Sun Wolf

by Kagamino Kage (鏡乃 影)
illustrated by quaedam

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/95863.html)

illustrated by quaedam

The song-weaver sang to fill up the darkness of the Chasm. She sang the old tales of the twilight twins of bygone age, of how they had devoured the sun to blackened stump; how then, mad with the fire inside them, they had fallen upon one another, limb torn from limb, bones crushing, until there was nothing left of either. In their madness, they had forgotten to eat the moon. And so the prophecies had come to naught; the world was not cast into utter darkness as foretold, but lit still by pale, inconstant flame. The sun can be seen but seldom, feeble red of a near-spent ember, no longer giver of light and warmth.

With the sun the old kings fell, and the new queens rose with the moon, ushers of that great age of wild magics and unlikely sciences. Inevitably, these too fell, and now none reign over the black and frozen Earth but the wolves of chaos alone, as the stars scurry restless as ants about the sky. The last great queen, the eternal Queen, is said to still look down from her glass throne upon the moon, walking through mirrors; but perhaps she has forsaken the world.

And yet life lives on, feeding upon the heart’s blood of the Earth, nestling deep into her flesh.

Into the age of wolves sailed the legendary ship Kráka, the cloud-road walker, product of the strange sorceries and sciences of that lost age of queens. She sailed over frozen seas and frozen earth alike – and, if the stories could be believed, she had once even sailed the skies above. She had a heart and mind of her own, the Earth-spine strider, the ice-sheet skimmer, deep and unfathomable, and she chose her captains with care.

Now cradled at her prow stood the one called sun-wolf, Sölva, the yellow-eyed warrior, pale and golden as the lost sun of old tales. Her body held itself straight and rigid as the spear gripped in her right fist. Her other hand clenched fast at the wound on her side, black ichor leaking from between her fingers, poisoned blood.

Close by stayed Jara, her right arm, and Little Mouse, her left. The first stood straight as her captain, awaiting orders whenever they might come; the second curled small as a child upon the deck, bristled like a furious animal, wild eyes glowering from beneath the hood of her coat.

They and all her women had long since ceased to try and coax Sölva to sleep, to rest. She could not rest, she said. Once closed her eyes would not open again: for the sun-wolf was dying.

For four days now they had been wandering the great Chasm, labyrinthine passage through the endless northern ice cliffs. The ship’s sails crackled blue and white sparks, pale lightning in the dark. The moon arced high overhead, but none of her light trickled down to the black depths below.

Only by the ghostly golden light of the heartsfire, great fire-river below the ice, did they steer their ship. They had no choice but to follow those glowing veins as closely as they could manage, for the ship would not last long without it. It was that last giver of earthly life from which she drew her power.

Guiding the helmswoman along this treacherous path were the sisters Kolbrún and Dagrún, forever mourning their lost third. Kolbrún was gifted with the voice of the moon and stars, able to read their erratic paths across the sky to determine the ship’s course; Dagrún was gifted with the voice of the heartsfire, able to hear through its whisperings what lay ahead and behind.

They had been far from any other human settlement when their captain had fallen. The heartsfire had whispered to Dagrún of life beyond the cliffs, of an old, weakened queen – a queen might have the knowledge to save their wolf. It was a feeble hope, but the only hope they had, and thus they grasped for it desperately.

Black blisters upon the golden river told of the passage of their prey, the one whose claws had torn their master’s flesh and poisoned her blood; it had come this way as well. They could not rest while it still breathed. Its death was their purpose.

“Left!” cried Dagrún to the helmswoman, and the song-weaver fell to an abrupt and startling silence; “Left up ahead! An exit!”

And so it was. The black sky swarmed overhead as they broke free, giant waves of crystal rising up behind them. The aurora ripped across the sky, streaks of colored light surging and swirling.

A wide plain of ice stretched out before them, little broken by sparse vegetation. Beneath the ship, lights flared as it approached them, two by two in blue and yellow, curling off, marking a gently-curving road long since covered by the ice – and in the distance, at the end of that road, a metallic hall gleaming, jutting straight up from the plain like a defiance of the gods.

Her first memories are of black-scaled skin glistening rainbows like oil on water; of red hair curling round her fingers like trickles of blood; of lush lips laughing, always laughing. Strange eyes, yellow on black, are looking down at her. There is a vague, sulky sense that she is being made a fool of – this is all.

She remembers closing her eyes beneath the touch of those lips – but when she opened them again, there was only Jara’s dark face. But she did not know that face, not then, and for a moment she saw black scales and gold-dark eyes instead of what was there. Then she saw the woman’s right arm, a strange and shimmering thing of bright, smooth silver.

Once she realized her mistake, she tried to flee, but found her body pinned by heavy, wet warmth. Corpses. She was buried beneath a gray and twisting tapestry of corpses – the corpses of monsters.

Jara told her, later, that it was she, Sölva, who had killed them all with her own two hands. She could remember this hazily, if she tried very hard, but it was overshadowed by the memory of the black-scaled one from before. Jara said she had seen no such woman, that it must have been a dream.

Jara is the only one she has ever told – sometimes, when she sees her own reflection, it is of another face entirely. Sölva allows that perhaps she is a little mad; but at least she isn’t as mad as Little Mouse.

(The others all believe that Sölva has no memory; privately, Sölva suspects that she truly has no past at all.)

There were two sentries; both young, one fair and hardly more than a boy, the other dark-haired, a little older. Neither bothered to hide their astonishment, openly gaping as the women approached.

“We thought you were ghosts, come floating over the earth in that strange ship,” said the younger one. “Are you, then?”

The darker man shot the other a warning glare. “Many years its been since we’ve last seen another human at all, outside of this hall,” he said, his voice crisp and distrustful. “Much less come out from the Chasm. You’re warriors, plain from your weapons. State your business with Leikný Hall.”

Sölva, who feared her breath would fail her, nodded to Jara, who stepped forward and spoke, deep voice ringing: “We come seeking the prince of monsters, called Shatterbones, who weeps tears of moths and blows breath of locusts. When last we battled the beast, his claws rent open our leader’s flesh: his claws drip poison, and her wounds will not heal. She is dying. You, bearers of old queen’s wisdom, may be our only hope to save her.”

“Well we know of this beast,” said the younger soldier softly. “One fortnight past he descended upon our hall; every night he takes more of our men. Our dead are twisted into abominations before our eyes. Its flesh resists our blades. We are helpless.” He gave an apologetic smile. “Your pardon, brave warriors. But we are faced with desperate times ourselves. The ice grows wider every year; food is scarce; and the beast has thinned our numbers. What can you offer us, that we can spare our resources on you, unknown strangers?”

Jara was unperturbed. “We can slay the beast,” she said. “Or at the very least, drive it away. To slay the foul prince is our reason for living.”

“That does seem fair compensation,” the sentry allowed.

