Yellow. The Impostor.

© 2001 by Torquemada

This page was last modified: 2001/07/23

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-- Here we are, winners again. Congratulations.

-- Yup.

-- Why do I hear not triumph in your voice? It was your plan, and it worked

precisely like we forecasted.

-- Get lost, will you?

"Allfather next created a huge ash called Yggdrasil, the tree of the universe, of time, which filled all the world, taking roots not only in the most remote depths of Niflheim, where the spring Hvelgermir bubbled, but also in Midgard, near Mimir's well, and in Asgard, near the Urd fountain. From its three great roots the tree attains such a marvellous height, that its topmost bough, Lerad, overshadows Odin's hall, while the other wide spreading branches tower over the other worlds. In the seething cauldron Hvelgermir, close to the great tree, a horrible dragon, called Nidhogg, continually gnaws the roots, and is helped in his work of destruction by countless worms, whose aim it is to kill the tree, knowing that its death will be the signal for the downfall of the gods.

As the Yggdrasil is evergreen, its leaves never withering, it serves as pasture ground..."

He abruptly stopped the flow of the memories. The ancient tale he had kept repeating for himself so many times that he lost count long time ago, the only thread connecting him with his lost homeland -- but today was one of those days, when it hurt him rather than soothed. Today, it didn't help him to fade reality away, and reality was winning, sticking its indifferent face through the curtains of altered images.

There was no Yggdrasil here, and though these trees around were strong and tough -- with their roots deep in the rocks and their life force connected directly to the Earth -- they weren't Yggdrasil.

And the waterfall, in front of which he spent so much time just sitting and looking at it -- it was strong and magnificent, its waters so clear and cold, so refreshing that they really seemed to be able to purify any stained soul -- but it wasn't Urd.

There even was a dragon, who lived in the waterfall's river. Sometimes he arose to talk to the old man, and he was his only company for many years. Back home, people didn't like the dragons, claiming them to be savage, hypnotizing, distrustful and greedy beasts. People of where he lived now respected the dragons, because, as they said, dragons were wise and powerful. Both were right -- the dragons possessed the inhuman wisdom, their enigmatic talks were indeed hypnotizing, their code of laws never included the trust of human beings, and they were greedy for any kind of knowledge.

The old man always knew how to get along with the dragons, and although the dragons of his homeland were of the Earth, and his neighbour Water dragons, that did not matter much.

He called the dragon Nidhogg. That wasn't his real name -- dragons never revealed their names to anyone, until there came the time for them to die and the power of the dragon's name could not be restrained any longer. The dragon didn't mind, he just asked once where the name came from. The old man told him the tale, then another one, then yet another -- until all the tales he knew added to the dragon's treasure. It took many years; yet, when the last tale was finished, the dragon kept coming anyway. He also told the old man about his own small, but, as he said, quite important treasure. The old man didn't try to guess why the dragon told him this. Even when he was young, he knew how futile it was to try to understand the ways of the dragons. He was just happy to have someone to talk to.

But the dragon wasn't Nidhogg.

And himself, he wasn't Mimir, the old and wise being. He was just an old creature, living a hermit's life in these mountains, spending his time in front of the waterfall with the stinging pure water, a dragon inside and the trees around -- and waiting.

How many years had it required to learn how to wait -- a hundred? Two? Time didn't matter. He did not want to live this life, which did not belong to him. Long time ago, he stopped caring about hiding his nature -- the few people who dwelled nearby were too polite to wonder about both his looks and his age and treated him as a never-changing part of the environment.

But he had to wait. Because somewhere down below, it waited, too.

He suddenly sensed someone's presence and turned his head to face the newcomer.

"Loki," he stated plainly, without any surprise. "Quite a number of years passed since your last visit..."

The newcomer chuckled softly.

"You know that I don't fancy waterfalls much."

"I do," the old man nodded. "If you only kept your mouth shut on some subtle moments..."

"You are getting old, do you know that?" the newcomer announced loudly, his voice suppressing the laughter. "Preaching is the first sign of it!"

The old man laughed, recognising the fun of the situation and the newcomer joined him immediately, freeing that laughter which was such a natural part of his entity.

They sat, side by side, and laughed -- the old hunched man and the dark haired newcomer; you could say he was in his thirties, unless you looked into his eyes and saw those dark, deep wells of ancient memory behind the crystal clear humour of the day.

"I brought you a message from home," the stranger abruptly changed the conversation, and at once all the joyfulness faded away. "It has happened. You are not the last of your name anymore."

The old man sighed, very quietly.

"So the prophecy..."

"Was not lying," the newcomer finished. The seriousness did not befit him. "He is the one we were warned about."

"Are you sure?"

"The Earth recognized him and pledged to him. The trees recognized him and pledged to him. The..." The newcomer hesitated for a moment, "...the Deathfingers recognized him and pledged to him. You decide."

The silence stood, and the newcomer didn't try to interrupt it. As if he knew what the old man was thinking, and that silence was what he needed the most right now.

And the old man sat there, numbly, letting the stream of confused, erratic thoughts carry him away. All these years, he had been preparing himself for this to happen, and when it finally did, he found himself unprepared. His mind struggled, refusing to accept, to believe, hoping to deny...and it didn't work.

"When will it start searching for him, do you know?" he eventually asked.

"It already began. But this will take some more time. It does not need a careless child, what it needs is a doubting youth. For him, the time is long. For us...not really."

The old man nodded. The first shock started to pass; apparently, all those years were not spent too uselessly.

"You think he will be powerful?" he could not hold himself from another question.

"Very powerful. And the power of the name will add to his natural one. Yes. He is right what it needs."

But the old man wasn't listening. The question was just a last, desperate hope to hear the denial, yet he wasn't surprised about the positive answer.

