Claimer: Mine…um, yeah. *smile*

"Please help me
'Cause I'm breaking down
This picture's frozen
And I can't get out..."

- Trapt, "Still Frame"


Chapter 8

Silence between us stretched and compressed like an accordion. Weaving in and around my mind in transparent threads and making me infinitely aware of every breath. Every crackle of sandy dirt underfoot as we trudged onward.

I was distinctly uncomfortable. The silence was making me twitchy and a thousand beginnings to conversations formulated in my mind.

But Skodde stayed ahead with a pensive air and I remained silent.

The darkness was falling away. It's foreboding presence fading, even as I watched, by slow degrees. Our torches melted into the light of dripping wax candles that now lined the barren walls. And here, too, the blackly glittering stone was gradually giving way to more ordinary sandstone. I silently focused on my feet making interesting, winding patterns on the sand.

With a startling suddenness, Skodde stopped and raised her torch. The flames softly illuminated a solid wall. Sleeping dust accumulated at its base.

"Um," I peered past her shoulder, "Dead end?"

"Not as such," she said simply and then, musingly, "See ye nothing?"

I snorted. "I see rock. Lots and lots of—"

Something shuddered in the back of my mind at the same time something else shifted on the dirt floor. Unsettling dust in puffs of sandy smoke.

I opened my mouth as if to speak, but whatever I had been about to say died in my throat when what seemed a golden string unfolded and twirled in midair. Radiating a soft golden color as it's delicate coils unfurled in a very snakelike way. An undeniable static rode the air waves and made my hair stand on end.

"Do you see it?" I whispered hoarsely. Mendeleev's formulas and various other peculiarities simmered in the back of my mind, but the rest of me stood in awe—quiet wonder.

"See…?" Skodde said soberly. Leaning in close and looking in the direction I was. She didn't look particularly pleased.

"Yes…that?" my finger came up tentatively—almost afraid to scare it away.

I had almost touched it, breath catching uncomfortably in my throat, when what had before been a winding form seemed to shiver and jerk—actually making me jump back a step.

For a moment I had almost thought it would bite me. But, even so, it seemed to lock onto me without eyes (if that were possible)…sizing me up.

And then, quick as thought, everywhere. Shooting across the narrow space of the cavern and over, under, through us with the deadly precision of a speeding arrow.

The sensation was something akin to an icy clutch—sending my chest in spasmodic shudders and contractions. I clutched the front of my shirt and coughed desperately, clinging to the wall for support.

By the time I had gathered myself and looked up I thought…whatever it was…had gone. But no, the creature was very slowly, very deliberately, tracing subdued and slow patterns on the wall. Leaving a trail of something that glowed with the same fluorescence as the creature itself. I was reminded of a snail oozing lazy patterns on red brick back home at high noon. Except back home, the designs were aimless little swirls and trails to briefly mark the life of one snail. But this…squinting a little, I could just make out the shape.

Almonds? No—wait…

Eyes.

Carved at a rakishly slanted angle and staring straight at me. For a moment, I was frozen.

Something nudged me in the calf. I jerked my gaze downwards to see that it had been Skodde. Poking me in the calf with the butt end of her axe. She opened her mouth to speak.

But in the same split second, a tiny scream pierced the air. With all the shrill high pitch of a dog whistle.

Skodde's eyes, for a moment, flickered and then narrowed in concentration. Her weapon, in a single swish of the arm, poised for defense in front of her. And in the same moment, I turned around.

First was an odd sort of pull forward in the depths of my gut. And then, exploding. The entire cavern convulsing with a shriek and then the creature suddenly wasn't.

The stone broke perfectly on the lines—and then spitting outward so that I barely ducked the larger chunks in time. As it was, I was going to have very large bruises in both my arms and legs.

One moment…Just another moment and it's all over…

With a final crash, all was still. After the debris had settled, I gathered myself up and brushed the caking layers of brown dust off me.

Coughing, I searched about me and shouted, "Skodde?!"

A pile of rocks and pebbles moved against a wall and I ran to it.

"Skodde?" I asked tentatively, pushing off what large stones I could.

"Aye," came the muffled reply as a pale head emerged—face now colored with streaks of red-brown dust.

I should have known there was something a little off about those eyes.

"Stand back."

I did so. For a moment, all was still. And then the stones began to shudder while, with a shout, Skodde gave a hefty swing. The rocks crumbled down around her so she was merely up to her ankles in small pebbles.

