, things got so bad that even she had to take up her sword.

What with all the activity they'd been seeing lately, it was not unexpected for a giant to stir. Unfortunate, maybe, but no one was surprised. They had to stop it before it managed to get within a dangerous distance of any civilians; everyone who could still stand at that point was obliged to take up a weapon and run out to meet it.

The battle was pitched, and long. It was big, too big for anyone to safely engage it in direct combat. So they were obliged to use their guns, and the peace of the fjords was shattered by the constant crack of bullets. Before long, they had to distribute some of their forces to protect them from the numerous smaller attackers that were woken up by that.

There was no timeline to that pitched battle, only moments. Moments of reloading his gun under fire, hoping that the cover provided by his fellow soldiers would not falter. Moments of drawing his sword and cutting down a beast that was going for someone's back. Moments of leaping out of the way of a giant infected limb, of backing up just a little more to get out of its reach, of calculating how much ground they'd given and how much more they could afford to give if they wanted to keep it at an acceptable distance.

Asbjørn remembered when he saw it fall. He also remembered a figure, dark hair tied behind her head, a gun in her hands and a sword on her hip, taking aim at its final head even as it made one last swipe at her.

When they'd carried her off the battlefield, she'd been in bad shape, drifting in and out of consciousness as he cradled her head in his hands. She spoke, words that didn't make sense; it was unclear whether she was even addressing him, or some other entity that only she could see.

After they got her to the infirmary, the doctors would not let him in. So Asbjørn stood outside, and held his baby girl, and gently rocked little Sigrun while she fussed and tugged at his hair.

She would make it, they told him at last, coming out to see him long after the baby had fallen asleep on his chest and Asbjørn himself was swaying on his feet. As long as she took care with her wounds, and did not get an infection, she would probably make it—but some parts of her body had been damaged beyond repair. She would never bear another child.

In response, he only nodded, and swallowed, and asked to see her. She was alive—everything else, they could deal with later.

He'd fallen in love with a warrior, who took no nonsense from anyone and would kill trolls with the same ease with which she made breakfast. Now, though, unconscious, pale, her brows knit together in spite of the painkillers, she looked more vulnerable than he'd ever seen her before, and he no longer needed to force himself to think of her as just another soldier on the field. Now, she was only his wife.

When she woke, her husband was by her side, their daughter asleep in his lap and his warm hand wrapped around hers. He looked awful: a rainbow of days-old bruises splashed across his face, and she could see white bandages peeking out from underneath the neck of his shirt. Still, they were both alive, and they thanked the gods as they squeezed each other's hands and touched their foreheads together, taking the care with each other's injuries that they'd long learned from old habit. They were alive. Once again, the gods had let their family stay together through one more battle.

When the doctors told her the news, she nodded, and asked to be left alone. As soon as Asbjørn had taken the fussing Sigrun away and the doctors had moved on to their next patient, Solveig threw an arm over her eyes and quietly wept. The question of more children was not one that they had yet discussed, but now that decision was no longer in their hands. They had Sigrun, and she was grateful for that, but now she knew that Sigrun was all they would ever have.

The next time she saw them, she asked for Sigrun, and held her baby close against her body like she never wanted to let go.

They sat side by side under a tree in winter, snow drifting down around them from out of the darkened sky. The village was peaceful, as it always was at this time in midwinter. People were resting, recovering from the summer's toils. Even the winter feasting and games were muted at this time of night.

They had talked, already, of what their future would be like. It was never easy to be married to a soldier—that they were both on the front lines only doubled the difficulty. Still, they had decided to take the chance, because they both wanted to make it work.

On the battlefield, we're comrades in arms first and foremost. That is the way it's always been, and the way it should be, for everyone's safety. But after the battle ends…

…after the battle ends, I need you to be my husband first.

…and I need you to be my wife.

"Stay with me," she whispered as she drifted off to sleep.

"I will."

Chapter Text


Tuuri blinked and rubbed her eyes, trying to be sure of what she was seeing. The older woman—it was her grandmother, Tuuri would have been able to recognize her anywhere—knelt down next to her, and though she had never been gentle, not in the way her mother had, the hand that she reached out to brush against Tuuri's forehead sent a soothing coolness through her that not a single one of Mikkel's potions or poultices had so far managed to achieve.

"Did you manage to get yourself lost again?" Tuuri smiled faintly; when she'd been a child she'd always been so eager to explore, and had ventured out of bounds again and again just to see what would happen; more often than not half the village would have been sent out to look for her before she was finally found and subjected to lectures on her lack of immunity and her grandmother's scolding alike. "Well, no matter. Come with me; I'll show you the way home."

Shivers racked her body the second she slipped out from under the blankets, accompanied by a violent cough that she desperately tried to muffle with both hands over her mouth. Her shoulder ached with every movement, and it took her twice as long as usual to shove her arm into the sleeve of her jacket. Everything, it seemed, took twice as long as usual, with the fog in her head, the fever that left her simultaneously too hot and too cold, and the deep ache in her bones that refused to go away no matter how many painkillers she drank or how long she stayed in bed.

By the time she had finished lacing up her boots, her grandmother was gone. Rather than go back to bed, though, Tuuri stood, and staggered unsteadily across the floor. Grandmother never waited. If you weren't fast enough to keep up with her, you just had to keep walking until you caught up. Tuuri had never been fast or strong, but she was determined, and sick of always being left behind.

Mikkel snorted a bit when she cautiously eased open the door; he'd fallen asleep on the floor, slumped up against the wall. Tuuri tiptoed around him, taking extra care not to disturb the box of syringes that lay by his hand.

