Stormbringer (excerpt)

///Stormbringer (excerpt)
Stormbringer (excerpt)2018-05-01T10:26:20+00:00

Alis’ Note
The opening chapters from Liesmith‘s sequel, Stormbringer. Warning for some serious spoilers for the end of the first book so, er, don’t read if that’s Not Your Bag, Baby.


Everything is true. Some of it’s embellished. That’s the trick.

This is how it goes.

Once upon a time, a girl fell in love with a monster. Or maybe it was the other way around. Or both. Point being, there was love involved, that awesome, terrifying force.

According to prophecy, the monster was doomed to die in a bloody battle that would claim the lives of all the gods. He was, on balance, okay with this, because fate is fate and the Wyrd is the Wyrd, and everything needs to die at some point, even gods. The monster sighed, and shrugged, and got on with his life.

The girl didn’t. Because she’d been born a mortal—not a monster, not a god—and the one thing every mortal knows, somewhere down inside, is that there’s always another story. Always.

And so the girl conspired with others, her stepdaughter and her monster’s not-entirely-ex-lover, and they rewrote and rewove and moved the stars themselves out of their orbits. Metaphorically speaking.

Literally speaking, the girl died. She died, and her monster didn’t. Sort of. Because what she knew, and her monster didn’t, was that by then he wasn’t really her monster at all. He was someone else, or half of one. A blank canvas, an empty book with a scratched-out title, written and rewritten. And, somewhere beneath the scrawl, what that title said was:

loki

“Lain!”

Flashback. Night. Interior shot of the foyer of an officer building. Big and open, spacious. Currently smeared with blood and stinking of smoke.

Three people. One is a boy. He’s the one who’s just done the yelling. His name is Sigmund Sussman. He’s twenty-two, and this has been, without a doubt, the weirdest month of his entire life.

The second person is a man. He’s got a thousand years and change on the boy, but doesn’t look a day over thirty. He’s got blond hair, pale skin, and is dressed in the sort of fur-and-leather outfit that went out of fashion in the early eleventh century. He’s currently clutching his face, howling.

He just got bitten by a snake. One that was hiding in the bag the boy, Sigmund, had been carrying for exactly that purpose. Snake-infested laptop bags; next season’s hottest antitheft device.

The man’s name is Baldr. At least, that’s what everyone’s been calling him. Actually, he’s really Loki. That’s something he only figured out recently. He’s currently pretty pissed off about that.

The third person is a monster. Seven feet tall, horned, skin like earth and feathers like bonfire and ash. This is me. I’m also a Loki, and a Baldr, but mostly, right now, I answer to Lain.

Things got confusing. Things always get confusing when a plot twist rewrites fate.

Loki doesn’t really know what he’s doing here, other than writhing in pain. I know this now because I’m him, even though I wasn’t then. Back when he’d thought he was Baldr, and thought he’d been trying to kill Loki. By which I mean me. Now that he knows that he, in fact, is Loki, he’s very slowly coming to terms with the fact he needs to die.

Loki is supposed to be dead. That was the prophecy, the Ragnarøkkr. All the gods would die, all their enemies would die, and the slate of the world would be wiped clean to start again.

What Loki didn’t know—what no one knew—is that someone’s already picked up the chalk and sketched an outline. That someone’s name is Sigyn, and she was Loki’s wife.

She’d dead now. Most of her, anyway. A part lives on in Sigmund, because stories are difficult things to kill.

Sigyn was a mortal, then a goddess, then dead. Now “she’s” back to being a mortal again, because mortals aren’t affected by the Wyrd in the way gods are. They effect it, not the other way around.

So Loki, who knows Sigmund is Sigyn, and knows he was Baldr, and knows he needs to die, also, currently, believes Sigyn betrayed him to be with me. Baldr. Or Lain. Or whomever.

He knows he has to die, because that’s how the story goes, and Loki, despite popular belief, is very big on “how the story goes,” particularly where the fate of Ásgarðr is involved. He’s okay with that, more or less. He’s not as much okay with his wife’s infidelity.

Of course, he knows only the half of it.

“Sigmund!”

That’s me yelling. I was on the ground, having been knocked out and dragged on-scene by Loki. Now I’m standing up, or trying to. Forcing my claws to stumble over each other in a way that brings me closer to Sigmund. Sigmund, who’s holding out what looks like a scarred old broomstick with an enormous dinosaur tooth strapped to one end.

This is Gungnir, the legendary spear of the god Odin. The point of it is that it can kill Baldr. Loki. Whomever.