Except it wasn't Skodde.

Granted, the figure that had risen was the form and shape of Skodde. Even down to the cold paleness of her skin. But nearly as soon as I had come forward again to help her out if she needed it, she melted. From the hair down. Stark whiteness dripping off in layers to give way to darker and darker shades. A wicked smile.

And soon, Skodde was nothing but a small puddle of dirty water at his feet.

"Well, well. What have we here?"

My pulse fluctuated for a second. Movement was suspended, and yet, for some reason, I was hardly surprised. Of course he would take the opportunity to make a surprise entrance…Distract me.

Only I wasn't going to be diverted.

"What did you do with Skodde?"

He feigned shock although the corners of his mouth retained that arrogant amusement.

"Without so much as a 'how do you do?'"

My shoulders dropped and I felt weariness catching up with me. "Just answer the damn question, would you?" I was sore, tired, and most certainly not of the disposition for verbal battle.

He lifted a finger, as if to admonish me, "Tsk, tsk. Careful, patience is a virtue for a reason."

What?

He shrugged inelegantly. Arms folded across the smooth front of his tunic. Dark blue.

He continued, "And to answer your question, don't you worry your pretty head about Skodde. She's safe enough and out of my evil clutches. I simply... didn't want a third party to ruin this lovely opportunity for a tête-à-tête."

I sighed, exasperated. Relieved to some measure because, no matter how twisted and tricky and dangerous this Loki was, I didn't think he'd outright lie.

…Would he?

I slumped against the wall and cradled my arms in front of me.

"So why?" I asked blandly.

"Pardon?" he inquired, although we both knew what I meant.

Fine, then.

"I want to know what you're getting out of this. I mean, I don't know how this works for you. Why? Why me? Why won't you just tell me how to get out so we can go along our merry way and pretend this never happened?" I looked quickly to try and catch his expression. Yet, there might have been something there, that had gone as the breeze over grass. Without any sign that it had been there at all.

"Well, see. It is a bit more complicated than that…" He trailed off and I watched the dust—still fogging the air—create a veil between us.

"Now you're just disagreeable." I thought, and hardly known I'd said out loud until he responded.

"Hm. Sorry you think so. But, perhaps this conversation would be more productive were we…in a more comfortable setting."

With a soft rustle of silk, he had crossed the distance between us and latched onto my arm. I hardly formulated the thought of protest when the earth dissolved beneath my feet…and we were floating in black nothingness. Falling, but not quite.

I turned to comment on the lack of setting, but paused mid-breath.

He didn't reply but seemed to be concentrating. Head bowed in a sage-like posture while the weight of something seemed to settle on him. I had never seen him look so old.

"Loki?"

And then suddenly, there was a floor beneath us. Cold tiles in a pattern of coiled phoenixes that extended out into shadow. Standing in the middle of a room without windows. One moment in limbo, and then another, here.

He detached his arm from mine and I blushed a little. I'd almost forgotten.

Focus, Zelle. Focus.

Right.

A quick survey of the room told me very little. The lighting was so dim that I could hardly see the walls, managing to make out a corner of a tapestry here…a glint off an ancient suit of armor there.

Something scraped the ground behind me and I knew he'd pulled up a chair.

"Care to sit? I'm fairly sure it would be more conducive to our lovely discussion…"

I turned around and squinted into the shadows.

"It's not fair. I can't even see you…How am I supposed to talk to someone I can't see?"

"But I can see you." The voice was just a little teasing, curling around my hair.

No.

I stood a little straighter and crossed my arms.

"Well, from where I come from, that's called an unfair advantage. Turn the lights up."

"You aren't exactly in the position to make demands." The voice gained a cruel bite that made me afraid of him just a little bit more. As far as I was concerned, I was still alone with a strange man whom I didn't know anything about…except I did.

In my mind I groped blindly for a phantom. And yet the more I concentrated on it, the more it slipped into the recesses of my psyche, where I knew it would probably never come out again.

His voice came again. This time softer, and if I didn't know any better—if I hadn't caught the trick-note at the end of his sentence, I would have thought he was apologizing. "I'm sorry. I must strike you as an awful host. Please, make yourself welcome and I will turn up the light."

And then, quite without warning, light seemed to cover the entire room in a tangible form. Flooding every corner and eliminating every shadow.

Yet no electricity. No light bulbs nor candles from what I could tell.

I whipped around and fixed him with a hard stare. "How…?"