But the older man remained unconvinced. “Why should we trust you? You come out of a realm of phantasms, seated upon a ghost. Our world no longer has need of the likes of you, strange witch-women, wild edge-wanderers. How can we trust that you have not come to thieve us, to conquer our hall for your own?”

Little Mouse growled like an animal and loosed her sword in its sheath; but Sölva raised her hand, and she stood down.

Sölva turned her yellow gaze on the man, her eyes bruised and tired, her skin gray as ash. At the best of times she had no patience for pretty words, as Jara did; as it was she would rather flay this man alive.

“And why should we trust a pack of cowdogs who not only wander the edge but squat upon it?” she sneered. “Clearly you’re all mad; who would trust such moon-struck fools as would remain out here in this waste? But we have no choice, and neither do you. Strange times and strange needs form strange alliances. Help us and we will rid you of your monster; fail us and we will watch it kill you all before we move to slay it. It isn’t a bad exchange.”

(Such a threat was a gamble, she well knew; but pain had made Sölva rash.)

The older man’s face purpled at the insult, but the younger boy was, for all his gawping, the more practical. “We understand,” he said gravely. “Allow me to send message to my queen.”

It was the most natural thing in the world. From the first she had laid her eyes upon the creature, there was, more than horror, the shock of recognition.

It was a face not so much malformed as unformed, gray mush-milk, muzzy about the edges. Breath of locusts, unfocused greed glutting itself upon all that lived; tears of moths, springing dry as dust from dark pits of eyes, seeking only the flame that would burn them to smoke and ash.

She knows that face down in the marrow of her bones, knows that it is her spear which must pierce its heart.

The others had all lost something: families and lovers to its claws, fields and villages to its disease and pestilence. Jara had lost her arm to the beast before Sölva had even met her. Sölva had lost nothing – had nothing, back then, to lose. She knew no hate, no anger, no thirst for revenge: she knew only that this creature was for her to kill. And yet they followed her so easily, made her the avatar of their just retribution as though she understood their pain. She had never intended to lead, and yet they followed.

Still, she found that this too came naturally as the hunt itself.

Steel walls, tables, chairs, floors: everything formed out of steel, a gray reflective world lined with lights of blue and yellow, a dreamlike pallor cast over all within it.

It was as tall as several halls piled atop each other. The ground floor looked much as any hall should save for the immensity of it, and for the proliferation of cold, gleaming metal. Lining the walls and hung from the high ceiling were trophies, glitter, splendor – treasure-hoard of conquerors – but the hall stood unlit and empty. No scent of food or human bodies pervaded the place. It was as though it had stood all but deserted for a very long time.

A guide was summoned to lead Sölva and Jara to the healer, and the rest were escorted to a separate room to eat and rest. (Sölva and Jara had decided, privately, that it would be best that Little Mouse remain with the others. She was easily incited to violence, and once flared, her temper could only be cooled by Sölva’s hand; if Mouse perceived, in her child-like way, that Sölva was being harmed, it could go badly.)

When asked why such a grand hall sat empty and unused, the guide replied: “Why, it is warmer below.”

Leikný Hall sat atop a maze akin to the underground cities of ants: scores of corridors twisting and turning, leading off into darkness. Here and there a wall of glistening stone and ice replaced the gray of the steel, earth and metal shifting around one another uneasily. They passed by a number of men – always men. Many of them stopped to stare as they passed.

“How do you stay warm at all, in a place made out of metal?” Jara asked, curious.

The guide shrugged. “We know not how it functions, only that it does. It was built more than two centuries ago. Perhaps our queen understands.”

Sölva reached out and brushed her hand against the wall. It was warm to the touch, and seemed to vibrate, pulsing beneath her fingertips like something alive. She yanked her hand back, and her fingers felt unpleasantly greasy; she wiped them against her coat.

The healer was a man as well, young, pretty, like the all the rest. He peered at Sölva’s blackened flesh with a pinched expression. “Not necrosis,” he murmured, fingering the marks scored along her ribs. “It doesn’t even have a smell. What is happening here?”

She grimaced at his touch, looked down at the table beside her. A different face than her own was looking back up from its blurred surface.

“Your sentries said the beast has attacked your men,” Jara was saying. “Have you seen nothing like this, then?”

The healer laughed. “Ah, but you see,” he explained, “we’ve had no survivors.”

Sölva continued to stare at her not-reflection.

“Mother,” said the not-reflection; “daughter, sister – son.” The not-reflection smiled. “He’ll eat up the whole world, you know. Earth-eater, sorrow-spinner, slayer of souls. It is his purpose, his raison d’être. His sorrow runs deeper than the sea, his emptiness so vast nothing may ever hope to fill it.”

“What?” said Sölva, her tongue slowed by confusion and fatigue. “What…”

The healer gave her a blank look. “Yes…?” he said.

“No, I -” Sölva struggled to think through the haze. She pulled gaze from the table with great difficulty; the apparition was gone, in any event. Now it was only her own face, albeit twisted and blurred, looking out of that warped mirror.

The healer gave her a beatific smile. “You’re confused,” he said gently. “And small wonder. With a wound like this, I’m amazed you’ve remained conscious, much less stayed on your feet. I’ll do what I can.”

After that, he pumped her full of heartsfire, and she thought she would never stop screaming.

But was it safe, Jara had asked.

Safe, the healer had repeated, as if the word was strange to him. Safe? No, not strictly speaking, but safer than leaving her as she was; as she was she would surely die.

There was, he said, the possibility of it changing her in unforeseeable ways; this possibility was remote, however, unlikely to occur with such a brief application. Most likely, if she was not strong enough, it would simply kill her.

Was this the only way?

He knew of no other, he said.

It was a heartbeat, steady, deep and slow: one-two, three-four. Then another joined it, slightly off kilter, out of rhythm with the first: a jumble of numbers. And then another joined, and another, and another – soon a cacophony of hearts beating, surging in her marrow, swelling in her skull. She tried to cover her ears but the sound roared on, for it came from inside her. They shattered her; reformed her; became her. Her screams were lost in the din.

She opened her eyes.

The healer was stitching the wounds at her side. They were mere wounds, red and raw, but not very deep, surrounded by a field of ugly yellow-green bruising.

“Oh,” said the healer cheerfully. His cheek was purplish and swollen. “You’re awake! You gave us quite a thrashing.”

It was only a temporary measure, it was explained; the poison could not be wholly purged. It had sat too long, had seeped too deep to scour. She had writhed as the heartsfire had burned it from her blood, and it had burned well; but it could not reach the to the very depths of her marrow, to her soul. The poison would claim her, eventually – in months, perhaps, or maybe many years. Too difficult to tell just how long she had left, the healer had said.

At this news her crew huddled grief-struck, gaping in silence. “But this – this can’t be,” said one.