My claws close around the wood. For a second, I feel it. The echo of Odin, a greasy black rotting stain of death and broken promises. Of love sold for power and blood spilled for gold. I hate this fucking spear. But, right now, I need it.

“Get to safety!” This is also me, and it’s something of a stupid thing to say. Sigmund thinks as much, his eyes wide white rings that dart around. Looking for somewhere, anywhere, to hide from warring gods.

Behind me, Loki screams. Not to be outdone, I roar and turn to face him. Meanwhile, Sigmund lunges behind a potted plant. It’ll have to do.

Loki says:

“You were supposed to care for her! Then die. We would be free!”

I say:

“What the fuck are you talking about?” Because then-me doesn’t know what now-me knows, i.e., that Loki traded his name and memories with Baldr as part of some half-assed plot with Odin to prevent the Ragnarøkkr. The deal was he would pretend to be Baldr, then “die,” spend some time hanging out with his daughter, Hel, in her of the dishonored dead. Meanwhile, Baldr would be Loki, looking after a Sigyn, who’d be none the wiser. Like a kind of shitty dark-ages version of Meet Joe Black.

Funny, in that film, how no one seems to care what the daughter thinks when her boyfriend suddenly changes personalities five minutes before the Happily Ever After is announced. No one asked her, but someone certainly asked Sigyn.

And this—this showdown with the four of us, me and Loki, Sigmund and Sigyn—is her revenge.

In the foyer, Loki explains this to past-me, punctuated by fists and boots. I’m trying to hold on to Gungnir as I’m both lectured and kicked unceremoniously across the tiles, cumulating in Loki’s foot coming down on my hand. Hard.

Funny thing about tenth-century leather soles, though. They’re actually not all that hard. Not like my horns, which I drive up into Loki’s stomach.

For one moment, everything goes black.

It also hurts on par with being kicked in the nuts. At least, I imagine it does. Jötunn don’t have nuts. Not anywhere kickable, that is.

So Loki is winded, I’m blind and writhing around whimpering and clutching my head. Somewhere in all this, I’m dimly aware of the sound of wood clattering across the floor.

Gungnir.

I have just enough time to process this before rough hands grab me by the feathers, lift my head, then slam it back down against the tiles. And that? That hurts.

Past-me is too busy being in pain, so doesn’t remember this next bit. Loki does and, since he’s me now—or maybe I’m him, who knows—I remember it.

He stands. Hears footsteps behind him. He doesn’t even get to turn before a strange pressure hits him in the chest.

When he looks down, the bloodied end of a tooth is protruding from the front of his tunic.

When he does manage to turn, he sees—

Well. For one second, he sees Sigyn. A slip of a woman, with hair like rotting straw and a face too broad and too plain to be beautiful. Her eyes burn like the arctic midwinter, and Loki’s heart breaks.

Then he blinks, and Sigyn is gone. Instead, he finds himself looking into Sigmund’s wide and panicked eyes.

“S-sigga?” Loki manages, feeling blood bubble up over his lips. “No . . .” He’d been prepared to die. But dying and being stabbed in the heart—in the back of the heart—by his wife’s reincarnation are two very different things.

Loki doesn’t know why Sigyn did it. He doesn’t factor Sigmund into it much at all, because Loki never does.

Meanwhile, by now, past-me is together enough to realize something’s going down, and a tactical retreat may be in order. I get approximately half a foot before Loki makes his final move: grabbing me into a massive fuck-you hug, impaling us both onto the same goddamn spear.

That’s about the end of it. Somewhere, Sigmund screams my name. The world tilts as Loki turns to deadweight and crashes down on top of me on the floor. I cough up blood. Sig tries to do something, to save me. Except it’s too late. This is the way the world ends.

I tell him as much. Then die.

And it does.

Like I said, everything is true. Some of it’s embellished.

The world doesn’t literally end, of course. It’s a figurative ending, a narrative one. The full stop at the end of a prophecy—a story—penned a thousand years past. Baldr finally dies on the cold, hard tiles in the foyer of a twenty-first-century office building.

He dies, and Loki dies, and only one of them was ever supposed to come back. Except Sigyn had a different fate in mind.

In her happy ending, she gets to keep her monster.

Sigmund gets his, too.

As for me and Loki? Well.

Stick around. You’ll see.


 

Hel

Chapter 1

Here’s the trick: Endings only look like endings from the front. From behind, they look like beginnings.

It’s the second-to-last day in March, and the sky over Pandemonium City is a riot of orange and gray. It’s getting darker earlier, the sun swallowed by the ravenous hunger of autumn. Daylight Savings is nearly done. It’s not quite cold yet, but it’s getting there, and winter is, by all accounts, definitely coming.