In the hash clarity of light, his clothes were a silky dark. The tunic and pants blending seamlessly together in a tuneless harmony. And even his hair shone in rich texture. My eyes noticed the planes of his face, though my mind skittered away from it and focused more on his response.

He shrugged, and the fall of hair in his eyes was the shape of a sugar-laced trap. "Gud-ånd. Call it magic if you like." As if he knew I wouldn't believe him anyways.

Huh. Sure.

"You do not believe me?" he gave a slow smile.

I sniffed. "No. because I know that magic does not exist. It's all just a psychological mind trick. All that Houdini stuff. The only real magic is chemical reactions and physics and electricity and the like. And that's not even really magic. It's a bunch of laws and formulas that everyone follows, like—like atoms and genetics and the Archimedes' Principle. Magic—witches and cauldrons and all that rubbish, just doesn't make sense."

There was a deadly quiet.

"Well, as practical you sentiments might be, I wonder if you could explain this."

That was it. There, in the air. A primal electricity shivered through—in between the molecules of oxygen and shuddering all down my body like an electric shock, but warmer. Smelling of smoke and fire grates in winter and feeling like the moment just before the fall.

I happened to glance at my hand and jerked in shock.

Burning. I was burning.

Small orange flames licked off the pores off my skin. It didn't burn, nor was it cold. It simply was. I could have sworn I was hallucinating.

"Evidence enough?" he spoke as if from a distance.

A deep thrill hovered somewhere above me—rushing as in a fall of water from the top of my head to crash somewhere about my thighs.

And the fire died as strangely as it had begun.

Stiff-necked, I turned to look at him with very wide eyes. He didn't say anything.

"What…the fuck…did you just do to me?"

His dark eyes coldly burning, he advanced—prowled. I held my ground, but only just.

"Don't talk to me like that. You must be aware, dear Zelle," and the endearment was not kind, "That this is my world. It does not operate on the conditions and the rules you are used to. It operates on mine. It does not turn a blade of grass without my permission. And in order to survive it, you will have to understand that, in this place, what seems like one could be the other. I have complete control here," he emphasized the last with biting diction, and it sounded as if he were convincing himself.


Of what? I thought weakly as he backed off, though I still stayed rooted to my spot.

He sighed and was infinitely weary, "This isn't a game. And I'm not letting you out."

My heart pounded in a disgusting cadence and I struggled to breathe for a second.

"Why?" The quavering question almost hadn't made it.

"Because, sweetling. I have to amuse myself somehow, don't I?"

I blinked, and suddenly everything was becoming smaller. Shrinking with a dizzying rapidity that left me breathless—struggling to comprehend. I barely fought the pull as I was swallowed up in something grey and empty. His face disappearing from view, though his eyes were still burned into my mind.

For a moment, I stood in pliant bewilderment, staring at the dirt that had come up from under me.

And then I thought, with a furious solemnity: I'm going to kill him.

I kicked the dirt beneath my feet, and it wasn't enough. Because it itched and burned and stung behind my eyes, but I wouldn't let myself cry. Wouldn't let myself cry for the sanity I had lost and the home that was now as far away as eternity. Because, of all things, I refused—refused—to let him see me cry.

I remembered a piano. I remembered two children and laughter staining the winter air.

I remembered mocking eyes.

Pieces were falling away, shaking uncontrollably—and yet I felt more collected than I had in ages. I was going to get out. There was no way I'd give the bastard the satisfaction of caging me into some sick and twisted game.

I remembered a man and woman, standing hand in hand. I remembered a kiss, like the slow infusion of magic, wild and natural and free.

A kiss ungiven.

I shook my head. No. If nothing I was going to be strong. He'd said he wouldn't let me out, hadn't he? But, wouldn't that mean that there was a way out? Maybe I could escape after all, and everything would have been just a bad dream. Squaring my shoulders and standing proudly, I froze myself in this moment of perfect clarity and ambition.

I opened my eyes (When had I closed them?), and staggered back in the odd sensation that I really, truly, was going crazy.

What I first noticed was that the sky was bleeding. Burning with a hot, sick red that drenched the landscape in rusted brown. Soaking into the softly rolling hills and the occasional trees that seemed out of place in this vast grassland.

However, even more out of place, were the doors. Just, doors. Going nowhere from what I could tell and yet each standing self-importantly in a neat, wide arc. Each one was identically marble—highly decorative in a pattern of bold intricacies. Twin birds of flame circling each golden knob. Breathing of some delicious secret that it simply had to share.