What he was thinking about was the new owner of the name. The name which was always given only to the very special ones -- those who would be strong enough to cope with its power. The name of the sorcery, the name of mighty and wise. His name.

And he had almost forgotten its sound.

* * *


He turned abruptly towards the voice, surprised. Who and why could anyone call him here, on the mountain path, so far from his homestead?

The one who waited for him, a young man, looking strong and valiant despite of his not too impressive height, looked at him, wit sparkling in his narrowed eyes and a sly smile playing on his lips. With arising joy about the pleasant surprise, he identified the man.

"Dohko. You haven't changed a bit."

"I knew you'd recognize me. I spotted you on the path, when you were still looking like a tiny ant on the mountainside," Dohko stepped forward with a widening smile.

After a firm handshake, a stream of cheerful filthy curses and bad names said about each other, and other parts of the ritual which would seem weird for the ignorant -- but anyone with a little knowledge would immediately recognize two friends meeting after a long time -- they walked down the path side by side; slowly, like their conversation went, and equally naturally. They were of that kind of friends who never suffered from uneasiness in their conversation's beginning, no matter for how long they hadn't seen each other. The bonds that tied them during the time they spend together were timeproof.

"So, what kind of wind brought you here?"

"I travelled home, and, well, just decided to drop in. To see how you are doing, how're things and stuff."

"Nothing too special. I am quite settled now."

"Settled? You? Goddess, if anyone told me six years ago that Quicksilver Alberich was able to settle down, I'd have gone betting my head for sure!"

"And you'd have lost. If you call that a loss."

"I bet all the nomads of Swithiod and the bullies of Gardariki can now dance the dance of triumph, and the poor maidens of Kaamos will drown the city in tears, if they only knew!"

"Go north and down, will you?"

"Sod you!"

The conversation naturally turned to their past, full of shared adventures and defeated dangers.

"And what about you, what are you on now?" there came the time for Alberich to ask the same question.

Dohko shrugged, airily.

"You might say I am kind of settled as well. Or, rather, I have found a stable occupation."

"What, you...?"

And again, the conversation turned to the track of memories.

"Nevertheless, you are facing a Saint of Athena. Be reverent and polite," Dohko stopped and performed a deep mock bow.

"Saint of Athena? Never heard of them, but I can prove with all evidence if needed, that you are as far from Sainthood as I am from Freya's bed. Although, if this has a meaning, similar to Astarte's priestess..."

"Not really," Dohko shook his head, in earnest. "Believe this or not, but I really feel I can be helpful in the mission I was given."

"Which is?"

"To protect the peace on Earth, to keep the Chaos away. To see that no evil will ever rule the world," Dohko said very seriously.

The passion in his friend's voice did not surprise Alberich much. With time, people tended to change. For example, who could have expected that he, abhorring the quiet and settled dwarfish lifestyle, one day would join it, with all that boring forgery, jewelry and smithy; the things he had always mocked so violently? So, he just calmly noted:

"Something very outstanding must have happened. You were always famed by your neutrality and balance."

"It did," Dohko's eyes were misty with distance. "The god of Death, Hades, threatening to conquer Earth and turn it into one big cemetery, was a reason weighty enough. Believe me."

"Maybe. Haven't noticed anything looking like the end of the world recently, mind you."

"And you shouldn't, because there wasn't any. That is what I am talking about."

"So, it is you I must thank for saving me altogether with the world?"

"Not only me," Dohko treated his words with some sad sobriety. "There were many of us. Only two survived. Myself included."

"I see. Would you care for a story-telling later?"

"Long story, but I shall try," Dohko managed to shake the gloominess away. "The skalds of your country are widely famed by their talent to turn the battles into pure poetry, aren't they? I'd like to challenge them with this."

The path forked and Dohko stepped onto its narrow and barely visible track which led towards the forest.

"Not this way!" Alberich shouted, hurriedly.

"Why?" Dohko looked at him, anxiously.

"It's the wrong way," Alberich explained, flustered.

"Is it? Why do I have this feeling, that there's something more?" Dohko inquired mildly.

Now Alberich was less than pleased with his friend's ability to catch the shades of his moods and unspoken thoughts. But he had never lied to Dohko before, and was not going to do it now.

"We'd better avoid this forest. It's a bad place."

"Bad place, what do you mean? Is it one of these bewitched places that you people still believe to exist?" Dohko obediently followed him onto the right path, but his curiosity was firmly fixed on the forest.

"We here lead very simple lives and believe only in things that really exist. And the forest..." Alberich sighed. Why hadn't he told Dohko earlier about this, among the other stories they had shared far away and such a long time ago? But that was the thing he'd rather choose to forget than brag about. Yet, fate walked her own ways, and now he was forced to tell...maybe, it was even for good. If Dohko was going to stay there a while, he had to know about the forest -- and avoid it at any cost.

"...the forest is dangerous. The Deathfingers dwell there."

Dohko raised one brow. Alberich forced himself to proceed; after all, if he began to talk about this, he was obliged to finish.

"The Deathfingers are amethyst crystals. Very large ones, they seem to grow directly from the earth. They look like tall and narrow pink obelisks, that's why 'fingers'. And the other part...they are able to steal people's lives. Nobody knows how they do that, but they lock a man inside themselves and drain his life force, slowly -- until he dies. They spoiled all the forest around them, and now it helps them in whatever they wish for -- that path you've chosen to walk, it was not here when I left my home years ago. That's why it is so dangerous even to go nearby."

"And you have a forbidden place so near to your door. That's very...weird."

"Not forbidden. The attraction of prohibition is always very strong. You know that. In fact, we both know that," Alberich smiled at his memories. "It's just that going there is not what we do. It's not easy to ignore their call; sometimes it is very the way, you had to feel it on yourself, didn't you?"