The inside of the car is warm, even with the top down. Sigmund’s in the passenger seat, dressed in ratty jeans and his old black N7 hoodie. His head is back, dark curls fighting with the wind. Exhaustion rolls off him in waves, and not only because he’s spent the whole day shifting boxes of crap into my apartment.

Two months ago, Sigmund Sussman killed a man. Well, allegorically speaking. But allegorically doesn’t count for much, not at three a.m. with the feel of rune-scarred wood beneath his palms. With the memory of the way Baldr’s skin had tried pushing back against Gungnir’s bite. Tried, and failed.

To say “all things” swore no harm to Ásgarðr’s favored son is, perhaps, an overstatement. The great beast that gave its tooth never made such a foolish oath. It loathed the golden-haired little brat, and shed no tears when he died.

Not that first time, nor the second.

Baldr was born to die, that’s what dying gods are for. But it doesn’t mean Sigmund was born to be the man to do it. And all the allegory—all the —in the world can’t wash the blood out of his mind.

So he hasn’t been sleeping well. I know this, because he’s mostly been not sleeping in my bed, and I don’t sleep at all. Not since being imprisoned in a cave for a thousand years, poison burning my eyes to milky blanks. Rebirth may have given me back my breath and heartbeats, but the blindness and the insomnia stayed. I don’t mind so much. Half measures are all I’m made from now.

Allegory. Go figure.

Point being, Sigmund stays at my place, most nights. That apartment I bought for Lain, a literal lifetime ago, all trendy open-plan and within convenient walking distance to work, the head office of my company, Lokabrenna, Inc. Sigmund tells me he sleeps over to save on petrol and on parking. I don’t mind the excuse. We both know the real reason.

We’re taking things slow, for both our sakes. For Sigmund, even living out of home is scary new territory, let alone cohabiting with a lover. For me, I just don’t want to fuck things up. I was celibate for a thousand years, once. A few weeks now won’t kill me.

I hope.

Two months ago, I destroyed the world. Today, I helped Sigmund move into Lain’s apartment. Tomorrow, I’m going to have to make a trip. Something I’ve been putting off, and something that might see me out of the city for a while. So, tonight, we’re going out. To celebrate.

“Hey, Sig. We’re here.”

Sig blinks awake when I touch him, drawing the deep breath of the chronically wrecked as he does so. The taste of his exhausted disorientation is bitter in my throat, and the guilt of it makes me say, “If you’re too tired . . .”

But Sigmund shakes his head, pushing himself out of his slouch and giving me a smile. It’s worn around the edges, but genuine, and his fingers are cool where he laces them through mine. “Nah,” he says. “I’m okay. Or will be, after some food.”

Sigmund doesn’t lie—can’t lie—and so I return his smile with a kiss, then pop my door and step out of the car. He does the same on his side, then joins me on the pavement.

We’re in Aldershot, Panda’s most overpriced suburb. My billionaire CEO alter ego, Travis Hale, has a mansion here somewhere. It’s a huge, austere thing. All harsh right angles and enormous plate-glass windows, settled on a three-acre block of landscaped native garden that fades into undeveloped bush just past the boundary fence. TV crews come and film it sometimes, and Travis hosts parties there at others. But that’s about all it’s good for.

It occurs to me Sigmund hasn’t seen it. I should take him up there one day. We can skate around the floorboards in our socks. It’ll be awesome.

One day, not today. Today, we’re at Aldershot’s local shops: a little ring of brick leftovers from the 1970s. Highlights include an organic produce store, a massage parlor, a gourmet butcher and delicatessen, a bookstore, a post office, and a restaurant.

It’s called Umami, and it’s the best in the city—one of the best in the country—serving Australian-Asian fusion cuisine to the nouveau riche and anyone else prepared to brave the four-hundred-dollar-a-head set menu and six-month waiting list.

As a local, Travis has a permanent reservation. Tonight, he’s bequeathed it to his special guests.

Inside, Umami is all black lacquer screens and red lanterns and tasteful art pieces. A neat young man greets us with gracious obsequiousness at the door, before showing us to a table in a quiet corner. He goes through the ritual of laying our napkins on our laps, then hurries off to fetch water and amuse-bouche.

When he’s gone, Sig leans toward me, eyes very wide. “Lain,” he says, “this place is really posh.”

I laugh. “Yeah. It’s not bad. I like Jaques Raymond better, I think, but Melbourne’s a long way to go right now.” I could charter a plane, I guess. Maybe next time.