Wait, she'd said, when she'd first started to notice a persistent itch in her armpit and on the back of her neck, spreading from the wound in her shoulder. It's normal for wounds to itch as they heal, right? Maybe it's only because it's healing. Maybe it's just an ordinary rash. Wait, she'd said, when Mikkel had changed her bandages and informed her, gravely, that he was beginning to see some troubling discoloration at the site of her wound. Maybe it's just an infection—no, a normal infection. Like what Sigrun had. Maybe it's going necrotic—she hadn't stopped to consider how bad that that would be for her, because she couldn't, just couldn't, consider the alternative. So Mikkel had sighed but had not argued, and given her antibiotics and painkillers, and reiterated that she must stay away from Reynir, and that she must not leave the quarantine room they'd put her in when they'd finally made it to the military base—if there was anything she needed, he would get it for her.

Wait, she'd said, at last, when the bone-deep ache had refused to go away and the pustules spreading over her skin were impossible to mistake for any ordinary rash, and she'd finally been forced to accept the truth. Just… give me some time. If I'm in too much pain, or I start to… to change… but not yet. These were her last days. She wanted as much time as she could get to spend as herself.

Again, Mikkel had not argued, only nodded. "I will be ready whenever you are," he'd said instead, before handing over her next dose of painkillers.

I won't go anywhere near Reynir, I promise, she thought as she tiptoed quietly around Mikkel's prone form. I'm the driver, it's my job to get us home. I'm just going to let Grandma show me the way.

Cold wind hit her face as she pushed open the outside door. Sometime during the night a late winter snowstorm had blown up, obscuring the world in white and covering the ground with ankle-high snow. Tuuri smiled. Winter had always been her favorite time of year.

I'm coming, Grandma. She hummed as she walked, the cold wind blowing around her and driving snow into her face. Surprisingly, she didn't feel too cold anymore now that she was out in the midst of it; instead, the battering wind felt right, like home. Getting up and moving around had also felt right.

There were no tracks, but still Tuuri knew which way to go. She was no scout, but navigating the wilderness was in her blood nonetheless. Her grandmother would not have allowed her to follow if she did not also trust her to find the way.

"There you are." Her grandmother turned around when she reached the hill at last, her breathing slightly heavy, and though her words were exasperated Tuuri could see the relief in her eyes. "I was beginning to worry you'd lost your way after all." She shook her head. "Silly child."

They did not speak further. Instead, her grandmother only reached out, and wrapped Tuuri in her embrace.

Mikkel did not offer an apology, because he'd learned that with Sigrun, apologies were not what counted, and from his own experience that blubbering and abasement only wasted time and energy that would be much better spent in fixing the mistake.

He only hoped that this mistake could still be fixed.

He'd fallen asleep. Of course he had not forgotten about his own need for sleep, but he had promised Tuuri that she wouldn't be left alone—he'd only been intending to rest his eyes for a moment, he'd thought. Surely if Tuuri called for anything he would still hear her, he'd thought. In hindsight, he should have pulled rank on Emil and made him stand guard until Mikkel had had enough rest to clear his head—but then again, he'd never once dreamed that Tuuri would sneak off in the middle of the night without leaving so much as a note.

He should have. If there was one thing he'd learned in all his years as a medic, it was that it was impossible to predict the actions of a person who was at death's door, no matter how long you'd worked with them or how well you thought you knew them—and he had only worked with Tuuri for a few short months, nor, when it came down to it, did he know her all that well. Now, he could only be grateful that she had not done anything truly unhinged, and that whatever it was she was trying to do, it would harm only herself.

"Scout's back." Sigrun's hand landed on his shoulder as she spoke. Mikkel followed her pointing finger.

A darker shape was indeed materializing in between the drifting snowflakes. Though the tracks had been easy enough to follow at first, the snow was still falling fast enough that they would soon be covered, and besides nobody was about to tell Tuuri's cousin that he must remain behind. As he got close enough for them to see his face, Mikkel's worst fears were confirmed: Lalli moved with none of the urgency with which he'd first run out into the snowy night, and his eyes were on the ground. He gestured mechanically for them to follow.

When they found her, the snow covered her body so thickly that they had to dig her out to tell that it was indeed Tuuri and not an oddly-shaped rock. Though Mikkel had come along on the off-chance that a miracle had occurred and he might still be able to do something for her, he could tell even before he touched her that she was far beyond the help of any medic.

At least, he thought as he scooped the cold, lifeless body into his arms, it looked like she had gone easy in the end. Her face had relaxed into an expression of peace that had been notably absent throughout the last few days of pain and fear, and the corners of her mouth were curved upward in a small, contented smile.

Had she given him the word, Mikkel had been ready to give her an easy, painless death. Perhaps it was better this way, though. Better, that she had rejected his gambles and taken matters into her own hands. Good, that she did not seem to have suffered.

Suicide, he put in the report that he sent back to the backers. She was already infected; there was nothing we could have done.

Chapter Text

Everyone she'd ever known had told her that her fascination with the infected was exceedingly unhealthy—morbid, even.

Tuuri, of course, did not listen to them. She absolutely had to learn the secrets of the Silent World; one might even say it was her lifelong ambition.

Of course, that had never meant that she actually wanted to turn into one.

Trolls were hideous, vicious monsters. Their group had been sneaking around for months, trying not to disturb the locals lest they be subjected to the same horrible fate as the people they'd once been. No decent or civilized person would ever want to subject themselves to such an existence!

And so, Tuuri refused to subject herself to it. She was not ruled by the pathogen in her blood, or by anything that had happened to her ancestors. She was a human, she would make her own decisions like a human, and that was that.

"Tuuri," Mikkel informed her seriously as he finished bandaging up her shoulder. "Considering the circumstances, it is quite likely that you are infected with the Rash."

"Oh, I know."

For a moment, the medic looked taken aback by her upbeat tone and the cheerful grin on her face. "Tuuri?" he ventured, cautiously, after a moment. "You are aware of what that means."

"Don't worry, Mikkel. I'm not going to turn into a troll. I've already made up my mind about that."

