My kitchen feels uncomfortably small, but I think anywhere would at the moment if the only two people in it were me and Leif. He’s produced a bottle of Akvaviitti that looks old and is pouring two generous measures into the only glasses I have: sherry glasses. They were a Christmas gift from my sister one year.
“I didn’t want to leave you,” I say. I definitely hadn’t intended to talk about this, and was hoping Leif wouldn’t either, but the words somehow just spill out.
“You got out alive,” he says. “And with all your senses intact. And you helped Guldtronen out.”
“I know, but--”
“But you could have come back? You could have raised some help from somewhere and brought people down into that hellish City and looked for us, even though you thought we’d probably be dead?”
“Yes! No. I don’t... I don’t know. Leif, I was terrified. I saw them picking at Guldtronen whenever they could get to him and I didn’t want that to be me. I didn’t think we could get out if it happened to me too. I didn’t want-- I still don’t want to go back.”
“You did what you needed to do.” His voice, though gravelly, is little more than a whisper. “I don’t think you can get out of that City by yourself if you don’t have all your senses. I followed the Ilmatu to get out, and there were times when they seemed to vanish, and when I followed where they’d gone, there’d suddenly be a passage there that I’d not seen before. I--”
The rapping on the front door is patient and polite, and unlike the knock of anyone who visits me ordinarily. I look at Leif, and he looks steadily back at me.
“Best answer it then.”
I’m sweating as I approach the door, and I can see frost forming at the foot of it already. Remembering last time, I pull the door open and retreat a few steps. Outside is a figure wearing jeans and a hoodie but no shoes, and its hands and feet are so pale they’re almost ivory and they look wrong. For a moment no-one moves, then Leif stands up and calls out “Come in!” The Ilmatu closes the door behind it and pushes the hoodie back to reveal a smooth, iridescent egg-shaped head. It lifts its hands in front of its head and two eyes, two familiar eyes, move in its palms, looking around. I feel faint, and I back away to the kitchen and sit down on the other side of the table. The Ilmatu follows me.
“Who are you?” Leif takes the lead. The Ilmatu’s head sways from side to side a little, and it holds its hands up again, showing its eyes.
“Guldtronen?” I don’t believe it can be him, but the Ilmatu nods. It mimes writing, and Leif looks at me. “Upstairs, first door,” I say. “There’s pens and papers in there, on the desk.” I look at the Ilmatu. “How can you be Guldtronen?” I swear it shrugged.
Up close I felt nauseous every time I looked at the Ilmatu’s hands. Like its feet they were more like hooves; cloven down the middle of the palm about half way along the hand, up to where the eyes embedded. The fingers were unnaturally long, I counted five knuckles, all of which were hinged so as to allow the fingers to bend in both directions. If you placed something on the back of its hand it could close the fingers of that hand around it. The fingers themselves were slightly flat and had a hard bony edge that protruded through the skin. I deduced that the Ilmatu could close its hand up so as to form a kind of blade, both a weapon and a means of skating fast on the ice that covered the walls and ceilings of their city. It had trouble holding a pen, resorting at the last to holding it between the two halves of its hoof-hand, and its writing was shaky and child-like.
“I forgive you,” was the first thing it wrote, and it laid the pen down and held its palms across its face so that Guldtronen’s eyes looked at me. I recoiled, and pressed into a corner formed by the kitchen units, I nodded my head and refused to sit back down again.
“I was nearly lost, but I am me again,” it wrote. Leif nodded.
“It-- he transferred when the second Ilmatu killed the first,” he said, and the Ilmatu nodded.
“I have something for you, taken from the man with no eyes.” The Ilmatu pulled an envelope out of the pocket of its hoodie and put it on the table.
“Nico?” I was croaking, my throat was dry and I couldn’t swallow. Leif picked the envelope up and passed it to me. It crackled when I held it.
“I can’t, I can’t....” I have to get a glass of water and drink before I can get the words out. “I can’t read it here, I’ll take it upstairs.” Leif waves me away, sitting forward towards the Guldtronen-Ilmatu with an odd look on his face.
“I have more questions,” he says, so I slide past, keeping my distance, and run up the stairs to my study. I have to lock the door, no matter how unfriendly it might seem, and only then do I feel less like I’m being hunted. The envelope contains pages of snakeskin covered with pictures of the tattoo symbols I saw in the Valgran codex and little blocks of dense text. On some of the pages someone has annotated the text, drawing circles around symbols and writing things next to them. The language looks like German to me, but I would need a lot of time to work out what it was saying. I stuff the pages back in the envelope, and then sit there for several minutes, breathing deeply, trying to find the courage to go back downstairs.
I see the front door is open from the top of the stairs, and when I get down there, Leif and Guldtronen are gone, as is the paper Guldtronen wrote on. I close the door, trying not to feel relieved.