What seems like one could be the other…

A leathery hand fell heavily on my shoulder, and I screamed.


A/N: guh. Yeah. The last bit was just a little mushy gushy because I was, like, high when I wrote it. I'm actually kind of afraid. Sort of weirdly intense in the last part and I'm not entirely sure I pulled it off.

Also, *cringes* So sorry I took so long! (*cough* three months *cough*) But see? See?? I made this entire chapter revolve around Loki just to make it up to y'alls. ^_^

Love you, darlings. So send me some critique so I can get better and give you more delicious stories in the future ^_^.

Responses!

Fate Thirteen: As always, you are my shining star! Without you, I could not…um, go far!...Okay, fine. Screw rhyming, you're the best and you deserve all the happiness life can give you (and, you know, a vat of chocolate with a sexilicious man as the cherry on top ^_-). And to anyone reading this? READ HER STUFF! It's worth it. Again, THANK YOU! Marry me? I can (sort of) cook!

Naja Copperleaf: Aw, thanks babe! I've been, sadly, negligent in reviewing your stuff (and everyone else's -_-) BUT. I haven't forgotten your story (and it's, um, eclectic characters ^_^) so expect my next review pretty soon (as in: after the lit. essay…and the Bio test…and the SATs… *dies*) No, really. I should be getting back on the horse as of…say, next week? Hopefully?

Nickel City: Thank you so much, darling. I count on you to inflate my ego…and Loki's (*cough* insufferable, but really sexy man! *cough*) ^___^. And don't think I haven't forgotten you! I'm reading your (delicious, amusing) story...I just don't know if I'm gonna have time right now to leave a nice, long review as I am, like, an hour overdue for a roadtrip as it is ^_^;;. But, before I fly, THANKS!!!

Belle the Shadow-Cat: haha! Thanks. For the whole "school-teacher glare," got the idea from my math teacher who is, like, the QUEEN of glares…heh. She scares me. Especially when I, you know, wake up in the middle of lecture to see her giving me them EVIL eyes….*shudders* But, thanks~! And I'll be getting back to yours, too. *mutters obscenities about twit-educational system and teachers with too much time on their hands…*

LittleWolf: As, always, you are lotion to my ego. Love your stories, too (especially when I'm…sexy-man-on-a-stick inclined ^_-)…Yeah, my friends don't understand my thing for fictional, sexy men…but that's just 'cause they've got boyfriends. *sniffs* juveniles. Whereas, WE know that sexy, fictional men are just better ^_^. Also, read the next chapter of 'For Love of a Wolf'…but, for the same reason I gave Nickel City, I'm not gonna be able to review it yet as I am, like, LATE for a road trip to Stanford (Ee! Hot, sexy Stanford dudes!....not really :P)

Kezkay: KEZ, darling. You are the one that makes me give in to my polygamous tendencies. And your reviews are worth more than chocolate~ (unless it's Blegian. 'Cause, you know, NOTHING outdoes Belgian ^_-) And you're right. It WAS a revelation chapter…kind of. *shrugs* Not sure I pulled it off right….but, bleh~ I MUST TELL EVERYONE THAT THEY HAVE TO READ KEZKAY'S MASTERPIECE IN THE MAKING, TITLED "THE WAR OF THE WINDS"!!!..hee! Now, how's THAT for promotion ^_-. You deserve every bit, love.

DigiDayDreamer: Yeah, Skodde's an…intimidating…person…Although I guess she works in the story, ne? I'm so sorry I've been, like, neglectful on FP.net. I REALLY should be getting back to YOUR masterpiece instead of, you know, wibbling over homework. Because homework is the DEVIL, damn you!..*coughs* I'm fine, really. Thank you for your review ^_^.

Mistress of Loki: haha! Thanks, I'm flattered you're so eager. But, see? See? New chapter! And Loki features in, like, 4/5 of it! Again, thank you.

Scotia Li: Hey there, sweet thing! Yeah. Kez-dearest was what brought me back to your stuff…and believe me, I don't regret it ^_^. I've actually read up to chapter Five (the one with Sovay, right? And the plan for Mutiny?)…and all in one night, too! I just, heh, was lazy and, um, didn't review…*cringes* No hard objects, please! No, really, I'll go back and praise you for every single chapter…err…AFTER road trip. ^_^