Mikkel looked at her for a minute, opened his mouth, then closed it again after a few seconds without saying anything, having apparently decided that she was in denial, and packed up his bag without another word.

"I'm so sorry," Torbjörn told her when she informed him over the radio.

"Don't tell him," she said when they informed her that Onni had been "struck by lightning," and was currently in a coma. "I'll tell him." After she had already mastered this, that was. If Onni knew, he'd panic, and his constant crying would only be a distraction.

Her cousin, at least, did not try to say anything—but he did keep giving her those looks, the ones that said he thought she was going to keel over at any second, and Tuuri found it irritating. It wasn't going to do that to her. She wasn't going to let it.

"Be happy," she told him forcefully, pushing his mouth up into a smile as she drove the newly repaired tank through the pouring rain.

She was a human, and she made her own decisions!

Every day, when the others were resting before bed and after Lalli had left to scout, she would borrow Mikkel's shaving mirror and take a good look at her face. Nope, still human! Human all around! Clearly she was doing something right.

Once, she overheard Sigrun and Mikkel discussing what to do if they didn't manage to make it to a quarantine ship "in time". Imagine their surprise when they wouldn't need to!

Mikkel still put her in quarantine when they reached the abandoned base.

"Your intentions of not transforming or dying will not change the presence of the pathogen in your blood. Therefore, in the interest of protecting the safety of everyone else—particularly Reynir, who is still uninfected and still not immune—I must ask you to cooperate, and remain in here." He peered at her intently. "Can you be trusted to do that?"

"Sure!" Tuuri grinned, even though she was actually starting to get mildly annoyed. They'd see. They didn't believe her now, but they'd see.

There was always someone standing outside of her door—ostensibly in case she needed anything, but Tuuri knew better. It was mostly Mikkel, and Emil usually took the shift when he needed to rest—Sigrun was still recovering from her own injuries, but would occasionally take an occasional short stint outside the door as well. Never Lalli alone. Never a family member who might have a soft spot for her. They weren't just there to bring her food and medicine—she was being guarded.

When Tuuri first noticed the itching, and the discoloration spreading out from the wound on her shoulder, she panicked. This wasn't supposed to be happening! She was supposed to be in control!

"I hope you've finally started to realize the situation you're in," Mikkel said as he sat down beside her on the bed after a dressing change, shortly after she'd first noticed. "I realize this wasn't what you wanted, but… you do have options."

Tuuri said nothing. She was still trying to breathe.

"You could, of course, simply wait for the disease to run its course," Mikkel continued after a few minutes when she still hadn't answered. "But that is going to be an incredibly painful option, both for you and the people around you. At best, you'll die in agony. At worst… we can only let you go until you attack one of us, at which point we will be forced to take care of matters using whatever means we can. That serum may not be a viable cure, but it will stop the spread of the pathogen. I suggest you think it over."

After he had left, Tuuri's hands clenched into fists against her sheets. It wasn't supposed to be like this! She didn't make mistakes… not like her grandmother…

…her grandmother was one of them.

Only just now did the horror truly hit her. Her grandmother was one of them. The infection was in her blood; it couldn't be helped. She and her brother had missed out on all of the good genes.

Tuuri slumped where she sat on the bed, and buried her face in her hands.

Every day, she looked at herself in the mirror.

It was hideous. She was hideous. The angry red and black marks spreading out from her shoulder, accompanied by her sunken eyes and waxy skin, gave her a look that, she convinced herself, was no longer quite human. Whenever anybody brought her water or food, she turned away so as not to let them see her face.

What would grandma say… Tuuri felt betrayed. For all of her life, she'd believed that her grandmother was upstanding, skilled, a hero, someone who'd only ever made one mistake. Now, though, she finally started to process the magnitude of just how bad that mistake had been. Ensi Hotakainen had turned traitor, switched sides. There would be no forgiving her after that.

"Do you… want to talk about it?"

"Go away, Emil."


"Don't give me that look, Lalli. I'm fine."

"Dinner is ready."

"Take it away, Mikkel. I'm not hungry."

"Suit yourself."

She sighed, and buried her face in her knees. It was happening. She was turning into a monster, and there was nothing she or anyone else could do to stop it.

Mikkel had reminded her, once, that she still had an out. Still, though, Tuuri refused to even consider it, and told him not to mention it to her again. So far, he hadn't. Whatever happened next, she would make the decision herself.

Just like she'd always made the decision herself…

She was not her infection, damn it! She was human, and she made her own choices!

Every day, she took off her clothes and looked at herself in the mirror. All around her wound her skin was blackening, opening into blisters. That look she'd acquired was growing more pronounced by the day.

Eventually, though, one got used to it, she supposed. Now the discoloration and the sagging skin had just become a part of her normal look; she couldn't even remember what she had used to look like, if she was honest with herself (and she always was!). If this was what turning into a troll felt like, she thought, it wasn't so bad.

Every single night since it had happened, she had had dreams. Once, she would have called them nightmares. Now, though…

Now, she dreamed of running through the dark night with her people by her side. After a while, her grandmother even started to make appearances.

"It's about time you joined us," she said, and even though the words were distorted through the drool that dripped from her sagging jaw, somehow Tuuri could understand her perfectly. "I've been waiting for far too long for you to join me—you and poor Onni. I'm afraid that Lalli is beyond saving, as much promise as he showed."

"I'm trying, Grandma," she answered, the words pushing past the thickness of her tongue. "But they've got me locked up."

She had to get out. Her family was waiting; they had to stick together.

She shuddered at the thought of what the others would say to that. The others… none of the others had been touched by this; most of them could not be touched. They wouldn't understand.