Sölva laughed, a dry crow-caw. “But it can,” she said, her voice raked thready. “Once we were thirteen; now we are nine. Death comes to us all.”

None could answer; their hearts were hollowed. Jara stepped forward and banged her silver fist against the table. The resounding clang startled them, rattled their teeth. They all looked to her bewildered.

“Our captain is right,” she told them. “Time spent grieving is time wasted. We know our quarry; we must destroy the beast before the poison takes our wolf. We will have our just retribution for this, and for all his crimes.”

Slowly the warriors took to her words, strengthened by the logic of inevitability. “Yes,” said one. “Our retribution,” said another. A murmur rose up, and then a roar, and finally a toast to their cause, the slaughter of their foe.

Jara turned away, having played her part; but it was all bluster, for in her heart she quailed, clinging to wild wisps of hope. Perhaps, she thought, if they killed the beast in time, the poison would die with its maker. Perhaps.

Little Mouse was silent as ever, her glower ever-deepening, her snarls at well-meaning words ever more vicious. It was her way. Whether anger or sorrow or pain, it was the only way she knew.

Sölva was coaxed to eat a little, but she had no appetite, and the boisterousness of her women jarred her, set her teeth on edge. Her head felt full of sodden wool.

“Are you in pain?” Jara asked her quietly.

Sölva ran a hand through her hair tiredly, not knowing whether to feel irritated or reassured. “No,” she said. “The healer’s arts are sound. The salve he used has left me numb.”

“I do not trust that healer.” Jara flexed her silver hand thoughtfully, as though her fingers wrapped around an imaginary neck. “His smile seemed treacherous.”

“That man is a snake, but I do not think he is a liar.”

“I’ll kill him,” said Little Mouse suddenly, “if he lied.” They were the first words she had spoken in days.

Sölva decided that she was irritated after all. “I am tired,” she said. “I’m going to sleep.”

She woke some hours later to find Little Mouse clutching her arm, curled fast asleep at her side. Her glower melted away by sleep, she looked like the child she had been when she had joined Sölva’s crew, several years ago. Sighing, Sölva resigned herself, and stroked her fingers through the girl’s bristly hair.

“You’re awake,” came Jara’s voice.

Sölva looked up at her in surprise. “As are you.”

“I mislike this place. It makes me uneasy.”

“Come to sleep, Jara,” Sölva told her. “Put someone else on guard. You’ve slept almost as little as I have these past few days.”

“But -”

“You’ll do me no good if you die of exhaustion. Sleep. I order it.”

Jara’s shoulders sagged as she conceded defeat, and after waking one of the other women she crawled under the furs on Sölva’s other side.

Sölva woke again to the press of small lips against her own, to Little Mouse’s slim fingers slipping down between her legs.

Sölva sucked in a sharp breath through her nose, startled by the strength of her own response, her hips surging into the touch. Hands were peeling off her clothes, Jara’s hands; she let them, going pliant. It was all right, she thought; this was all right.

It was all lazy and dream-like, bodies coming together in a slow slide. A shock of cold metal – Jara’s metal hand against her. Little Mouse lapped at Sölva’s mouth, teeth nipping, then trailed her lips down Sölva’s body, down, down. Jara bent to kiss Sölva’s face, her neck, her lips.

A sweet scent filled Sölva’s head, indescribably familiar. She gasped, disconcerted. Her skin pulsed too-tight over muscle and bone, as though her insides were expanding, trying to escape. The skin would split wide, flesh and blood dissipating into the ether.

Something wasn’t right. That scent – what was that sweet scent? And yet tufts of Little Mouse’s hair tickled at her belly, Jara’s long braids drawing over bandages and bare skin; the long, wet swipe of tongues against her flesh bowed her back and filled her, made her want to forget.

Sölva threaded her fingers through Jara’s dark braids, their tongues twisting, warm and wet. Little Mouse’s tongue sought deep within Sölva’s folds. Breath hitching, scrabbling at Jara’s shoulders, Sölva moved her mouth down, biting at the woman’s chin, then at her breast, one hand smoothing over the raised expanse of scars that covered her other, like a story of the woman’s past. (Her own breast would have a scar now, Sölva thought; her own story.)

“Please,” whispered Jara, taking Sölva’s hand. She pushed it down, pressing it between her thighs. Sölva complied, her thumb seeking out the hard nub of flesh as two fingers pushed inside the woman’s slick warmth.

Jara arched back, kneeling beside Sölva with legs spread wide, cords of muscle flexing beneath her dark skin. Hazily, hypnotized, Sölva watched the rhythmic roll of the woman’s hips; and slowly, subtly, the image before her began to change.

Jara’s hips seemed fuller, wide sensuous curves; her skin darkened to a true black; the lantern light flickered golden off hard, gleaming scales. Her braids, somehow, when Sölva had not been looking, had turned to wild curls of deep red.

They were alone.

“Mother,” said the monster, lifting her beautiful head to gaze heavy-lidded down upon Sölva; “daughter, sister – twin.”

“You,” said Sölva, thick and dreamy. “Who are you?”

The monster’s eyes opened wider, twin yellow moons rising in the dark, and she cocked her head to the side. “Why – I’ve just told you.”

She took Sölva’s hand from between her thighs, drew it up over the length of her body, over the swell of her belly and the generous curve of her breasts, flesh cool to the touch. Her scales were hard, subtly ridged beneath Sölva’s hand – almost like scars. But this was a story she did not know how to read.

Bringing Sölva’s hand up to her mouth, the monster licked the length of Sölva’s fingers one by one, suckling each of them in turn. Sölva watched the movement of her lips, entranced, as that red tongue flicked out like a wisp of flame. Though her flesh had been cool, the monster’s mouth was hot, so hot, almost burning.

The monster finished, drawing sharp teeth along the curve of Sölva’s thumb. “Why haven’t you come to me yet, pretty wolf?” she murmured. “He really will devour everything, my precious son. You and your warriors – even me. The whole world. Nothing will ever sate his hunger.”

The monster leaned over her, breasts heavy against Sölva’s own. She brushed her lush, smiling lips over Sölva’s mouth. “You’ve lost much already, haven’t you?” she said, tracing clawed fingertips over the bandages that wrapped around Sölva’s side. “Precious sister-soldiers, all torn asunder.” She met Sölva’s eyes, her expression hardening, suddenly grave. “You will lose everything you have, little wolf. Everything.”

For a moment Sölva forgot to breathe. She thought of her ship; of her crew; of Jara, of Little Mouse, all swallowed by the dark. “No,” she said. “I -”

“‘Will protect them’?” sneered the monster. “Don’t be a fool. Find me, little one. Find me before it is too late.”

And then she descended, burying her face against the thatch of golden hair between Sölva’s legs, and Sölva cried out and thrashed and shuddered as fire filled her, thrust deep inside.