"Now when you mentioned it," Dohko nodded, earnestly. "I really cannot remember why I turned that way. Like...something whispered to me the direction. But, if it is so dangerous, why don't your people unite and go to destroy them? What if they expand?"

"People tried. Several times. They went and broke the stones, and the next day they loomed there again, as if nothing happened. They probably are meant to be there, if Earth wishes so."

"If Earth wishes so," Dohko smiled. "You know, I was always fascinated about your bonds with nature. Now I see why. Living with such things is good for practicing mysticism."

"Somewhat," Alberich said. He didn't like the direction the conversation took. There were too many things that he didn't like to talk about -- such as why the Deathfingers never harmed anyone from his family. Even their call towards him was different -- not luring and tempting, like the other people said they had experienced. It sounded more like a wistful invitation with a quiet sadness in it; the aggrieved question of an abandoned pet to its Master -- and it made Alberich feel even worse than the knowledge of what a wild amount of money the sorcerers and plainly rich people were ready to pay for jewelry from pieces of filled amethyst. Filled with stolen lives.

He decided to stir the conversation away of the dangerous subject.

"Talking about Earth and its gifts, I cannot help to notice the box you are carrying. It looks to be made from pure gold, isn't it?"

"The eye of the craftsman, eh?" Dohko winked. "Well, you guessed. It is golden. More than that, what's inside is made of gold, too."

"And inside there is..."

"My Libra Cloth. Or, rather, an armour."

Alberich looked at the box, interestedly.

It was rectangular-shaped, quite big and looked even bigger on Dohko's shoulders, although Dohko seemed to carry it with ease. There was a carving on its sides -- the scales, dormant in their perfect balance.

"Good piece of work, this box."

"So is the Gold Cloth. You'll see for yourself anyway, just let us reach your house."

"We are almost there. Did you say Gold Cloth? I reckon, gold is not your basic metal for armours. Soft, heavy, easily dented..."

"It's not simple gold. I am not good in weaponry, whereas you are an expert; but believe me, it's neither heavy nor soft. And about it being dented, I've never seen anything more resistant."

They reached Alberich's homestead. People greeted them, looking at Dohko curiously. Strangers were common here, they always came and went with orders, requests and deliveries and the family couldn't complain about a lack of customers. But friends of their master, and especially ones with big boxes of gold, were not an everyday sight.

Dohko, likewise, looked around.

"Looking for bearded and hooded pygmies with axes twice their size?" Alberich winked. Dohko giggled.

When Dohko realized Alberich's race, and it happened after quite a long time after their first meeting -- he was literally shocked. So Alberich had to explain that in his parts of the country anyone smaller than six feet was called short, the beard was only a matter of fashion, and mostly among the elders, anyway. The elders were likewise shorter and quite hunched -- that's what happened with about every race with age; but since the foreigners who made deals with the dwarves, usually met the councils of elders with their parade clothing, including axes -- hence that image of the dwarves, which, decorated by gossip and lack of information, became quite far from the reality. And he, Alberich, despite being slightly taller than Dohko, was a genuine dwarf. What about the pointy ears? Oh, they could be easily concealed, and not necessarily by magic -- sometimes all it needed was a proper haircut.

Nevertheless, it took some time for Dohko to accept the fact that his friend was in fact twice older, but by dwarfish standards still an immature adolescent, since the basic life expectancy of a dwarf was four or five times longer than of a human. And when Dohko eventually got rid of the influence of the distorted opinion, this subject became a theme for many jokes.

"Well, magic or not, since it looks like pure gold, I suggest we put your box in my treasury," Alberich offered. "Many people come here, and I trust not everyone. There it will be safe and away from temptations, if they arise any in vagabonds that wander around."

"Conclusions made out of our past, eh?" Dohko grinned. "But let it be. You are the master and I don't think I will have to use my Cloth here. Besides, I am truly curious -- to see the most sacred of all things sacred, the dwarfish treasury, where only a few selected mortals are allowed to enter -- who could resist?"

"It is not sacred," Alberich objected, gently. "We are only a neat and orderly folk and prefer to keep everything in one tidy place. Well guarded, that's true -- as I said, to keep various suspicious attempts from arising. But, since your box will be placed there, feel free to enter the treasury whenever you wish to."

They passed a few secret doors and walked through several hidden passages. Dohko shook his head, muttering something about 'that genuine dwarfish passion for gold, how it is funny'. Alberich smiled -- his friend had never felt attracted to all those valuable gems, precious metals and other glittery things that affected the majority of people greatly. From the day they met, Dohko successfully ignored all that luxury equipment; it never triggered anything in his heart; while Alberich sometimes liked to smarten up with something beautiful -- be it an adroit scabbard of a sword or exquisitely engraved bracelet. Yet, his fancy of jewelry had never grown into the more dangerous form -- the addiction to gold. Lots of it passed through his hands -- as a necessary equipment of an adventurer earlier, as a working material now -- but it never turned him into a powerless slave of itself. Since it happened with too many people around him, Alberich felt silently proud, realizing how valuable this independence was.

"Here we are." The last turn made, the last secret locks unlocked, they entered Alberich's family treasury.

"Wow!" Dohko whistled, looking around with fascinated eyes. The pride tingled in Alberich's heart. He still was able to surprise his friend.

And the treasury was really able to make an astonishing impression on someone who saw it for the first time. In the flickering light of the torches, the chamber blazed in vivid, blinding shades of gold -- it was everywhere: every form, every single shape the gold could attain -- it all was represented here. The light reflected from many surfaces, smooth and angled; twinkled in the colourful eyes of gems -- the room was an all-yellow adventurer's paradise, able to turn a human into a dazed speechless statue.

