Neither of us spoke again until we reached the edge of the snag. Close up, it felt fuzzy and dense, less like a dimensional border and more like a mildly uncomfortable concentration of pressure snaking along in a turbid line. When I put a hand into it, the discomfort increased, and turning off all the nerves in the limb made no difference. I pulled it back out again.
Apollo surfaced behind me and spat river water out of his mouth, shaking his head in the fashion of a prizewinning mutt. “Urgh. Pass me the card reader.”
Half-submerged underwater wasn’t really the best place to be manifesting electronics, but the torrential rain above the surface wasn’t any better, so I shifted form and pulled the offending object out of my trouser pocket, passing it up to the seer. Sifting around under the surface, my companion likewise lifted up what appeared to be a very soggy lanyard a moment later and wound it around his wrist.
I stared at it dubiously. The card was in a plastic sleeve, which was full of water.
“It’s waterproof,” he commented, and held it to the reader until it beeped. “In what seems less of a coincidence by the minute, you’re to thank for that. We made some changes after the second time you fell down a waterfall in transit.”
“I didn’t know you cared,” I drawled.
“Access cards are expensive,” he said.
Janus’ appearance saved him from the witty response I hadn’t thought of yet. I saw it happen this time, for a change. The trend of people sneaking up on me from behind had been starting to get old, and made the same general statement as slowly swivelling around with an uncharacteristically patient cat in a high-backed desk chair.
At first it seemed my vision was blurring, haze seeping in through the rain. A sliver of a second later, however, it resolved into a mob of nonsensical distortions crowding my vision everywhere I looked. They twitched in the air and even crawled through my skin for a moment before I exerted my power and pushed them out. I’d been expecting the scene from Facility J to play out in reverse, but this was far more fractured. Jagged, translucent ghosts in the shapes of hands, knees and shoulders shuddered partway into existence before fractalling into duplicate shards of themselves, converging in on the snag.
Then screams: raw and guttural in their thousands, twisting and clawing through my ears for the second before I shifted away my ability to hear. Shaken, I glanced at Apollo through the storm of disjointed bits and found him weathering it, grimacing, avoiding the fragments as they threatened to pass through him.
Just as I was certain something had to have gone wrong, a large ripple passed through the snag and the fractals glitched, reforming into Janus’ familiar form suspended above the river, faces to the sky. He fell backwards, hitting the surface with a splash masked by the downpour. Cautiously, I restored my hearing and was relieved to hear only rain.
Apollo swam over to the fallen god and raised his head up out of the water. Janus’ eyes were closed, his neck limp, and he didn’t look responsive.
“That didn’t look like it was supposed to happen,” I noted.
“He had to break through the enforced summoning restrictions,” Apollo explained. He looked down as the larger god’s eyes fluttered open. “You try doing that when your consciousness is smeared all over reality.”
“Did he even get a choice in the matter?”
Movement surged back into Janus’ body, and he started to push the sun god away.
“Don’t get any ideas,” Apollo warned him, loosening his grip. “Outside this conflux, you’ll go straight back to the way you were. You’ve got forty seconds. Make them count.” He nodded at me. “Ask now.”
The nearest set of Janus’ eyes focused in on me, weary and half-lidded. “You again.”
I nodded, but spared no breath on small talk. I’d learnt my lesson. “You didn’t finish telling us where we could find your fourth face.”
The large Roman peered from me to Apollo and back again, barely needing to turn his head with his particular physiology. Much to my surprise, he choked out a laugh. “It’s in the void,” he tittered.
“How can we retrieve it?”
I gestured at him to keep going. “Ask who? The face?”
“My face. Tell it it’s time.”
“Time for what?”
Janus laughed again, spluttering on the rainwater entering his mouths. “Not in front of your friend. He wouldn’t approve.”
“He’s not my friend,” I said.
“Then we have that in common.” He chuckled again. Strain entered his voice. “We were friends, once,” he spoke, out of the mouth closest to me. “Back before he became the Betrayer. And now he has so few." Then, to Apollo: "See how they all hate you now.”
I thought back to the frantic crowd in the office, so desperate for his attention. Contrasted against the cabin in the cold forest in its layers of quiet dust.
In response, the sun god reached out a hand and touched Janus’ head. Still smiling, the other seer’s eyes closed, and he slumped down into the water, Apollo grabbing him by the scruff of the collar before he could completely submerge.
“Come on,” he said, extending a hand towards me. “We have the information we need.”