There was a scream and a clanging crash. Sölva sat bolt upright, her heart banging in her chest. The beast?

No. Not the beast.

Somehow Little Mouse had already flown all the way across the room, Sölva’s eyes focusing just in time to see her swing her sword at the young sentry from earlier. He stumbled backward, the sword’s tip just catching across his abdomen, tearing through his clothes and his flesh.

The boy fell; touched his hand to smear of red spreading across his belly; made a strange, high fluttering sound, like a bird’s trill, as his eyes went wide with terror. Near him lay the older sentry, his chest split open, dead.

“They meant to take her!” shouted Little Mouse. “They meant to take our Aesa away!”

Sölva quickly scanned the room, her head swimming; saw the incense bowl, sweet smoke smoldering, sitting on the table. “Jara,” she said, pointing. The woman nodded.

Then Sölva took up her spear and strode naked over to the boy, yanked him up by his hair. He trilled again, throat working, convulsing. There came another crash as Jara stamped out the incense behind her.

“What is the meaning of this?” Sölva demanded.

“I only – I didn’t – ” the boy stammered.

“Speak quickly, or I’ll kill you right now, boy.”

“The – the queen! She wanted you! She wanted you all brought to her, we were only doing as we were told!”

Sölva flung him to the floor, and he cried out, shuddering, curling in on his wound. “You’ll take us to her, then. Now.”

The boy choked. “I can’t -”

Now.” Sölva lowered her spear at him, and he began to cry.

Clad in fresh furs Sölva followed the weeping boy deeper down into the heart of the hall, her crew trailing just behind her. They had followed him through such a maze of corridors and down so many stairways that Sölva no longer had any sense of direction. She would have to rely on Dagrún to find the way out. As they’d descended the air had grown warmer and thicker, so thick Sölva felt the need to push it aside like a heap of sodden blankets.

Her head still felt fogged, though whether that was due to the effects of the incense or to the strain of her wounds, it was impossible to say. She felt herself gulping at the air, felt it filling her lungs, all sticky and strange. She grimaced at the unfamiliar pull of the stitches in her side. The wound was still mostly numb, and so pained her little, but she feared the numbness would slow her aim, the speed of her spear.

The boy stumbled and fell, blood slicking the wall. Sölva kicked him. “You had better not die before your task is done,” she said. “Why is this taking so long? How far must we go?”

The boy wheezed, pushing himself up with shaking arms, pulling himself along by the wall. “It isn’t much farther,” he said.

“There had better be no more trickery here, or I swear by my blood you’ll be eating your own entrails.”

“There isn’t, damned slags!” he cried. “I’m doing the best that I can! Let me be!”

Sölva’s brows lifted at the outburst. She decided he was telling the truth, and continued to follow in silence.

At length they finally came to two great iron doors, as tall as at least three women. A lever jutted from the wall beside them. “Her lair is just beyond,” said the boy, and fell upon the lever with a grunt. There was a creaking of gears and chains. “But if she will not let us in, there is nothing I can do -”

But the doors swung open almost straight away, with a groan heavy and ponderous.

“They opened,” said the boy, and dropped to his knees. Sölva grabbed him by his collar and dragged him with her as she entered the queen’s lair.

The vats were full of greenish liquid, faintly glowing, veined with gold. The light pulsed faintly, swelling, dimming, swelling again. They spread out in ever widening circles, filling the cavern, all connected by a web of brightly glowing tubes. Heartsfire. The tubes were pumping heartsfire.

In each vat floated a woman, each woman’s belly swollen with child. The woman Sölva looked in on was full to bursting, and her eyes were open wide, rolling back and forth in her head like an animal up for slaughter.

Sölva gagged, bile rising.

She whirled on her heel, found the man who’d led them here shivering against the wall. In an instant she crossed the space between them, grabbed a handful of his hair and pulled him up to his knees.

“You would have done this to my women?” she hissed.

“It wasn’t me, I was just -”

“Answer me!” she demanded, shaking him.

“Yes!” he shrieked. “Yes, but -”

Sölva pushed him away from her, and thrust her spear deep in his heart. He died without a sound, his mouth open like a fish searching for air. She put a foot to his chest and yanked out her weapon, his blood spraying over her boots.

“I’ll thank you not to kill my prey,” said a voice from farther within the cavern, high-pitched and thin as old paper. “He failed me; he was to be our food. Dead he is completely useless.”

Sölva and her crew wove their way warily through the vats to find the voice’s source. They found her there in the very center, the old queen Leikný, mother-sword, a dying legend – so this was the horror that she had become.

She had hooked the heartsfire directly into her veins. Who knew how long it had pumped through her, changing her, warping her flesh into this twisted reflection? The well of heartsfire brimmed before her, siphoned up from deep within the ice into a great chalice; the chalice itself formed of flesh, jeweled round with eyes all rolling, quivering within their settings, the tubes that tied each vat together emerging from the base of the bowl.

A ghastly phantasm. Was it a part of the queen? The flesh of her prey? Impossible to guess. Sölva did not wish to guess.

There were entirely too many arms on her, and too many joints. The arms bent strangely, hook-like, and through her too-long fingers she threaded strands of her hair, silvery gossamer wisps. She wore no clothing. Two tubes pumped gold straight into her belly. Her abdomen was oddly distended and shiny, discolored with splotches of green and red.

Her hair she had spun into a true web, each end anchored to a vat. It spread white and glittering around her like a crown.

“This is an abomination,” said Sölva softly.

The queen cackled. “This is adaptation,” she corrected. “Man must adapt in order to thrive. And how we have thrived! We grew strong and mighty even as all the tribes around us fell to the eternal winter! But now we are all that is left of the northern tribes. Our pool has grown so small.” She spread several arms imploringly – there, you see how it is, don’t you? “We must have fresh blood if we are to continue to survive. You will join me here, and we will grow strong upon each other!”

There were angry murmurings amongst Sölva’s crew, a derisive snort or two. Little Mouse quivered beside her, hungry for a kill. “And you expect,” said Sölva, “once you have preyed upon us as you say, to drive the beast off how?”

“The beast?” said the queen, for a moment confused. “Ah! The beast. ‘Foul prince Shatterbones, sovereign-slayer’… is it? And you truly thought you’d slay that thing? Hah!” She threw back her head and laughed, granting them clear view of the chelicera at the corners of her mouth. “Don’t be ridiculous. I’ve lived a lot longer than you, child, many lifetimes longer. That beast has come here before. It does not die; you cannot slay it. It will leave on its own, when it has lost interest, and we will weather the interim. It will pass, as all things pass.”

Sölva gripped her spear, still dripping with the blood of the sentry, and lowered it at this creature who was once a queen. “And now it is your time to pass, old woman. You have outlived your time.”