Mikkel had been giving her a lot of strange looks lately—he would probably try to trick her into taking that "cure", the one that would undo the glorious transformation of her body while leaving what was left an empty shell. Sigrun wouldn't even bother with that; Sigrun would just shoot her. Lalli might even just shoot her. It wasn't fair; he was supposed to be her family!

It was unfortunate, but Lalli would just have to be left behind. There was nothing she could do to save him; she was sure her grandmother would understand.

"Could I have some water?"

The man outside of her door started; she had long ago forgotten his name. It didn't matter; he was an Outsider who could never share in their world, and she would pay him all the attention that that warranted.

"O-of course." She could smell the fear on him, the stink of sweat and adrenaline as he fought down the urge to flee or fight. "I will only be a moment."

A moment was all she needed.

The wonderful transformation had removed her need for sleep, and she'd been spending her nights working at the lock mechanism on the door while the humans' senses were dulled by the dark and the heaviness of their own weak eyes. Now, she eased it open, and slipped out.

The fresh night air was wonderful, and she grinned as she loped away from the base, showing her fangs. At long last, she was going to reunite with her grandmother, and their family would be whole again. First, though…

All this time, poor Onni had been left behind. She would drop by their former home, and fetch her brother, and then they would both join the rest of the family in their new world of bliss and wonder.

Chapter Text

It was early, to journey to the Silent World safely. Winter had not yet set in; the last of autumn still hung in the air, now a brief respite of bright light to break up the constant drizzle of rain. It was too still, too warm, with too little light.

A ship hovered on the edge of the coast. Even as its bulk bobbed in the waves, never coming close to the shore, something much smaller detached itself from its side and began to move toward land. The lone human, when it did touch solid ground, separated itself from its transport in favor of slumping heavily against a nearby rock. A few minutes passed like that before it pushed itself to shaky feet.

In the broken-down husk of a former military base, one of the shadows stirred. If it still had eyes to blink, at that moment it would have; as things were it only flickered and shied away from the light, even while straining towards the skinny figure that was now approaching.

The silver-gray head, when it cautiously peeked into the gloom of the building, was greeted by a single shadow, a wisp that hovered insubstantially and seemed to flicker in and out of existence. When it approached him, he stiffened, a brief glow infusing his eyes, but its touch did not harm him, and for a moment they simply stood there, shadow embracing light and light wrapped in shadow.

"Are you ready to move on?" His voice was soft; barely more than a whisper. There was a brief moment of tension—no words passed between them, no gesture, but presently he relaxed, as if he had somehow heard assent. "Come with me."

"You will have to cross a desert," he said as he worked. "The ferryman will take you the rest of the way…" The shadow said nothing. Then, because he needed one last reminder, because she did not seem to remember who she had once been, he began repeating her name: "Tuuri Hotakainen. Tuuri Hotakainen. Tuuri Hotakainen."

Finally, his preparations were done. Lalli stood, and began to sing.

The light, when it flooded the building, burned. At first the shade cringed away from it, but he pointed, showing her the way to the great desert expanse that she would have to cross in order to find rest. I know it hurts. I know it's been hurting ever since you succumbed. But this is the only way to free yourself.

The spirit moved past him.

Keep going, he urged as she trekked through the endless desert, thirsty and hot, several weeks in her time and barely a few hours in his. Keep going, as she boarded the ferry that would take her to the place where the living could not follow. Keep going, as she met, at last, with a great beautiful swan, and at last closed her eyes in an eternal rest.

The sun had set. His throat was dry, his voice hoarse. He was on his knees on the floor. He stopped singing, and closed his eyes.

She's gone. Not for a week or a year—she was gone. Half of his family, and he would never see her again.

He stood, and sighed. He had done what he could—the ship would be waiting, and he had to get back to the family that he had left.

"Goodbye, Tuuri," he said as he stepped out the door.

Chapter Text

So here they lay, gasping for breath and soaking wet, on the beach of a Silent land so unexplored no one could even remember its name, with no food, no shelter, no equipment, and no way to communicate with each other.

Perfect. Just perfect.

Pushing herself up onto her hands and knees, Sigrun turned to the side to make sure the civvie at least was still breathing; she had not gone to all that trouble just to have him croak on her. He was, the great gasps that were half exertion and half fear wheezing through the filters of his mask. His fingers dug into the sand as he turned panicked green eyes on her.

In spite of this being his first trip as an official member of the crew, panic had seemed to be Reynir's default mode from start to finish. He'd panicked when the freak storm had blown up that had tossed their small boat around like a cork. He'd panicked when a wave had swept him overboard. He'd panicked when Sigrun, who'd dived in to save him, had swum up behind him and locked her arms around his shoulders, nearly dragging her under even as he came dangerously close to strangling her with his hair—of course he would be the one person on this team who didn't know how to swim, and that mask on his face was probably the only reason he hadn't inhaled water and drowned.

"Work with me, damn it!" she'd snarled as she'd dragged him through the lashing rain and towering waves to the one fuzzy piece of land that was visible in the distance—the boat had already disappeared between the sheets of rain and she knew better than to waste energy looking for it, not in this weather. The best they could do was swim to land, sit tight, wait for rescue, and hope that the others had made it out okay.

Her arms and legs were trembling slightly with the exertion of dragging such a tall, heavy Icelander to shore through a storm, but spikes of cold were already stabbing into her core, and Sigrun forced herself to her feet. "Come on, up," she demanded when Reynir would have laid there shivering, got her hands under his armpits, and tugged. At least he responded to that; her next course of action would have been to yank him up by the hair. They were out in the open in the middle of winter with no dry clothes and no means to build a fire; if they wanted to survive long enough to be rescued, they would have to keep moving.