"I am amazed. You've made it." However, Dohko, due to his easy attitude, recovered very fast. He turned around a few times and yelled:

"Hello, ancient piles of never touched assets! The mortal from the world of living greets you! I hope it won't fall into ashes because of my disrespectful behaviour," he winked at grinning Alberich. "It looks more ancient than the pyramids. I bet you dwarves never let all these heaps see the daylight, do you?"

"You are influenced by these silly stereotypes about dwarves," Alberich denied. "It is not that we only collect, stockpile, lock up and do not give away. At least I am not like that. Come on, feel free to choose anything from there. It will be yours."

"No kidding?" Dohko slowly walked around, occasionally tossing the fistful of gems into air or snapping the carved facemask of an ancient helmet. "Thank you in advance for your gift, but what I should do with it? I have my own golden armour, I fancy neither earrings nor bracelets, and I am used to live on the money I possess at the moment, so.."

He suddenly stopped. Then bent down and picked something up.


Alberich couldn't see from where he stood, what had interested his gold-unaffected friend, and approached him, curiously.

"...I rather like this. Yes, this looks nice...I suppose, I shall use your offer, after all. Now, but it is really will definitely look good with my Cloth..."

"What have you found that is so fascinating?" Alberich inquired.

Dohko glanced at him, and for a short moment Alberich could swear he saw some kind of irritated displeasure in his eyes -- but then he extended his palm.

There was a ring on it. Quite simple one, even crude. It looked like a typical seal ring, with something wheel-shaped in the place of a seal. But that wasn't the reason of Alberich's abashment.

"Where have you found it? I do not remember anything like that. More than that, I am sure I never owned it...actually, it's the first time in my life I've ever seen it. Strange..."

"So what?" Dohko cut, unexpectedly harsh. There are so many things collecting dust around, and this one is so small, you may have not noticed it in your entire life!"

Alberich wanted to explain that it was impossible -- however fantastic it might seem to anyone, but he knew every single thing in his treasury. That sounded unreal for a human, but for a dwarf it was a very casual trait -- but then Dohko spoke again.

"Hey, does that mean you do not want this spangle to leave your big glittery chamber? People are right, after all, saying that you dwarves are little greedy buggers incapable to give away anything golden!"

"Of course not. If I said it is yours, then it is yours," Alberich said, seriously puzzled. Why was Dohko insisting so much, when he had not even shown the slightest resistance? But his own word had always been Alberich's biggest treasure, and, although the situation gave him some disturbing premonition, he was not going to argue.

"Alright, then," Dohko nodded. He suddenly lost his interest in everything around him, eyes intently fixing on the ring on his palm. He took it with two fingers and held into the light.

"Pretty, isn't it?"

Alberich, dazed, was only able to nod. Dohko admiring some piece of jewellery? Let alone such a dull specimen? That was utterly impossible... it was equally impossible for this mysterious ring to have appeared in his family's treasury unnoticed. Alberich was more than sure that he had never seen it before -- but, despite its crudeness and deceptive simplicity, the style of the Niblungs was evident. And looking at it, Alberich felt how the perplexing sense of trouble coming ate through his heart deeper and deeper.

On leaving, he glanced at Dohko's box, which looked abandoned and lost among all that gold, and something alarmed him even more.

What it was, he realised only when they climbed up to the daylight.

On their way there, he was pretty sure that the scales on the box were in perfect equilibrium. Now, they looked slightly sloped -- like there was some tiny invisible weight on one of its plates.

It could be just a trick of illumination, Alberich thought, but some nasty inner voice whispered, jeering: 'While you are definitely not the best jeweller around, you have this dwarfish feature to estimate a gem with your bare eye, don't you? Save the other qualities -- and you think such eyesight can be wrong with angles?'

But Alberich did not want to listen to this nasty inner voice, although this was a heavier task in every following day -- because, as it became clear later, that accident was only the beginning.

* * *

He always knew that Dohko's eyes were black, with that soft, opaque coal blackness which could attain the hardness of obsidian, when needed. And there never was any pitch black screening haze, twirling and clouding deep inside.

Like it was now, when they both stood over a man who was rolling on the ground, whimpering and clutching his leg, which already began to swell and loose swiftness.

"Why did you do this? What happened?" In his overwhelming disbelief after he heard the explanation for this accident, all Alberich was able to do was repeat this simple question.

"He called me a shortie," Dohko explained, looking at the figure at his feet with unhidden disdain. "All I did was teach him a lesson, and it will be for his own good. Hey friend," he bent down close to man on the ground. The man looked back at Dohko's face, and with a terrified yelp struggled to crawl away. "Tell my friend over here, who stands and makes wild eyes at me, that I was generous, will you? The broken leg will heal sooner or later, really; and trust me, I could do that so you would lose both of your legs. Quite an amiable castling in shorties camp, eh?" he let a short, mirthless cackle.

"Since when has your height started to bother you, Dohko? You never paid the slightest attention to that before! Does your new holy status oblige you to act this way?" Alberich inquired, fuming but managing to look calm outside.

"Maybe," Dohko shrugged, carelessly. "Or maybe I decided not to tolerate such disrespectful behaviour anymore. Who cares? This is only for good, and I don't mean just this pathetic creature, but everyone to mind their bad attitude," Dohko half-turned to the household people, who, clustered, watched the scene mutely. They immediately backed away under his gaze.

"See?" Dohko made a wry face at Alberich, this time it was not funny but grotesque and spooky. "They are quick learners. I appreciate this quality in people, when they know how to behave with someone who is better than they."

"Better? What makes you think you are better?" Alberich snapped. Dohko's conceited words had got him out of his control, and the tiny subconscious knock that Dohko always was anything but conceited, was successfully ignored.