The queen called for her guards, but they were useless; gone soft with no one to squabble with for land, for food, they were conquerors no longer. Sölva’s women held them off as she charged at the queen.

The queen’s reach was long, and her many darting arms proved a difficult defense to breach; but the queen, too, had gone soft with ease and age. She could not move from her spot, hooked into the heartsfire as she was, and though her fangs spewed forth green venom, she could not sink them into Sölva’s flesh. Her arms, though quick, were not as quick as Sölva; and Sölva’s spear finally plunged through her throat, Sölva perched atop the lip of the chalice of flesh.

The queen gurgled, her fangs still clenching, grasping at the air. She sank down into a heap of spindly limbs, and Sölva leaped down after her to finish the job. With the blade of her spear she severed the queen’s head from her body, and then the tubes ofheartsfire that fed into her abdomen; Sölva would take no chances. Those fangs kept quivering uselessly as Sölva worked.

Now that their queen was slain the men fell back, uncertain, looking to one another for guidance. Several of their number had fallen. “Stay back,” Sölva called to them. “Stay back and no more of you have to die.” Then: “Mouse! Get the vats!”

Little Mouse nodded, and with a mighty heave sent her sword flying into the nearest one. The glass cracked, spiderwebbing outward, and it splintered open, gushing forth a flood of green fluid.

Sölva turned back to the chalice; she was not sure what should be done about it. As she did not much relish hacking it to bits, she settled on severing all the tubes that fed into and out of it, and hoped it would die quickly.

“Ah, ah dear,” came the healer’s voice from somewhere behind her. Sölva whirled around. He was watching Little Mouse as she decimated the glass casings.

At the sight of him Little Mouse puffed up just like a threatened cat and went sailing toward him, a wild streak of girl and blade.

“Mouse!” Sölva screamed. “Stop!”

The blade stopped inches from the healer’s face. The healer’s eyes had gone wide, startled; but he did not flinch. Little mouse quivered with rage.

“It was him that made the smoke!” she spat. “The smoke he meant to keep us stupid and sleeping with! It had to have been him!”

Sölva was surprised that she had realized. “Did you do it?” she asked, approaching the two.

“Yes,” said the healer.

“Did you know what it was for?”

“No. I wasn’t told.” Then he smiled slyly. “But I could guess easily enough, after all.”

Little Mouse growled, barely restraining herself.

“Are you going to kill me?” he asked in a conversational tone.

Sölva considered. “No,” she said, “Though I’d like to. Can you help these women?” She nodded her head at the vats.

“I’m not sure. They might die of the shock. But I can try.”

“Then do so,” Sölva told him. “And put them out of their misery if you can’t.”

He shrugged. “All right. But you don’t,” he said, looking amused, “have to shatter the rest. I can get them out.”

Sölva realized he had probably been responsible for maintaining the things. Her fingers itched. But it was unlikely that anyone else could do anything for these women; and it was true that she did not think him a liar. He had not lied, just now, about the incense.

Just then another man came running, stumbling into the cavern. “The beast!” he cried. “The beast is in the hall!”

The healer lifted an eyebrow. “I don’t suppose you could rid us of this nuisance?” he asked.

“You have no right to ask anything more of us,” said Sölva. “But yes. It’s what we came for.” She turned to leave. “Come, Mouse.” Little Mouse growled again, baring her teeth; it was with the greatest of reluctance that she left the man breathing.

“A pleasure,” the healer called after her. She thought she heard him say “Until we meet again,” but she was already gone, and she no longer cared.

They charged up the stairs, slaying dead men twisted with unnatural life as they went, the soot-skinned puppets of the prince. When they found the beast it was already making its escape;Jara sent several arrows flying after him, but he tore them from his flesh like they were no more than the stingers of insects. They followed it out of the hall, and it took off across the icy plains, heading north.

Their ship was barnacled with the crawling, gnawing dead. Jara loosed a hail of stinging rain down upon them, picking each off in rapid succession.

And then they were off again on the trail of the beast.

They followed the beast’s tracks for several days. Sometimes they caught sight of it, at first accompanied by a few of the dead of Leikný Hall, then alone, the foul puppets having run out of borrowed hours.

(Was this not how Sölva had spent her entire life? Chasing, always chasing after that flickering shadow.)

Sölva’s wounds healed quickly now. She could scarcely be coaxed to rest; she spent most of her time at the prow, her eyes feverishly searching. What little vegetation there had been thinned out quickly; they had to use their rations carefully, for here was nothing but an endless gray waste, silvered beneath the swelling moon.

Soon they came to the end of the world.

It was Kolbrún’s cry that woke her from a rare few hours of sleep: “The beast! The beast grows wings!”

Sölva scrambled to the front of the boat. She strained her sleep-fogged eyes to focus, saw the beast’s shadow in the distance, soaring upward on wings so thin the moon shone straight through them.

“It’s a cliff!” came Dagrún’s cry straight after. “Stop! Turn aside!”

There was a moment of silence.

“She won’t!” the helmswoman shouted. “She won’t turn! She isn’t listening to me!”

Sölva gripped the edge of the boat as the abyss rapidly came into view, an abrupt halt to the moon-glow off the frozen sea. A crazy thought took hold of her. “She’s going to fly,” she declared softly.

They all looked to her like she had gone mad. And perhaps she had. She glanced back at her crew, her breath quickening, misting in the air. “‘Cloud-road walker, star-river runner,'” she said, reminding them. “She’s going to fly, just as she has before. If you don’t trust her, I can’t blame you; jump now, and maybe you’ll survive.”

They gaped at her, stunned; but none moved. Even if they survived such a jump (so fast, and accelerating still!), where could they go? Sölva knew this, but thought it only fair to offer. All held their breath and clung to one another as the ship sailed right over the edge.

She flew.

A cheer went up from the crew as they saw the ground fall away beneath them. Jara clutched at Sölva’s arm, her knees buckling slightly, and she laughed, the sound strained with a hysterical edge. “Like a bird,” she murmured weakly. “Just like a bird.” Little Mouse stood nearby, brown eyes wide, full of childish wonderment.

“But how,” called the helmswoman, “will she stay in the air without the heartsfire?”

“Look,” said Sölva, pointing. “Look.” A river of light was passing beneath them; it sped ahead of the ship, forming an upward curving arc through the air. The heartsfire continued on, a golden river surging right up through the night sky.

“Are we dreaming?” someone asked.

“No,” said Sölva. She felt she could leap from the prow of the ship, soar up that river on her own wings. The dark blemish of the beast flickered farther on up, and they followed. “It’s no dream.”

It floated impossibly right there in the sky, an island on a sea of air. A small wood grew on its surface, emitting a soft, curious red glow.

“I fear,” said Jara as they disembarked, “that my heart can’t take much more of these strange magics.”

