I recoil, and the Ilmatu reaches out. Instinctively I slam the door shut, turning away to face the kitchen. Bark is rising from his seat, but the walls are rising around me
and Guldtronen is sitting in his chair, hunched over, his head hanging down. I’ve told people that he lost his nose and ears to frostbite, I’ve hinted to the still-curious that he doesn’t have all his toes any more either, though that’s not true. He doesn’t try to talk, doesn’t open his mouth, so no-one knows yet that his tongue is missing. Dark glasses cover his eyes, but I know it won’t be long before someone realises that they’re hiding holes into his head, and I have no idea how to explain how he lost his eyes. Every time I go near him I can hear the Ilmatu screaming somewhere inside my head, but the screams still seem to come from a long way away. I think it wants to kill him. The Dean comes over, Professor Dressinger, and quietly asks me to come with him to his office. I look back at Guldtronen, wondering if it’s safe to leave him alone, and then I wonder if he isn’t safer alone, away from me and my unwelcome head-guest.
“Damian,” says Professor Dressinger. He’s sat behind the cheap wooden desks that the Institute furnishes its offices with. On the blackboard behind him are dates and place-names, it looks like he had a student seminar in here before me. “what happened at Ilvo? Why has no-one else come back? And what happened to Guldtronen out there?”
Dressinger has led expeditions before. He always returned with the whole team. I grasp at the only straw I can see: Raininen led this expedition, not me.
“We weren’t prepared,” I say, and the truth of that short sentence hits me like a blast of cold air. “We had no idea what we were getting into. Well, Raininen might have done, but the rest of us didn’t....”
Dressinger listens to the whole story in silence, but I edit it anyway to say that Guldtronen was in the state he’s in now when I found him in the City. I tell him about the hotel room and the Ilmatu attacking us, but that the hotel manager frightened it off and the police questioned us afterwards. He nods, and his fingers shuffle papers, and I know then that he’s already seen the police report.
“Well then,” he says when I’m done, and he won’t look at me. “I think that I shall wait a little longer for Raininen, in case he manages to find his way out of this City as well. For now, you should find somewhere for Guldtronen as I don’t think he can resume his duties here, and then tomorrow we shall meet again to discuss what you might do next.”
I leave his office and find Guldtronen still sitting in his chair, rocking back and forth slightly. It’s getting late now, and no-one else is around.
“We should go,” I say, and then remember how stupid that is. I go over to him, place a hand on his shoulder so as not to startle him and my other hand under his arm to indicate that he should stand. Everything goes icy, I see my breath condense in the air in front of me, a white cloud that puffs outwards and engulfs Guldtronen’s head. The screaming gets louder and louder and my grip tightens, my fingers elongating and pushing through the fabric of Guldtronen’s jacket. Suddenly my fingers are touching bare skin and I can feel the chair he’s sitting in as though I were sitting in it myself. There’s a moment of instability, of unbalance, like I’m standing on a see-saw waiting for an end to fall, and then it plunges downwards and I stagger and fall over.
When I stand up again the screaming has stopped, the room is warmer, and Guldtronen’s face has lost all signs of intelligence. Whatever is inside his skull is a drooling idiot. Little red petechiae cover his wrists, and when I check his jacket there are rips where my fingers were, and red welts beneath them. When I try to get him to stand, I discover he can’t feel me touching him, and I have to bodily pick him up and support him out of the building. I take him to the campus hospital and leave him there.
Three days later, the hospital reports that he’s died, and for the first time since we found the Ilmatu I feel a sense of relief that lasts until the Dean suggests that I might want to find a job somewhere where there are fewer rumours. I leave his office
and the floor catches me, and I can see a thin patina of ice forming across the bottom of the front door.