She kept to the beach; easier for the others to spot them if they were indeed attempting a rescue (if they were still even capable of rescuing). Easier, too, for her to spot anything that might try to sneak up on them, though in this rain all bets were off. As they walked, she assessed what they had. Her gun was gone, either left on the ship or swept overboard at the same time Reynir had been, but her sword had been on her hip when she'd gone over and it was still there now, and frankly in a situation like this Sigrun would much rather go without bullets than go without a blade. Reynir had his knife, much smaller than hers and meant for carving staves rather than combat, but a useful tool nonetheless, and—the one weapon he'd somehow managed to hold onto—his shepherd's staff.

Sigrun had raised an eyebrow the first time she'd seen it. "What does he plan to do with that?" she'd whispered to Mikkel as the Icelander had cheerfully boarded, swinging the crook that looked less like a weapon than like a cane. "Shake it threateningly at the first troll we see?"

"You would be surprised what an experienced shepherd is capable of doing with a staff," Mikkel had returned with a shrug. "After all, they must defend their flocks—from wild animals, if nothing else."

Somehow, Sigrun doubted that safe, boring Iceland harbored any wild animals more dangerous than a rabbit. Nevertheless, she had kept her mouth shut and let the kid have his toy; as long as he kept drawing his protective runes and left the fighting to the fighters, she figured, what harm could it do?

They both spotted it at the same time.

It was no fjord they'd landed on, but this coast was rocky, with only a narrow strip of sand in between them and the water. A few of the larger rocks were wedged up against each other, forming a narrow lean-to that was just big enough for two humans to squeeze in. It wasn't much, but the light was dimming fast and they needed to get out of the open; it would just have to do.

While Sigrun stood guard Reynir used the tip of his staff to carve a stave in the sand in front of their makeshift shelter, before taking out his knife. When he would have tried etching it into the bare rock, Sigrun shook her head, pulled off her glove, and rolled up her sleeve. They were going to do this, they ought to do it right.

Plainly, that school he'd gone to hadn't yet managed to train the squeamishness out of him (seriously, what was with this kid? He was supposed to be a shepherd; hadn't he ever killed an animal?), for he looked appalled at the notion. Impatiently, Sigrun snatched the dagger from his hand and made the cut herself.

"Freyja will appreciate it, trust me," she whisper-yelled after him as he ducked in to mark the inside of the rocks, the look of disgust still plain on his face.

When all was said and done, they shucked off their wet jackets and spread them over the rocks; their undershirts, though damp, were not nearly as soaked and would at least keep them livably warm. Then, they stuffed themselves into the cramped space, pressed up close against each other to share body heat. Reynir was in the back, Sigrun in the front with her sword in hand. Granted, if anything bigger than a grossling found them in here, they wouldn't have much of a chance—but damned if she wasn't going to go down fighting, if it came to that.

Crammed into a tiny crawlspace with a lanky Icelander was... well, slightly warmer than the outside, but that was just about all that could be said for their accommodations. Sigrun's body was contorted in ways she was pretty sure a body had never been meant to twist, either Reynir's elbow or his knee was lodged in her kidneys, and in spite of the fact that he was behind her she had still somehow managed to end up eating his hair.

They were in for a long, cold, uncomfortable night.

She was awakened by the pressure of sunlight against her eyelids, and… voices?

Irritated with herself for falling asleep, Sigrun sat up—only to find that Reynir was pushing against her back (gods, her poor abused kidneys!), in a way that made it very clear that he wanted out.

Her stiff legs didn't want to hold her as she pushed her way out of their hidey-hole, but Sigrun forced herself to ignore the pins and needles, and she kept her sword in hand. If there were other humans around, they were probably safe, but you never knew.

The men who had gathered outside of their makeshift shelter were not speaking any language that Sigrun recognized, and they dressed differently from anyone in the Known World, their simple white clothing draped over their bodies and covered by a dark cloak that was held in place by a clasp at the shoulder. For a moment, they only stared at each other, she as strange and exotic to them as they were to her. Other humans, other pockets of survivors, out there in the Silent World… Sigrun shook her head, and allowed herself a small smile as she realized that Tuuri had been right—Fuzz-head would have loved this—and the smile faded from her face with the thought that she didn't know whether Tuuri was even still alive.

It was Reynir coming up behind her, unsteady on his feet, who broke the tension. "Oh—oh, halló!"

"Easy, kid." Sigrun held him back by his collar when he would have rushed forward. He turned to her, gestured at the others, and babbled. His expression was imploring.

Well, they'd been found, and that was something—certainly far more than she'd hoped for when she'd dragged them ashore. Not like they had much choice, either, when they'd washed ashore with no shelter, no clean water, and, as her clenching stomach was insistently reminding her, not a bite to eat since yesterday's midday meal. She gave him a nod, but kept a hand on his collar as they both turned to the strangers.

It was easy to tell who their leader was—an old guy but strong, with fancier clothes than the rest. So it was to him that the two of them turned, Reynir miming with a series of gestures that they were castaway and needed help—or at least, that was what Sigrun assumed he was trying to say; from where she was standing it looked as if he was having a fit. Still, the message was pretty obvious from their sorry state alone, and after a few minutes of this Old Guy nodded and gestured for them to follow.

The town, less than half an hour's walk from the beach, was as novel as the people who inhabited it. Of course it was walled, with gates and guards armed with swords and crossbows, which was only sensible. The way that they decorated, though, was unlike anything that she had seen before. Not that Sigrun had ever paid a whole lot of attention to either art or architecture—if you had time to paint, you had time to farm or smith or fortify the town's defenses, and as far as Dalsnes was concerned any building that held together through winter was good enough. Like Sweden, though, these people seemed to have managed to carve a success out of the world that had been ravished by the Rash—and, like Sweden, they seemed to be dedicated to making it look pretty.

Their hosts did not seem to have any problem with letting them take their time as they strolled the open avenues of the town, pointing and talking every time she or Reynir slowed to look at a painting or a statue. After a few minutes of this, though, Sigrun was starting to get just a liiiiiiittle creeped out. Not that the paintings and statues weren't pleasing to the eye—they were!—but she hadn't seen that many naked men in one go even during her days in the barracks… and okay, what was that swan doing to that woman!?