"Oh, many things. For starters -- they cannot break my leg with their bare hands, while I can do that to them." And Dohko walked away, leaving Alberich speechless and bewildered.

Soon Alberich had to admit himself that he had hosted an absolute stranger in his house.

People tended to change with time, he tried to calm himself. He did change, after all, and accepted the lifestyle he found disgusting a few years ago. Why couldn't Dohko change as well?

But somehow these logical conclusions didn't make him feel any better.

He wanted to blame the golden box for everything. The same golden box with the scales, the inclination of which could not be ignored anymore. With every day, the scales looked more and more crooked, until Alberich stopped visiting his treasury just to avoid the intimidating apparition. Dohko was parading his superiority openly now and pointed to his 'exceptional' status of the saviour every time, if he was cornering a scared maid he had decided to award with his courtesy, or simply terrorising Alberich's servants -- not that there was a need for it, but just like that -- for fun.

For fun...and the rules of hospitality, added to Alberich's own reluctance to accept Dohko's creepy change seriously, did not let him take any measures.

"When did you say you were going home?" yet he dared to ask one day, when the tension in the house reached an almost physically oppressing level.

"I did not say anything," Dohko squinted at him, with a humourless dark glint in his eye. "Are you so eager to get rid of me?"

"Of course not. I only supposed that our lifestyle must be quite alien to you, since you are from the South, and our nature is cold, nights are long -- they must be depressing for someone out of a hot sunny place like you are from," Alberich ventured, diffidently.

"But you are wrong, my friend. I feel fine here! In fact, I never felt better," Dohko looked at him with a wry smirk, and Alberich realised that Dohko saw right though his question's simple disguise. "There are so many fascinating things here worthy to be discovered, and I am completely fond of your lifestyle."

"As you wish then," Alberich said, and the conversation was over without a chance of it being resumed.

But no matter how much Alberich wanted to convince himself that it was Dohko's new status that changed his personality so frighteningly, his perfect memory and sense of truth refused to accept this presumption. The memory kept reminding him that Dohko was certainly not like that when they met each other on the mountain path -- then he looked pretty much the same as always -- and then the memory went into further investigations.

Until it bumped into a small, simple golden ring.

No jewellery was able to change any human beyond recognition -- Alberich stubbornly tried to prove this to himself. And failed. Because there was one.

But then, how?... If it was that ring Alberich thought about, or, rather, feared to think, then there was no possible chance of it being in his treasury. None of his family could be so unaware and keep their disgraceful heritage so near, where it could be found so easily...

No. To find. It had found Dohko, and took him over. What now? There was no answer. Its ways in the past were twisted and always lethal for anyone who was at least slightly influenced by its addictive domination, and every generation of the family was obliged to warn every next generation about it. To prevent its rise to the world of the living again.

The mental fight between the dreadful suspicion and blind denial continued for almost a week, exhausting him seriously; and then Dohko came one day and announced that the neighbourhood family, the Atlings, offered him to find and kill the outlaw they were after.

"I agreed," Dohko said, as if it were the most common thing for him to hunt cornered people -- and murder them.

"A bounty hunter, Dohko? Are you going to be a bounty hunter?" Alberich refused to believe his ears. It's not that it was a shame to be a bounty hunter, because it actually wasn't. The families often hired bounty hunters, unwilling to risk their own people, or simply having no time or not enough resources. But Dohko, killing someone he did not even know before, let alone someone who never did him any harm? And for money?

"Do you lack money? Right? Then why haven't you told me, I'd be glad to help you in anything, you know that. Why mess with the Atlings, a family that is trusted by absolutely no one around?" Alberich spoke fervently, the thrill winning over his self-control.

"Of course I do not need money!" Dohko snapped, his voice full of icy scorn, so typical of him in the past few weeks. "And I definitely do not trust these Atlings. I can see through that scum like through glass. But they can be useful. And their offer...let's say it fits my own plans quite well."

"What plans?"

"Comes time, come plans," Dohko's gaze pinned Alberich to the wall. And then Dohko strode away without saying anything else.

This was already too much for Alberich. The shocking news pushed him off his self-fooling inertia, and he eventually persuaded himself to do something he could not avoid anymore.

He hoped it was not too late.

* * *

The labyrinth of the secret mountain paths cut deep in his memory by the many repetitions of his father. 'Why do I have to remember all this, father, if you say it is better never to go there? -- Just in case, Alberich. Just in case. Now, repeat after me...'

High in the mountains, deep in the mountains... The paths of his memory lay on the ones that opened in front of him with the precision of the master jeweller; another path, this time invisible but nevertheless present there...the narrow, crumbling bridge over the abyss. Passed. The gruelling climb up the sharp steep rocks; another passage, tunnel, bridge...

He sensed when he was close to his point of destination -- exactly as his father had said. 'You won't see the cave at first. Do not panic, for it is really there. And do not be scared by the visions. They cannot harm you, unless you let them.'

He got a grip on his heart and took the next step.

The tall narrow forms of the Deathfingers were the first mirage he saw; Alberich knew that they could not grow in the mountains, so the image didn't put him in shock, although it was surprisingly real -- Alberich felt he could touch them if he wanted to. Then the slender, short teenage boy with the hair colour of the Deathfingers and eyes like two gleaming emeralds materialised out of nowhere. He stared at the imaginary Deathfingers for some time, and then said: 'Alright. Now, show me.'

'No! Don't do that, please!' Everything looked so real that Alberich wanted to scream at his -- ancestor? descendant? -- the mirages were timeless, his father warned him, and the boy had the firm qualities of the Niblung family -- the same line of jaw, the same almond shaped eyes -- but then the image faded to give its place to the new one.

A warrior, with full battle equipment, smeared with blood, holding an equally bloody sword.