They had lost sight of the beast, somehow, his dark gray flesh blending in with the black of the sky, but the ship had taken them here, and here, Sölva was sure, the beast was. Yet her earlier thrill of elation quickly dissipated; this place and its eerie light filled her with foreboding.

The trees were all twisted and strange; no creatures stirred; the air had a heavy, metallic smell which stuck in her throat, coated her tongue with a bitter taste. And it was warm here – so warm they sweated in their furs. From whence came the warmth?

There were pools dotted about, some golden with heartsfire, others glowing with stranger things, alien colors steaming alien scents. Here was cobalt blue and acid green, the first smelling of paint and turpentine, the other of acrid, rotting fruits; and here was a pool of pure quicksilver, smelling of nothing at all.

The island had not looked very large as they approached, but it seemed that they wandered for a very long time. Finally, someone noticed:

“Where is Lesya?”

“What? But she was here only a moment ago -”

“The songweaver! Aesa is gone too!”

Sölva’s heart pounded in her chest. Her eyes swiveled back and forth in her head. “It’s dark here,” she said. “And strange. Probably they are only confused. We’ll keep walking. Hopefully we’ll find them soon.”

Everyone murmured uneasily, but there was nothing else that they could do. Sölva eyed Jara and Little Mouse, afraid to look away from them.

“Dagrún,” she said. “Can you perceive anything about this place?”

Dagrún’s brow furrowed in concentration. “No. It’s as if it’s veined all through. There’s no clear direction to anything. There are too many holes in it all; I can’t tell what they are.”

Little Mouse paced, her eyes taking on a hollow, hunted look. She could stalk this wood like a wild thing and be right at home, Sölva thought; and yet it was hard not to reach out to her. Sölva was afraid.

The ground trembled. The women all looked at one another uncertainly.

“Did you feel -”

“Yes, I felt it -”

Sölva stood silent, listening to the beat of her heart. The ground trembled again.

“Do you suppose it’s falling?”

“Why would it fall?”

“Why would it float in the first place?”

Sölva looked round at her women’s frightened faces, and strained her mind to think. They were down two women already. What could they do?

And suddenly the ground ripped open, split right along an invisible seam, and heartsfire came boiling up from the rift.

Everyone screamed. Great chunks of earth went tilting in all directions, like melting, breaking ice. Trees were torn up from the base, roots like grasping hands. Sölva felt herself going up, up; saw Little Mouse go staggering away from her.

Without thinking, her hand shot out and wrapped around Mouse’s wrist. Her spear she plunged into the earth, hoping it would hold, and then she turned, fell to her knees, and with her free hand grabbed the gnarled root of the nearest tree. She clung to it desperately as the ground tilted almost vertical.

At the edge of her gaze she saw the fates of her other women. Several went flying straight into the air, plummeting to the bubbling light below; the others all went sliding down, down, Jara with them, scrabbling at the dirt and the grass as she went.

The silver of her hand winked against the gold, and was gone.

“Jara!” Sölva screamed. “Jara!

Hot needles pricked at her skull. She felt her hand slipping on the root, and redoubled the strength of her grip, nails digging in. Twisting her neck she looked down at Little Mouse. The girl was trying to pull herself up higher, fingers digging deep tracts in the dirt. Then she slipped, and the force of her fall nearly tore their hands apart.

Little Mouse’s hand slipped by tiny increments.

Sölva clenched her teeth, breathing hard through her nose, the air like fire in her lungs. Little Mouse looked up at her, wide-eyed, slack-faced. “Sölva,” she said, a tone of soft surprise – and, swift as a sigh, her hand slipped right out of Sölva’s grip, and she slid down into the light below.

Sölva’s scream shattered the world.

It had been Jara who’d found her, who’d taken her home, who’d clothed her, fed her, given her a name. “Sölva, the sun wolf, daughter of the sky,” she said. Because she had come out of nowhere, golden and vicious, and only the sky could have borne such fiery terror down upon the world. It was meant only half in jest.

Jara had been there from the beginning, had never once left her side.

Little Mouse they’d found one day, a tiny, feral thing, living like an animal in the wild, sticks and burrs all tangled in her hair. She’d gone straight forSölva’s throat. Sölva had pinned her down on the ground, laughing, and said such a tiny creature sniffing ’round their feet could only be a mouse. She had still been little more than a child at the time; it was a mystery as to how she’d survived until then.

It had taken a long time to calm her, to tame her, but once she had been convinced that no one meant her any harm, she had taken to Sölva like a pup to its mother.

Even as the years had passed, she never had grown very much taller.

She found the beast crouched in a small clearing, as though waiting for her.

Perhaps, Sölva posited, one could only really catch him if one’s force of hate was equal to his. It was not, in truth, his doing, the loss of her crew; she knew this, and yet still she hated. It was this chase that had taken them. Had the beast only stayed down in the frozen world below, it would not have happened this way. Perhaps they still would have died – but she could not really believe that.

And so she hated. You. You. You did this to me.

The strange quake had torn the whole island in half; Sölva had had little choice in which half she could reach from the ledge where she had hung. She had nearly lost her spear as she’d tried to yank it back out of the ground; and then when she had clawed her way up to crouch upon the edge, she had barely made the leap to solid ground. Her body felt sore and bruised.

Yet the creature had proven, after so long, easy to find.

It made a gurgling sound that might have been a laugh, flexing its wings against its wrinkled body. Possibly the wings had been there all along; it was hard to say, gazing upon its curiously amorphous form. It sighed, locusts flitting out from the cavern of his mouth to set upon the trees.

She charged.

It was an anti-climatic end, over almost as soon as it began. The creature dodged the thrust of her spear; she spun around, swinging the blade at his spine. But his hand moved so fast, almost too fast to see. It wrapped around her throat, and lifted her off the ground; and, with a roar like the wailing of ten-thousand winds, he threw her, threw her like a doll across the clearing. Her back slammed into the trunk of a tree, and she slid down the trunk, blinking away stars, her spear falling from her hand.

The creature crouched down, sprang at her where she lay. She saw it, blearily, and knew her time was short. Struggling to her knees through the haze of pain, she groped desperately for her spear; then found it, wedged its base against the roots of the tree, and lifted the blade just as the beast bore down upon her.

He threw himself right onto the spike.

Slowly he sank down upon the shaft, dribbling black blood from his chest and his terrible mouth. Moths crawled from the pits of his eyes, fluttering weakly. He lifted his clawed hand close to Sölva’s face. She crouched frozen, wide-eyed, unable to move her hands from the shaft.

“Mother,” he whispered, the word unmistakable. She started at the sound, felt her throat go thick. It hurt to breathe. As she watched him dying, Sölva felt something breaking deep within herself. “Mother…”

And then he sighed; his arm fell, and he died.

Sölva gulped at the air, heaving the beast off of her. The spear was nearly impossible to yank free; it finally came out with a wet sucking sound and a spray of black ichor, and the force flung her back onto the ground. Leaning forward on her palms, she stared at the slime upon her hands.