“You could’ve told me,” Sigmund hisses. “I would’ve dressed up a bit.”

“You look fine, man.”

“How do you know? I thought you were supposed to be blind.”

I rock my hand back and forth, indicating ambivalence. The Wyrdsight doesn’t “see,” exactly. But I’m not blind blind, either.

“I still feel . . . underdressed,” Sigmund says, his words tasting of shame and inadequacy. He slumps back in his seat, pushes his glasses up his nose, and tries to hide behind the table, away from the stares of the other diners.

They are all pretty dressed up, now that I think about it. So I say, “Sig, look. The reality is, when you’re coming in to pay a thousand dollars for a meal—”

“A thousand whats? Lain!”

“—then nobody gives a shit what you’re wearing. This is Panda. Rich geeks in T-shirts and ripped jeans crop up here like single-use functions in bad code. Their money’s just as plastic as everyone else’s.”

Sigmund slouches in his chair. “A thousand dollars?” he says. “Really? Man, I can’t afford that.”

“You’re not,” I point out. “Travis is. This is his table.” I point, and Sigmund follows the gesture up the wall, to where a painting hangs above us. Abstract, but still obviously of the LB building, three-column statue-slash-logo-slash-prison and all. “We’ll be fine.”

Sigmund picks at the tablecloth, then picks up a fork and stares at it. It’s a fancy fork, about $50 per piece to buy: the high price of “design,” of the lifestyle, of the same principles LB is built on.

“Rich people,” Sig says.

“Mortal gods,” I agree, just as the waiter returns with all the timing of the impeccably trained.

He pours the water and introduces the food; sesame-crusted salmon sashimi with ginger and wasabi, served in little handmade ceramic spoons. Then he explains the menu, all eight courses of it. With matching wines. I know the exact moment Sigmund realizes he doesn’t get a choice—realizes that everything is dinner—by the taste of shock and panic in the air.

The waiter finishes with, “Are there any food allergies or requirements tonight I should tell the chef about?”

“We’ll skip the oysters,” I say.

“We can substitute the vegetarian option, if you’d prefer,” says the waiter, unperturbed. “It’s Burmese melon salad.”

“Sounds great.”

“Anything else?”

“You with the shellfish?” I ask Sigmund.

“Um,” he says, and bites his lip.

He’s not allergic, he just doesn’t eat things from the ocean that don’t come with scales, the last remaining vestiges of his paternal religiosity. Sig’s father, David, might be distanced from the dogma, but he never ate shellfish growing up, so never thought to introduce it to his son, either. Funny how these things turn out.

“No,” Sig says after a moment. “It’s fine. I’ll try it.”

“Certainly, sir.”

When the waiter vanishes back behind the screen, Sigmund adds, “I figure if I don’t like something here, I don’t like it anywhere, right?”

“I can call the guy back, if you’re feeling adventurous,” I say, grinning. “Get him to re-add the oysters.”

“You could,” Sig says, mischief glinting through his fatigue, “but you got rid of them pretty quick. So I’m kinda betting you’re the one who doesn’t like them.”

“Hah!” I say. “Do you know who I am? Legendary eating contest participant, hello?”

“One, you lost that—”

“Eating the dishes was cheating and didn’t count!” (Because I didn’t think of it. Also, the guy I lost to? Literal personification of fire. Like I said, massive cheating.)

“—and two, I still reckon you hate oysters.”

“They’re like drinking snot,” I say. “Someone else’s cold, lumpy snot.”

“Oh. Dude. Gross.”

“See?”

“I’m not sure I can even eat my spoonfish now.” Sigmund eyes the item in question, trying to decide how to eat it without embarrassing himself.

I help him out by taking my own spoon and gulping the contents down, all at once. Two chews and it’s gone. Sigmund copies the gesture, frowns for a moment, then says, “That’s pretty good. I don’t usually like salmon.”

“That’s the trick,” I say. “People pay a shitload to come here and get no choice over the menu. The chef has to make it good—all of it—else it’s Kitchen Nightmares time.”

“Guess I never thought about it that way before.” Sigmund stares into the bowl of his now-empty spoon. “I always kinda figured, fancy food . . . it was something you had to develop a taste for, y’know?”

“Sig, ‘developing a taste’ is for things that are disgusting, like cigarettes and oysters,” I say. “The truth is, the idea that rich people have some kind of special refined palette that sets them apart from the un-rich is a myth. One spread by rich people. Good food is good food, no matter who you are. That’s the whole point of it.”

Sigmund nods, and I feel him turning this new information over in his head. Processing. Then he grins, and says, “Except for oysters.”