I didn’t cooperate. “We still had time. I had more questions to ask.” Such as what we were informing the face it was time for. That had been an ominous statement if I’d ever heard one. And whether he could confirm what Apollo had said about my potential latent chaos effect. Or what had happened to his third face, which everyone else seemed to have been overlooking for some reason.
“Forty seconds, I was clear. Janus is dangerous, Loki. Even in his current state. I’m not taking chances.”
“I thought we just finished establishing that’s how we all ended up in this pile of turgid refuse in the first place.”
“Listening to me would be a good idea if you don’t want our insides to end up on our outsides,” he said, snapping his wrist at me impatiently.
That one was difficult to argue with, until I remembered I could just shift them back again. Still had some mental catching up to do since the heist. No sooner had I deposited my arm into his grip than the three of us were standing back on dry land; a snow-covered plain at what appeared to be twilight. Freezing air clawed at me for a brief moment of shock value on wet skin.
One-handed, Apollo sat his unsteady charge down where he wouldn’t fall over, not releasing me during the process, and we blinked again a few hundred metres distant. Only then did he let go. From here, Janus resembled a dark, crumpled heap against an untarnished field of white, save the few smudged footprints we’d left beside him. The mighty god of change, reduced to a speck. My eyes wanted to slide off the scene.
Some seconds later the omnipresence restoration process kicked in and the whole uncomfortable mess played out in silence. All we needed was a shelter and a pair of binoculars and we could have been aping the scientists who’d tested the first nuclear bomb. Uninhibited, it didn’t look entirely dissimilar. I imagined the vague sinking feeling clawing its way into the pit of my stomach wasn’t far off the mark either.
When no visible traces remained, the seer relaxed. Heat began pouring off him in waves, drying out his skin and hair and carving an expanding crater around us in the snow amid clouds of vapour. He vanished for a few moments, returning in a fresh set of clothes and hair that appeared to have been combed in a rush. The lanyard was back in his hand, his expression grim. We both knew where we had to visit next.
I’d spent a fair amount of my youth – and extended adulthood - hopping between various dimensions, but had never made it as far as the void. Even most of the death gods steered clear of it. As an afterlife, it required no maintenance, bestowed no bragging rights and allowed for next to no interaction. Ruling over it was to rule over nothing. Not that it had ever been intended to be exploited for that purpose until recently. It was a good way to make things disappear, but you’d had to have been a sadist or a very hopeful researcher to expect any additional benefit.
Thinking of it as a place at all was a mistake. It was everything a place wasn’t; the miasma outside creation. Plenty of pantheons had at least some of their early histories steeped in it, which usually boiled down to the first gods waking up in it, finding themselves bored shitless, and deciding to give themselves something else to do. Enki’s suppression chamber edict paled in comparison. Space, like everything else, went there to die.
“You don’t need to go,” said Apollo, watching me. “I can handle this alone.”
My feet seemed to have stopped sinking, at least, sloshing around in the ankle-deep pool of slush at the bottom of the crater.
“I’m surprised you’re offering me the choice,” I responded. “Don’t you already know whether I’m coming or not?”
“Just because I know what it is doesn’t mean you don’t have a choice,” he countered. “It would be easy enough to push you down a different route if I wanted.”
“Bet you’d be a real charmer at parties,” I muttered to myself. “Out of curiosity, what would it take to make me not go?”
“There’s a list, which I’m not going to waste my time recounting. Prepare yourself.” Raising the card, he swiped at the air, then took the lanyard and looped part of it around my wrist.
One of Providence’s familiar travel gates swam into view beside us in the crater. It was hard to look at. There was the frame, as always – stainless steel – propped up unsupported against the snowy landscape. But my eyes refused to focus on the space between the edges, jumping from one half of the frame to the other without registering the existence of the gap I knew had to be there. Restricted access opened stranger doors than the figurative ones, it seemed.
“In-teresting,” I murmured, making more eyes to see if it helped with the problem. It didn’t.
“That would be a change,” Apollo muttered. “We won’t be there long. We’re just dropping in, locating the face and bringing it out.”
“Resurrection permissions now? I thought that was only the executive team.”
“It is. Technically, this isn’t a resurrection. Janus is alive, after all.”
Which seemed to indicate the face had been put there in a deliberate attempt to hide it. By who, I didn’t know, but Janus was a seer. It wasn’t impossible he might have done it to himself as some kind of contingency plan.
A contingency we were about to blunder into, if so. I wished Hel had told me more.
I tried and failed to look at the door again and took a deep breath. Everyone ended up in the void eventually. But not everyone had to die to get there.