Reynir, who'd been walking beside her, seemed to have noticed the same thing that she had; at least, he had also stopped dead in his tracks. Her suspicions were confirmed when his green eyes widened at the sight, before his face twisted into an expression of disgust underneath his mask.


"You said it."

Old Guy seemed to have noticed the focus of their attention. "Ah. Zeus." He indicated the painting with evident reverence, before sweeping his arm in the direction of yet another statue, this one depicting a man—an old man, perfectly built, with a beard on his face and lightning in his hands. It didn't take a genius to recognize the portrayal of a god, and a powerful one at that.

Sigrun and Reynir looked at each other. What, exactly, had they just gotten into?

They were fed—generously, if the food was different from what she was used to. Good, though—she certainly wasn't going to complain about the tender meats or rich cheeses or even the little brownish… fruits? vegetables?… that looked disgusting but were bursting with an intense salty flavor, nor about the freely flowing wine (even if they had watered it down, pah!). Whoever these people were, they sure knew how to treat their guests.

The rooms they were given were simple, but dry, and after the last night they'd had she'd settle for anything that included a roof and blankets. They retired early (hey, they'd had a tiring day and a rough night; bed sounded pretty good right about now), but barely had Sigrun finished turning down her covers when she heard a knock at her door.

It was to no one's surprise when she opened the door to find a red-haired freckly shepherd standing outside, a bundle of bedding wadded up in his arms. "What, scared of the dark?" she asked, but nonetheless gestured him in and let him make himself comfortable in his little floor-nest before she covered the lantern.

When she woke the next morning, it was to find a whole mess of runes drawn all over the walls, floor, and door, and what looked like a red hair monster asleep in front of the door, staff in hand.

Seriously, what.

Sigrun nudged him with her foot. "Hey." His eyes flew open with a start. She pointed at the drawings.

Reynir had needed to spend his summer focusing on learning magic, not languages, and his Norwegian at this point was still pretty shaky, but she hoped he'd have learned at least a few essential words. "Trolls?"



Reynir hesitated for a moment, but again shook his head.

He was worried about the humans here, then—one of the most dangerous situations of all. Sigrun didn't know what he could possibly have seen or heard either yesterday or during the night that would leave him so spooked, but she wasn't inclined to deny his hunches now she knew he was a mage, and she could not dismiss her own unease with the place. Maybe a future expedition could handle all that diplomatic mumbo-jumbo, but for now, she didn't want to stick around here any longer than she had to.

They spent that day combing the beaches, accompanied by a few armed men from the village. The good news was that they found no signs of a shipwreck to indicate that the others hadn't made it. The bad news was that they found no signs of what had happened to the rest of their team.

"I am not getting stuck on this island for the rest of my life," Sigrun grumbled, kicking the sand. A spray of grains flew out from under her foot.

It wasn't until they'd been there for three days that she realized what, exactly, had been bothering her.

Out of all the warriors that had accompanied them, and out of all the people who appeared to hold positions of authority in the city, Sigrun had yet to see a single face that wasn't bearded, or at the very least a little stubbly. She had yet to see a single woman who wasn't doing some menial labor, or being hurried out of the public eye. Once she had noticed it, she couldn't unsee it.

Not for the first time, she missed the rest of her crew: Mikkel and his logic, who could make sense of any situation no matter how nonsensical; Tuuri and her upbeat cheerfulness, not to mention her ability to pick up on any language. She'd have given quite a bit at this point just to have someone she could talk to, to check that she was still sane, because surely, she thought, this wasn't normal.

Yeah, stare all you want, she thought as she ran through sword drills in the courtyard, glaring back at any man she caught looking oddly at her weapon or her confident stance. Whenever she came within sight of any of the frescoes, she glared at those as well.

Zeus, Old Guy had called that one particular god. Obviously he was an important one; he seemed to have by far the most frequent portrayal in their artwork. He also, if some of the scenes were anything to go by, had some rather nasty habits—let's just say that Sigrun had never seen that expression on a woman's face when she was experiencing pleasure.

Sometimes, the gods behaved badly. It was a truth which was rarely acknowledged explicitly, but which everyone knew—just look at Loki, for crying out loud! So no, Sigrun did not expect even the Æsir to always behave like saints. They had emotions and fears and desires just like the humans they governed. They were neither all-powerful nor all-knowing. That they occasionally killed an innocent, or ended a battle dishonorably, was no excuse for their worshipers to emulate the worst of their behavior, and Sigrun had been trying to convince herself that these people thought the same way.

Apparently, she'd thought wrong.

The cries of distress had brought to her to a temple, where she found a man in the midst of making an attempt on a much younger girl. Without hesitation, she yanked him off and flung him at the door—though not without breaking his nose for good measure.

His shock at her daring quickly transformed to anger, but by that point Sigrun already had her sword in hand and pointed at him. "Try it," she dared with a growl. At this point, she was almost hoping he would just so she'd have an outlet for some of her frustration.

Instead, though, he wiped the blood from his face with a look that said he was not at all cowed, turned, and strode from the temple. "IN DALSNES YOU'D HAVE BEEN SHOT WITHOUT A TRIAL!" Sigrun bellowed after him. It was the only thing she could do to hide how hard she was shaking at his complete lack of concern.

When she finally felt secure enough to turn around and check whether the girl was all right, she had already disappeared into the shadows.

That night, there was a raging thunderstorm. Reynir, who'd been busily drawing even more staves all over the walls, jumped violently at every flash of lightning or crash of thunder. Granted, he might have just had some weird phobia about storms… but somehow Sigrun didn't think so. When he was finished, he looked to the sky, and swallowed nervously.