I grin, too, all sharp teeth and scarred lips. “Right,” I say. “Except for oysters.”

Course number two is a roulade of smoked ocean trout, with paired chardonnay. Unsurprisingly, we’re talking about computers when it arrives. Specifically, my computers.

“It was the seventies,” I say. “Back then, all the hippie peace-and-love bullshit was dying faster than an alcoholic in the desert, and LB did coal. Only coal. We dug it up, we processed it, we sold it, we made a mint.”

“Sounds lucrative.” Sigmund sips his chardonnay with the trepidation of someone unused to wine.

“It was,” I say. “Still would be. But that’s the thing about coal, y’know. It’s a finite resource. It wasn’t going to be around forever. Not like yours truly.” Sig gives half a laugh around his drink. “We had computers back in those days, right. But they were—” I gesture.

“Enormous,” Sigmund translates. “So I’ve heard. Like. Rooms, or whatever.”

“Right. Very uninspiring things. They did payroll. Stuff like that. We had them, but . . . eh. We had them because we had them, that was all. But in the seventies, you started to get all these stories. Out of the States, mostly. People soldering together these things in their garages, these bastard hybrids of calculators and typewriters and the punchcard reel-churners we had.

“It was the microchip,” I continue. “Before that, back in the fifties, it was all vacuum tubes and whatever. Big shit. But you get the microchip, and—Well, it’s called the fucking microchip for a reason, isn’t it? ’71, that was the first microprocessor, care of Intel. But those guys, they didn’t get it. They still thought they were making this shit for niche markets. Universities, whatever. Except the kids in those places, they were looking at this stuff, and they were thinking, Well . . . how do I get one?”

“They made their own,” Sigmund says.

“Right. They made their fucking own. We had these guys, in office. They used to hang around until fuck o’clock, get in at the same. One night, I wandered down to see what the shit they were up to. They had this . . . this fucking thing. All circuits and wood, spread out over a desk. They’d mail-ordered it from the fucking States, were putting it together.”

“One of the first personal computers,” Sigmund says. Then, dropping his eyes and pushing his glasses up his nose, “We, uh. We got taught this story at uni.”

“Right,” I say. “Well, it’s true”—more or less—“and I was all, ‘What the fuck is this shit?’ So they showed me.”

Sigmund nods. “That must’ve been pretty cool.”

I have to laugh. “Sig, the thing was a fucking glorified calculator. It was nothing. Homemade wooden case . . . a piece of junk. But it reeked of Wyrd. That shit doesn’t happen often, but it happens. Like the echo of a scream: ‘Pay attention, this is gonna be on the fucking exam.’ And that wooden pile of shit? That’s what it felt like. It wasn’t anything. But it was going to be.”

“And you wanted in?”

I shake my head. “No. I didn’t want ‘in.’ I wanted it. All of it. That night, I was on a fucking flight out to America. I tracked down those fucking hippies who’d sold the kit, wanted to buy everything out from under them, their fucking souls included. And those fucks, man. They looked at me, and you know what they said?”

Sigmund grins. He knows what they said. “They said they had something better.”

I nod. “A motherfucking monitor. Green and fucking black, cathode-ray piece of shit. But it fit on a desk, and that was it. That was history. I said I’d give them everything. Within a month, we’d rebranded, had the first Pyre fucking computer going for manufacture. By the end of that year, I was selling off the old shit, the coal. BHP and Oceanid were fucking lapping it up, the suckers. I cut whatever I had to to finance these two smartass kids and their fucking dream.”

“Everyone thought you were crazy,” Sigmund says. He’s heard this part of the story, too. Seen the made-for-TV movie, even.

“The board kept trying no confidence,” I say. “Shit like that. It was a ruthless fucking time.”

“But you won.”

I nod, swirling the wine inside my glass, smelling the peaches and the oak. “I won,” I say. “Eventually.”

“‘The Purges,’ right?” Not my choice of name, and I still wince to hear it.

“Yeah,” I say. “Yeah, it was—anyone who wasn’t with the new program? They were gone. Their shit tossed out onto the street overnight, some of them. It was brutal, but we did what we did.”

Coal is a finite resource, there’s only so much of it buried in the ground. But the future? The future is forever, always.

“And now we have these.” Sigmund’s holding up his phone—his Pyre Flame—and giving something like a grin. “This is what you felt? The day when everyone walked around with their own computer, stuffed into their pocket.”

I close my eyes, breathe, and feel.

“No,” I say eventually. “Not this. This is still the journey. We’re not at the destination. Not yet.”

The future is not now.

But it will be. One day.


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