It had happened so quickly. It was not at all how she had imagined. What had she imagined?

“What now,” she muttered. She began to shake. “What now!” Her shout echoed through the wood.

“Well how do you expect me to know,” came a disgruntled voice.

Sölva’s head whipped round on her neck so fast she nearly fell over. There stood an old woman but a few strides away, her jaw working as she sucked at her gums, her wrinkled face all sour and cantankerous.

Sölva stared. Her brows furrowed as she struggled to gather her wits. “Where – where did you come from?” she asked.

“Right there,” said the woman, pointing with a little stamp of her foot, like Sölva’s stupidity was simply too much to bear. Following the direction of her finger, Sölva saw a door set right into the trunk of a tree, standing open wide. Sölva felt sure that it had not been there before.

“Making such a fuss. What did you think would happen?” the old woman demanded. “Did you think the world would just come apart?”

Sölva rubbed her face, her eyes, shaking her head. Wobbling a little, she made her way to her feet. “I thought… I thought that she might come.”

The old woman humphed. “If it’s the old mother you mean, you must think rather a lot of yourself! You’ll have to go to her yourself, if you want to see her.” She pointed at the door. “Well,” she said, waiting. “Go on.”

“Wha – what?” Sölva asked, bewildered.

The old woman made a sound of repressed fury, shaking her fist. She stomped over to Sölva and clutched her arm with bony fingers, and dragged her over to the door, shoving her through. “Take the stairs,” she spat, as though this were obvious; “And mind you don’t go through the wrong doors!”

And with that the old woman slammed the door in Sölva’s face, shutting her in total darkness.

She held onto the wall at first, stepping carefully in the dark so as not to stumble; but soon there were faintly growing lichens clinging to the dirt-smeared wood, casting just enough light to make out the shape of the steps.

There was nothing for it, after all, but to walk. She had shouted in surprise and anger after the woman, had felt along the door for the handle; but there was no handle, and the door wouldn’t budge, and the hag had not answered her. It was as if she had never been there at all.

So she walked. The stairs went down and down in an endless-seeming spiral. When at last she came to the bottom, there before her was another door. The handle stuck a bit, but it opened easily enough.

She emerged onto another floating island. It was smaller than the first, very small; it would take her but a few minutes to cross the whole of it. Looking out over its edge, she saw the island with the red glowing forest far below her.

Shaking her head, she gave up on making any sense of it.

Only two trees grew upon this island, and in each tree stood a door. She went to the tree on the far end of the island, and opened. Cautiously, she peered through it; there was nothing but a hole, and the darkness far, far below.

She closed the door.

Madness was a possibility. Else someone was making a fool of her.

She crossed the island back to the first door, and peered back in; there was a staircase, like before, going down. It should have, of course, been going up. Sighing, Sölva started down the new stair.

The door at the bottom of this one was small and round. She would have to duck her head to go through it. It opened inward, and dumped snow on her as though gravity had gone sideways; as she stuck her head through, she realized that it had. She had to crawl up onto this next island, for the door opened out of the ground.

The moon here hovered so close it took up nearly half the sky. Its light was like nothing Sölva had ever seen, so white and so brilliant she felt a compulsion to shade her eyes. She thought she smelled a trace of something chilly and sweet.

It was cold here, so cold that the white clouds of her breath glittered before her, crystallizing in the air. The island she had crawled out onto was tiny, a few paces wide, and completely gray and bare. The previous island, the one with two trees, was visible below her. She no longer felt surprise. Nor was she surprised, really, when the door she had emerged from disappeared, and she could find no more doors on the island.

It was no wonder it had taken her some moments to see it, the staircase; the glass was so pure and so clear that she only noticed, finally, that the light was refracting strangely, a crystalline glinting against the black of the sky.

It was a staircase of glass, climbing right up to the moon.

She stood dumbstruck as understanding dawned: the old queen, the eternal Queen, looking down from her glass throne upon the moon. Her dark reflection dwelled up there in all that blinding white.

Sölva climbed. Time passed; it seemed like a very long time. Perhaps in this place years could trickle by, without hunger, without thirst. She moved mechanically, and little by little the burning in her muscles melted away. There was no sound but for her own breath, her own heartbeat, and the clack the base of her spear against the glass. She felt out each step with it as she went, knowing how easy it would be to lose one’s footing and go plummeting through the darkness below. The moon grew larger and larger, until it filled up the whole universe.

At last she reached the end. She held her breath as she placed her foot down upon the moon’s surface – so luminous! Even the air shimmered with its dust. The ground felt brittle beneath her, almost like an egg’s shell, and she walked carefully, afraid it would break. For all she knew, perhaps it would.

Small pools of darkness dotted the landscape, strange holes where the light was not. They grew in size as she progressed. She looked in them as she passed, and thought she saw things; shapeless, disconcerting flickers. Perhaps it was only her eyes, resisting the dark. The silence was a vast pressure on her head, and her ears squealed like insects.

Eventually she reached a dark pool as large as a lake blocking her path, and she stopped, wondering if she should circle around it. As she stood gazing into it, she began to feel heavy, as though it were drawing her down. She saw those strange flickers, gathering, taking on form. Here was a shadow of a hand, the outline of a face.

The flickers coalesced, became her.

Sölva stared so intently that her eyes began to water, but the image did not waver. She realized with a gasp that the image was real. Even as the revelation occurred to her, the woman sprang forth out of the bog, claws flashing.

Sölva’s body moved before her mind, her spear rising to fend off the swipe of those claws. The monster seemed to hover there in the air for a moment, her black-gold eyes burning with feral joy. “You’ve come an awfully long way to see me, haven’t you?” she murmured, her voice like the smooth, rippling dissolution of oil over water. “Such a dutiful daughter.”

Sölva grimaced, and shoved her off.

The monster leaped back, landing a few strides away. She stood naked to the frigid air, wild hair a fall of red over her glistening shoulders, her breasts. Her round hips were cocked at an angle. “Ah, but too late, too late. Your little lambs already went off to slaughter.”

Sölva’s breath went to fire in her lungs. “You,” she growled. “Give them back to me.”

The monster laughed, bell-like, a peal of surprise. “And how could I give back what I has not taken?” she asked. “You, though, could stand to give me back my son.”

“And what was I supposed to do?” Sölva shouted. “Let him eat up the world, as you said he would? It’s always been you, you, there in my shadow, there in my reflection! Who are you? What do you want with me? Why am I here? Why did my women have to die?”

“So many questions. Your women,” said the monster in a wry, beleaguered tone, “were so beloved that you swallowed them all up yourself.”

Sölva faltered, taken aback. “What?”