They had nothing with them that could be used as an offering, but they both prayed that night, asking for protection and guidance in this unknown land with its strange gods.

The next morning, they found something else outside of their door.

Scorch marks decorated the stones of the walls and floor, scars of a repeated lightning strike. It was a wonder the door itself hadn't burst down—a wonder, or an upside of the blessing that Freyja had given to Reynir; better give credit where credit was due, after all.

The people of the village were definitely giving credit for those marks to something other than a freak of nature.

There was a crowd gathered around their door, and no sooner had they stepped out than they were hustled to the main hall and dragged before a court. Old Guy was presiding, and though she didn't understand the words Sigrun could easily enough catch the gist of what he was shouting. She crossed her arms. Was this about what she'd done yesterday? Was it about Reynir defacing their architecture with runes? Or had one of them simply sneezed in public at the wrong time of day? Whatever it was, though, for some reason she'd been expecting for their hosts to demand they make reparations and pay a fair price like in a civilized country.

She really should have figured out by now that this was not a civilized country.

Sigrun and Reynir ended up standing side by side in a large arena. Matter of fact, it looked a whole lot like a Hunter Initiation, and she wondered whether they were going to have them fight a wild animal or even engage in combat with other humans. Yes, she recognized the setup, because her people did this on occasion as well—but to provide aspiring warriors an opportunity to prove their worth, not as a substitute for justice!

It looked as if fighting it was going to be, though. Sigrun drew her sword, before nudging Reynir, who at least had his staff in hand—but Reynir was not looking at her.

Following his gaze, she saw that Old Guy had also entered the arena and now stood across from them, accompanied by a young woman—after a moment of looking Sigrun recognized her as the same girl she'd rescued in the temple. It was the girl that Reynir was looking at, she realized as she traced his line of sight once more, his eyes wide and his hands trembling slightly.


Okay, she had no idea what that was all about. Something was going on, though; when she caught sight of Reynir in turn, the woman across from them looked away, squeezing her eyes shut. Rather than watching them, Sigrun noted, the crowd was beginning to disperse—hastily, as if they wanted no part in whatever was to happen next.

No time to think about that now; Old Guy was speaking, and Sigrun was bracing herself for whatever unknown they were in for (because really, this was just too weird to predict), when he… took his companion by the hand?

Sigrun had absolutely no idea what she was watching. The couple across from them showed no sign of fighting; instead, the man was twirling the woman around, pulling her close against his body before allowing her to swing away once more, and did these people seriously solve all of their problems with a dancing contest? Confusion quickly gave way to alarm, though, when they began to glow.

The glow grew more intense by the second, quickly becoming overwhelming until only the shapes of the two bodies were left—and then even their shapes began to deform, losing their definition, growing, moving closer together… Sigrun gripped her sword—

—Reynir gasped, turned to face her, and slammed a hand over her eyes.

The kid was lucky that she managed to 1) not drop her sword, or 2) run him through on reflex. Before she could react in any more reasonable way, though, he was pushing her backwards and turning her by the shoulders with his free hand, and only after she was facing the wall of the arena did he remove his hand from her eyes.

"Reynir, what the Hel—" she protested, immediately moving to get back to facing gods-knew-what threat had just been unleashed on them, but Reynir blocked her before she could even finish turning.

"Ekki horfa!" He was panicked, she realized—and not just civilian-kid-in-the-Silent-World panicked. No, this was genuine I'm-a-mage-and-I-know-something-you-don't panic.

…if she was going to accept him as an official member of her crew, than she was going to have to trust him to do his job. No better time for that, she thought, than in the middle of a crisis.

"Okay," she conceded, doing what Reynir wanted and keeping her eyes averted in spite of the storm winds now whipping around them and the crackle of thunder in the air. "We'll do it your way. So what now?"

Reynir chewed his lip. Well that was a good sign. After a few seconds, though, he held out his hand.

Sigrun placed her hand in his, allowing her sword hand to hang free as Reynir was doing with his staff. He closed his eyes, and she did the same. Then, he started twirling her around. Sigrun didn't think about what he was doing, but allowed her body to respond as it wanted to, moving in ways that felt right. The last thing she was truly aware of was when their off-hands touched.

Sparks flew when sword met staff. The hilt of the sword began to thicken. The crook of the staff turned in on itself and blunted. The weapons drew together as though magnetized—and so did the dancers. There was a brilliant flash of light.

Where Sigrun and Reynir had stood a few seconds ago, there was now a man—a tall man, with wild red hair and beard and flashing violet eyes, a shortened hammer clutched in his hand.

He looked to the other side of the arena at the muscular, gray-bearded man who stood across from him, electricity crackling around his hands. With a grin, he hefted his hammer, and lightning arced around its handle in turn.

"Nice to see you again, you shapeshifting rapist!"

"You would dare challenge the father of the gods in my own land? We talked about this, Thor." He raised his hand, a bolt of lightning clenched in his fist. "But, if you insist…"

"Do your worst, Zeus. It's been ages since I've had a worthy fight!" He twirled the hammer once before taking a fighting stance.

Zeus drew back his arm, and threw. Lightning arced across the space between them. Thor raised his hammer, intercepted the bolts, and pounded them into the ground. The whole arena shook. Zeus staggered, but recovered quickly, now gathering sparks in his hands once more. With stormclouds roiling in his eyes to match the ones that were now gathered above them, he gestured, and lightning crackled from sky to ground directly in front of his opponent. In retaliation, Thor closed with a bellow and swung his hammer; Zeus barely managed to sidestep in time to avoid having his bones shattered.

In between the crackling lightning and the pounding of the hammer, the two gods continued to exchange insults.

"It's an embarrassment to do combat with a weakling like you! Why does your father even let you out?"

"You call this rain? You're not even trying!"

"Call yourself a man? I've seen you in a dress!"