"I have no reason to hide my name," the warrior addressed an emptiness behind Alberich in arrogant, impatient voice. "Hence hear my name, beast -- Siegfried, and let that be the last thing that you ever heard in your life!"

Siegfried? That was a famous name of the Volsung family, but why was this Volsung here? Alberich took another few steps, directly into the grim warrior -- but there was no warrior anymore, but a young, not a maid -- a valkyrie, a warrior woman with the staff of an Odin's priestess and dark, thick greasy tar coiling in her eyes. He recognised those eyes. A pair of such he saw a few hours ago.

He kept walking while mirages were cast and faded away, the images replaced each other like such in some queasy kaleidoscope. Some of them were familiar -- the death of his grandfather in an ambush of highwaymen; himself, caught by a shirocco -- he almost died, then; the one-eyed man, talking angrily to someone invisible to Alberich -- Odin, no doubt; but there were many more images that were a mystery to him -- like two gigantic axes, advancing toward him with such scary speed that Alberich barely kept himself from ducking; a laughing child, holding onto the neck of a huge wolf; a youth in the middle of fire, and many more.

But he went forward -- slowly, yet steadily.

Again, there appeared the boy with emerald eyes, but now he was different -- matured, dressed in some gentry's outfit, which was matched perfectly by two earrings of filled Deathfingers' amethyst. Only his eyes were no more pure emerald -- the familiar dull mist twirled in their depths.

"You look so powerful," the apparition said, looking directly at Alberich. "So strong...a warrior, no doubt. You know, I always wanted to be a warrior like you -- until I discovered I have got a different way. And it is much better, my way, warrior. Now, I can have you -- join me, give me your power --"

"Be gone. You are not real," Alberich whispered, feverishly. His mind was helplessly confused, but his tempered willpower carried him forward.

"No, don't run away! You cannot, anyway," the apparition jeered at him, refusing to fade like the others did. It only backed away -- just enough to be directly in front of Alberich.

Another step. The apparition spread his hands, the earrings flared with ghastly painful pink, and the mist rose to the surface of his eyes -- now, it was yellow, but not the soft yellow of gold; this yellow was the colour of poison.

A step. Two.

'I'll fill you up with a new kind of glamour...' the apparition began to enchant, and Alberich shivered, recognising the ancient spell of Deathfingers' Master. Nobody had taught him the enchantment, but he knew. And yet he persistently walked forward.

'I'll make you frown with a true kind of tremor...'

The air was thick and burning like liquid glass, his feet were sinking into it like into a swamp. He went on.

'I'll lift you up -- see my God's just arisen...'

Another step. The air resisted as if it was alive.

'I'll take you down to my own private prison...'

The mirage Deathfingers vibrated excitedly, reacting to the call that was meant to awake them. Alberich dumbly went forward.

'I'll fill you up with the breath of the rotten...'

'Go away, please go away...' Alberich's lips whispered, and his feet kept automatically moving forward, out of their own volition.

'I'll bring you down to the lost and forgotten...'

The apparition was now a blur, with two beady dots of bright pink where the earrings had to be, and two holes, from where two rays of poisonous yellow-emerald-black light were streaming.

'I'll take you up to my own cemetery...'

The Deathfingers that surrounded him now, all as one flashed in the thick vivid pink, echoing the colour of the earrings. They were getting ready. And Alberich went on, with his consciousness curling itself in fear somewhere on the border with insanity.

'I'll drag you down -- I am too solitary...'

'They can't hurt me. They can't, they can't, can't...' he hammered the thought into his mind, but he could also feel the hunger of the Deathfingers, and their readiness to serve their true Master.

'I'll make you frown for my own private pleasure...'

The image grew up to a gigantic size, but this, strangely, brought a relief, since Alberich stopped seeing the apparition's eyes all the time in front of him. He forced himself to take another step forward.

'I'll lift you up for you're mine only treasure...'

The voice now half-sang, half-whispered from every direction, restraining Alberich even more.

'Nothing can tear us apart...'

He madly struggled free, resisting the magic of the voice. He had to hurry -- the enchantment was almost finished.

'You won't save me from love that hurts me...'

He had already forgotten that the mirages were not for real, it stopped being of any meaning, and now he was fighting for his life. For real.

'You won't spare me from life that kills me...'

He put the whole remaining force into a next step, desperately flinching forward, the last tiny pieces of confidence abandoning him, hope fading away...

...and suddenly everything was gone. The terrible apparition, the glowing Deathfingers -- everything. He stood in front of the darkening entrance to the mountain cave.

The last words were left unspoken. He had walked the path.

Legs trembling, Alberich entered the cave. His eyes didn't need to get accustomed to the darkness, since seeing in the dark was natural for him. But he stood there a while, letting his mind and heart calm down after what he had just survived. The one who waited inside must not see him lost and frightened.

The corridor was nearly straight and had no branches. It was long, too -- Alberich lost his sense of time while walking it. When he finally saw a distant glimmer far ahead, it seemed to him as if he had crossed the whole mountain completely. He decided that was a part of the cave's owner's spell.

The corridor led him into a big cave. The dull shining didn't become any brighter, but it formed a shape -- a shape of something gigantic, oblong, dully golden. The shape of the cave's habitant -- or, rather, lair's habitant.

Alberich stood at the entrance, reluctant to either go further or break the silence. His father had been strict and persistent on how to pass illusions, but he told him nothing about how to speak to Guard... Probably, he thought it was obvious enough, but for Alberich it wasn't at all.

"Perhaps you are thinking where is all this famous treasure, and why is it not lying around in huge chaotic piles," a voice spoke next to his ear. Alberich turned his head -- and all he saw was a big yellow eye, with a narrow black strip across it, motionless and unblinking.