The monster rested her forehead against her clawed hand, shaking her head. “Poor little wolf. You still do not understand?” With easy steps she strode toward Sölva , her hips rolling like water. “Do you think that a difference exists between your reflected image and yourself? Can two vessels containing a single soul truly be different beings? You and I, Sölva, are one and the same. Mother, daughter, sister – twin.”

Sölva could only stare, uncomprehending.

“A mother’s love runs deep as the ocean, you know,” the monster said, her body tensing. “I told you to find me before it was too late. I…” Her claws shot out, lengthening to deadly black blades, aiming straight for Sölva’s heart. “…told you!”

Sölva deflected the strange knife-claws with the shaft of her spear, leaping out of their reach. “What was I supposed to do?” she shouted once again. “You told me nothing! I found my way here purely by chance!”

“Oh, silly girl. It was not chance! I have been calling you all this time. Had you not fixed yourself so foolishly on the death of my son, beautiful Kráka would have flown you straight here from the start.”

Sölva paused. “What -”

“Oh yes. Why did you think the heartsfire rose right into the air? Your ship sailing along on that mysterious golden river through the sky – you honestly thought that was chance?” The monster laughed again, her lip curling with derision. “Fool. The heartsfire is you.

Sölva rubbed a hand through her pale hair, her face twisting in confusion. “I can’t understand you,” she complained. “I can’t understand!”

“It took you to my son and not to me because that was what you wanted. You chose the most difficult path you could; and on that path you lost everything you loved. And you took that which I most loved, as well – I’ll have your heart’s blood for that, make no mistake.”

“Your ‘son’?” asked Sölva, incredulous. “He was an abomination! He should never have been born!”

“Oh? You’d have me strangle mankind in the womb?”

“‘Mankind’? Stop speaking in riddles!”

“But I only speak the truth as it is,” said the monster. “Like you and I, mankind and the prince of monsters were no different. His hunger, insatiable; his sorrows, boundless. Man’s shadow, Shatterbones.”

“Enough!” Sölva shouted. “Speak so that I can understand you!”

Sharp and dangerous, the monster’s smile then, her red tongue flicking out to wet her lips. “All right, pretty wolf. Perhaps you can understand this. If you think I am responsible for the loss of your precious lambs, then come.” She spread out her arms, welcoming. “Come, and take your revenge.”

Sölva’s head ached with frustration. Her hand clenched tightly round her spear. “I understand nothing,” she said. “I understand nothing at all!” And then she charged at the woman, mother of her enemy, the last old queen, the eternal Queen.

It was a difficult battle. The monster’s movements were so nimble and swift, and whenever she leaped she soared through the air right over Sölva’s head, like a bird in flight. Countless times her claws sliced at Sölva’s flesh, near-misses, tiny trickles of warm life-blood loosed. Sölva, though her agility was oft famed, felt like a lumbering bear. She strove to keep up, her muscles stretching, straining.

Finally Sölva saw her chance, realized, reluctantly, what she had to do. If she did not leap back from the monster’s claws – if she stood her ground, let the black blades pierce her body – the way would be clear.

The pain was clear and cold, five crystalline points of light. Her spear plunged through the monster’s belly, scraped past bone and sinew, the blade thrusting out through the other side. The monster moved forward, regardless of the weapon shoved through her, sliding along the shaft; and her arm wrapped around Sölva, embracing her.

Five more claws stabbed through Sölva’s back.

illustrated by quaedam

Sölva drew in a breath, choked on blood. Looking down, she saw light spilling from both of their wounds; light like heartsfire, light like the sun, fire-river, life-giver. It scalded her eyes, burned through her brain. She felt the monster’s arms around her, felt the monster’s cheek against her own; suddenly, she began to cry, tears welling, spilling over, and she did not understand.

“Mother,” she found herself saying, voice hoarse and frail. “Mother…”

“Yes,” the monster murmured, rubbing her cheek gently against Sölva’s hair. “Yes. Mother is here.”

The claws pulled out of her, and Sölva choked, stumbled, light gushing from her mouth, all along her chest and stomach. The monster pulled the spear from her body, held Sölva’s hands tight around the shaft.

“Finish it, little wolf,” she said. “Let’s finish it.” And then, guiding Sölva’s hands, she plunged the bloody spear deep into the surface of the moon.

The moon shuddered. It was breaking, cracks crawling out all around them, deep gouges in the silvery light. The monster stood over her, gold gushing of the wound in her belly, and as Sölva watched her, she seemed to fill up with light, become light, pure and scalding. She poured herself out over Sölva, completely out, as the moon’s glass shell shattered into a million twinkling shards.

Then Sölva fell down through the darkness of the moon.

She fell through softness, downy and deep, like a rush of feathers all around her; and as then she emerged from the other side, soaring down, down, she looked up and she realized it really had been feathers – the moon all formed of feathers, pearlescent white, flexing in, out, in, like a living, breathing thing. As Sölva watched the feathers all burst into flame, golden and glowing, filling the sky with light. It washed over her, warm as gentle lips upon her brow.

The shards of glass all glittered in the glow. The staircase, too, shattered down step by step as she went by. The shards sliced at Sölva’s skin, at her cheeks, through her coat and through the flesh of her arms and legs. Arcing out into the air her blood twisted like vines, became vines, curling outward at a rapid pace, sprouting thorns, leaves, buds; and the buds bloomed into blood-red flowers, opening to reveal centers as golden-bright as the light above.

Could this be death, Sölva wondered? But the death that she had known had always been so ugly. This death was beautiful – so beautiful.

Her eyes drifted closed, as her body fell toward the earth below.

A curious rocking, like being cradled in the arms of a mother; strange, she thought. She had been sure that death was the end. Her eyes opened. Light seared them, and she blinked, waiting for her vision to adjust. The sky was blue above her.

She sat up, her clothes stiff with dried blood. Kráka. Kráka once again cradled Sölva at her prow. The ship floated upon a vast body of water, water as far as the eye could see – liquid water, large chunks of ice drifting past as she watched, bewildered.

When the moon’s shell had shattered, so too had the Earth’s, she realized.

She heard a sound, a soft sighing, and turned to look behind her. Her eyes went wide.

Her crew, there lying upon the deck, all waking and looking about with bleary eyes. All of them – she counted – even the ones that had died years ago. All thirteen. Slowly they looked to her, and rose, one by one, to come to her side.

Little Mouse was the first. Sölva looked up at her, into her face, and saw that the girl’s eyes were no longer brown – they were golden-yellow, like Sölva’s.

“Mother,” whispered Little Mouse.

Then came Jara, and after her the rest, their eyes all so yellow-bright in their faces. “Mother,” they all said, reaching for her. “Mother.

Sölva swallowed. She felt her heart beating, one-two, three-four. She felt herself opening her arms. “Yes,” she said, feeling their warmth against her. “Yes.”

There, floating upon the edge of the world, Sölva watched the sun rise over the horizon.

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