"Up to your old tricks forcing yourself on mortal girls? Did you get bored with your sister again?"

They were no longer on opposite sides of the arena but had now closed with each other, arms locked so tightly that Zeus could not get the leverage to throw his lightning, nor Thor to swing his hammer.

"What were you thinking, bringing barbarians into my land! Maybe we should introduce you to civilization!"

"Ha! And subjugate your people like you have yours? In case you've forgotten, I am my people as you are yours, and I'm stronger than you because I look out for my people—all of my people!"

Thor took a great leap back, and swung his hammer one last time. A deafening crack of thunder shook the arena.


When Sigrun woke, she was lying facedown in the dirt. A low groan next to her indicated that Reynir was in a similar situation.

For a moment, she couldn't remember exactly what had happened. Had she gotten drunk last night or something? The pounding headache, the dirt in her face, and her confusion certainly matched the symptoms of her previous hangovers.

Then, it came back to her. The second mission. The storm. The two of them washing up on a foreign shore. The odd customs of the people and the odd looks they had given her. And, finally, the intervention, the trial, the arena…

She and Reynir both shot upright at the same instant. For a second, they looked at each other. His eyes were wide in shock and disbelief; Sigrun herself had a hard time believing what they had just done. Believe it or not, though, they had done it.

With a whoop, Sigrun grinned and jumped to her feet. She waited only a second before dragging Reynir up by the hand, at which point she wrapped her arms around him, lifted him off his feet, and swung him around in a circle, laughing all the while.

"We did it!" she yelled. "I had my doubts about you, but we met that old guy and together we kicked his ass! You've got what it takes, kid!"

Reynir grinned nervously, but pushed her away as she set him down. The smile slid from his face as he looked across to the other side of the arena, and Sigrun followed his gaze.

Their opponents were also on the ground, and were just now coming to. Old Guy was glaring daggers at the girl—Alethea, Reynir had called her—and she wasn't even bothering to pick herself up, but kept her eyes fixed to the ground in shame.

Reynir, without so much as a word to his captain, crossed the arena and went to the girl. While he was doing that, though, Sigrun thought.

Whatever it was they'd just done had allowed her some insight into his mind, and Sigrun now knew a few things she'd rather not have found out—like why he'd been so antsy the past few days, how he knew that girl, and the things Alethea had told him in the land of dreams that only the mages could visit. They might have won this battle, but the sooner they got out of here, the better she would feel.

Still, she knew that for now at least, neither of them would be harmed here. Sigrun stooped to pick up her weapon. Even her trusty sword was going to feel like a letdown after the memory of the sheer raw power of Mjölnir in her hand—but she supposed she would just have to deal. Leaving the two lovebirds to whatever it was they were doing, Sigrun turned, and left the arena.

Nobody bothered her. As a matter of fact nobody was around to bother her—the people had all hidden away in their houses when the clash of thunder had begun, and even though the dark clouds were already dispersing, it seemed they still did not dare to come out. So she picked her way through town undisturbed, past frescoes of naked men and statues of predatory gods, until her feet took her, of their own volition, to the beach where they'd washed up.

The pile of rocks where they'd sheltered that first night was still there, still easy to spot by the runes drawn all over the inside of the stone in Sigrun's blood, which the moisture in the air had not yet managed to wash away. It was colder now, the bite of winter in the air at last. She leaned against a rock, and looked out to sea.

…there were sails on the horizon.

With a start, Sigrun shoved herself off from the rock and ran straight down into the waves, waving her arms, and the First Rule could go straight to Hel if it meant being stuck here for the rest of her life. "Hey! HEEEEEEEEEEEY!"

The people on the ship must have heard her—or the gods did; at this point she really couldn't care less. As it got closer, Sigrun realized a number of things in succession: one, it was of Viking make. Two, it looked like it had taken a pretty bad beating. Three, there was a rather green-looking Finnish mage hanging over the side.

This was her ship. Finally, her team had come back for her.

As the ship ran aground Sigrun waded out to meet it, and was greeted by a big Dane climbing down into the water.

"Reynir?" he asked, his eyes widening in alarm when he saw that she was alone.

"Safe," she reassured, before craning her neck to take in the rest of the ship. Tuuri was waving at her from the prow. "Took you long enough."

Mikkel looked as if he was barely refraining from rolling his eyes. "Frankly, you should consider yourselves lucky we were able to find you at all. As a matter of fact we've been combing these islands for days—we had just about given up hope of finding you when Tuuri informed me that Lalli insisted we go in the direction of what sounded like a whole bunker's worth of explosives going off." He raised a single bushy eyebrow. "Care to explain to me what that was about?"

"You wouldn't believe me even if I told you." She clapped him on the shoulder. "Good work, big guy."

"Ah." Mikkel's gaze drifted over her shoulder. "I see we have a guest."

Sigrun turned. There, climbing over the crest of a hill, was Reynir—and he was dragging the foreign mage along by the hand.

Reynir pointed at her—at Alethea. He babbled something in Icelandic. Though she trusted that Mikkel would translate in a minute, Sigrun already had a pretty good idea of what he was asking: "Hey Captain, I found this stray, and I just couldn't bear to leave her out in the rain, can I keep her?"

Sigrun sighed. "Fine," she groaned, waving a hand as she turned back to the ship. "Just as long as you promise to feed and care for her yourself."

"Is this wise?" Mikkel asked, after everyone had boarded and they were watching Reynir show Alethea around the deck as Tuuri verbally prodded her and Kitty twined around her ankles. "I must remind you that we only have food supplies for six people—not to mention the resources, the sleeping space… We don't even know whether that girl is immune."

"What, unexpected addition, seemingly useless, can't talk to anyone?" She waved a hand at the two kids. "Been there, done that. Can't break tradition, you know?"

First thing she was going to do, she thought, was introduce that girl to a few decent gods.

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