The voice was low and soft, and no hissing sounds were heard in it, as Alberich expected Guard to speak. But his first emotion was one of huge relief when the uncanny silence was broken. He didn't suspect himself to be so nervous.

"I was not expecting anything like that. I know of which ...special kind your treasure is," he said to the yellow eye.

After a brief pause, the voice said:

"So, you are one of that family. I was expecting you. I only wanted to make sure -- one can't be too careful."

The eye stopped looking as if it floated all alone in the darkness. Guard revealed himself.

Alberich had heard many tales about the dragons, saw hundreds of their images, but nothing could reach even the slightest shade of reality -- the dragon was magnificent, majestic, marvellous -- there were no words fitting enough to describe this creature of pure magic, resistant to every attempt to estimate him.

And Alberich couldn't help noticing that, first of all, this was an enormous golden scaled beast with swordslike -- both by sharpness and size -- talons and a mouth full of razor-sharp teeth.

The dragon watched Alberich silently, his eye wasn't fixed on him. It seemed that the dragon could view absolutely everything, including Alberich, with his enormous reptile eyes, filled with an intelligence which had nothing to do with humanity -- for starters, it was incomparably older.

"I came...I came to ask..." Alberich began diffidently, ignorant about how to talk to someone so alien.

"You came to ask if one certain thing had not vanished from my so-called hoard," the dragon eventually turned his head towards Alberich.

'With this head so big he must squint tensely at someone as small as me right at his nose,' such funny thought crossed Alberich's mind. Strangely, it helped him to fight the hypnotic stupor, and the creature lost that mesmerising part of his magic. 'After all, he is as natural as I am,' Alberich thought, 'only, well, bigger and with different habits of life. But he is a being of Earth, and so am I. This means we are somewhat equal, and we can talk like such.'

Feeling more confident, he proceeded:

"You are right. My question, just like you already retrieved with your magical power..."

"No magic at all," the dragon objected, amiably. "Plain logic. If I see the one who completed the path, the one without intentions to rob my treasure, fighting me on the way, the one from the famous family whose curse I am guarding, and which really left my place recently, it is not that difficult to figure out why you are here." For a short moment, the dragon looked smug.

At the same time Alberich fought an attack of sickening fear, as the dragon calmly verified his worst expectations.

"So it is true?" he breathed. "It did return. But how? Why did you let it escape? Aren't you here to keep these things from the possibility of haunting the world again? Why didn't you stop it?" In a fever of anger, helplessness and most of all paralysing terror, Alberich completely forgot that it might not be very wise to talk like that to someone who was a hundred times bigger, stronger and wiser. And, according to the tales, could breathe fire.

"I am nothing but, as you pointed out, the guard." However, the dragon didn't sound offended. "I protect the hoard from ones who try to get in, but I cannot help these things from getting out. This is beyond my magic. If an occasional treasure hunter, whose greed overcomes the knowledge of what exactly I guard will challenge me, then I will do my best and prevent the things from getting into the wrong hands, that are, in my special case, any hands. But due to the same case I can't do anything the other way round. These things have a will and a power of their own. I cannot interfere."

"What will happen now?" Alberich asked, silently. The vigour, caused by the shock, passed. Now he felt just helpless and very empty.

"It is beyond my knowledge. Yet, I may hazard a guess, that it will be nothing good, alas."

"Thank you. You were very helpful," Alberich said, bitterly. Facing the threatening news, he was completely unafraid of Guard. When death became a certainty, other emotions stopped being of big importance. He could let himself be fearless.

"From your words I assume," the dragon continued, "that it has chosen the master, or, in more appropriate words, the victim. Who is it, someone from the family?"

Alberich shook his head.

"My friend. He has nothing to do with us. He was only passing by."

"That's strange. Very strange. For ages, its strength depended on your family. Is it losing its aim, choosing the wrong ones, or has it done that on some purpose? I strongly suspect the latter."

"I don't know. I am not sure about anything. I see how it slowly turns my friend into something monstrous, and I can do nothing about that. That's why I am here."

"Expecting that I will solve all your problems? But I am just the guard. Yes, I understand why it affects your friend -- the power that your distant ancestor put in it is irresistible for everyone," the dragon held a pause. "Rings are very special creations of their own -- for one, they have the perfect shape. Haven't you been amazed, how truly perfect the shape of rings is? There is no beginning, there is no end, they exist not in the same timeline like we do, but have an independent one for themselves. And they fit just about every finger they are put on. Not too loose, not too tight. Forming a separate small universe, merging with the one who dares to wear them. Looking like they were a part of a whole being, not a piece of jewellery. That's, of course, if they are created by a true Master, and that Alberich of ancient days was one. Truly powerful. Powerful enough to transfer a major part of his power into his Ring, thus becoming immortal. The only mistake he made was that the power he gave to the Ring, was wrong. He got rid of his Dark Side, locking it in the Ring, but pure Darkness is very dangerous. One must not let it free by any means, but he did. For that, he became the prisoner of his own creation. That's the story I know. That's the beginning of the history of the Ring."

Alberich listened, stunned by dragon's voice and the story itself, told in so simple words. The echoes of this story, naturally, were told in the family for generations, until they become dark but beautiful legends. But Guard was a beholder and his words were the very essence of the true story. True -- and still alive.

"Is there any chance for us?" he whispered weakly.

"Us? I cannot meddle. Your distant ancestor knew that, and agreed with my conditions, when he came and asked me to imprison the Ring together with the other doombringers that I keep here. So it is only you who can do something. You have enough power, which you proved by coming here."

"It was so hard...these illusions..."

"The illusions were just the shades of your mind. Since you are here, it means you are able to fight your own demons. That's another proof of your strength."

"My own mind? Most of them were utterly unfamiliar!"

"They might be. They might be real, and they might not ever happen. Everything depends on you." The dragon returned to the line of enigmatic answers that only multiplied arising questions.

"Is there anything else you know?"

"There are many things I know and some of them are better to be left unknown. You know everything you need to know. Yet, since I see your wish to hear some kind of last advice, let it be. Beware of it. Your friend is probably nothing more but a staircase to get what it really needs: you."

"Then why did it not choose me? Why Dohko, why ruin his life?" Alberich cried into the emptiness.

Guard had vanished. Not gone, not dissolved -- one moment he still was there, another moment there was only an empty cave.

* * *

Nothing tried to disturb Alberich's way out, although he was aware and tensed at the entrance, but no illusions appeared this time. They apparently were meant to keep one from entering, not from escaping. And when Alberich finally got home, Dohko was already there.

"Where have you been?" he demanded immediately.

"Just around," Alberich shrugged, trying to look like nothing happened. "Why?"

"Nothing special. I just wanted to share my very interesting discovery with you," mist-shaded eyes drilled him.

"Oh? What about?"

"That man the Atlings asked me to deal with. I chased him into the forest of Deathfingers -- well, just to see what would happen. And you know, it is amazing what they can do. Why have you never told me how valuable they are, when filled?"

Alberich felt his soul freezing in panic to the very depths of itself.

"What? How did you...?"

"Oh, they told me themselves. Very interesting creatures indeed. Very powerful," Dohko shrugged, amiably, like it was some kind of exotic harmless flower, not crystals with a power of death-bringing that he was talking about. "I've already seen many ways how to use them, mind you."

"Use Deathfingers?! You won't dare!" In sheer anger, Alberich stepped forward, ready for anything. This had gone all too far.

"Of course I will," Dohko simply said -- and hit him.

From all things Alberich expected to happen, the sudden attack wasn't among them. Despite the dragon's warning, despite his own common sense, somewhere deep inside Alberich still thought that Dohko was his friend.

And that was his biggest mistake, he thought, when he regained consciousness and found himself chained and locked in something like a ship's room. And the ship was sailing, as Alberich understood from the monotonous creaking and rocking. The golden Libra box appeared to be in the same room; the scales on it were so crooked now that it seemed as if only the floor kept them from falling through. He quickly turned away from the hideous apparition.

"I see you are already awake. Good." Dohko entered the room, smiling in a friendly way.

To ask questions like 'I demand an explanation what's the meaning of all this!' was silly in Alberich's situation, but equally silly it was to keep a proud silence. He had to be prepared, and no more mistakes would be done, he promised himself.

"Where are we?"

"On the route to my home," Dohko explained, neither confused nor impressed by such straight and reasonable question. "I rented this ship -- don't worry, I did not touch anything from your treasury. I paid with a splinter of a Deathfinger -- such a small one, and it was amazing. Since you do not seem to be interested in them, and the Deathfingers didn't mind themselves, I decided I could allow this," Dohko's smile widened. "I carry some of them with me, to plant them in my homeland. That's the reason for these necessary ...means towards you, no offence. I know what you feel about them, and you would refuse to go with me on your own will, while I need your help. You know the Deathfingers much better than I do."

"And what makes you think I will help you?"

"Well, you are my friend, aren't you?" Dohko left, to Alberich's great relief. He apparently didn't notice or didn't care about the shape of his box.

Dohko's last words, as it became a tradition in the past few weeks, shocked and frightened Alberich -- and this time it was not the wisps of the blackness floating all over Dohko's eyes that triggered it, but that, under these eyes, his smile and words felt absolutely sincere.

The journey was long and uneventful. The ship's crew avoided Dohko firmly and skilfully, although if anyone would ask them why, they probably could not explain that in words. But the instinct of self-defence, which usually preferred the language of hints, now gave orders without any excuse for disobedience, and people felt it was better to listen to the subconscious voice. Alberich, by the way, could have gotten rid of his chains easily, had he wanted to. Iron, being a part of Earth element, would listen and help him, but Alberich was in the ocean, all surrounded by water -- an element strange and hostile to him, Earth's child. The revelation of his skills then would do no good, it would work even the other way round -- it would cause Dohko to be aware next time, and treat him with caution and suspicion; thus Alberich's chances -- that were not high anyway -- would shrink even more.

So he just sat quietly in his room, listening to Dohko's ideas about the model of a perfect world and how he, Dohko, was going to put this model into reality. For some reason, Dohko was open and confided into him, maybe in his awkward belief they were like-minded, maybe because he simply had nobody else to talk to.

When Alberich was left alone in the company of a box of faded gold and tainted scales, he spent his time thinking. Creating thousands of plans and immediately ruining them, trying to get the most righteous way out. And the more he thought, the clearer he understood that there was no righteous way out at all. His opponent was too strong, too cunning -- and it had his friend for a hostage. And that complicated the situation even more.

Finally, the ship reached some port. Right after Dohko abandoned the ship's deck, carrying his box and dragging Alberich, the ship immediately sailed away. The skipper, as much as Alberich saw him, was one of those sea-wolves for whom piracy was a very common, if not the primary, type of occupation, and who seldom wasted a chance to explore foreign ports. And that the crew, which was aboard for months, would so easily leave without stepping on land -- was completely unbelievable. Yet Alberich understood perfectly from whom the crew wished to get away as far as possible. He also understood the meaning of the glances that occasional sailors were throwing at him, when aboard; glances full of sympathy and compassion, feelings so unusual for those simple and rude sea people. Strangely, it added to his determination rather than to his dismay.

The journey to the deep land was equally uneventful. Dohko hadn't freed Alberich from the chains, but otherwise he treated him in a friendly fashion, and that was more dreadful for Alberich than his captivity. The people who inhabited this land were meek, quiet and obedient -- at least it seemed like this to him, Alberich, from the land of proud, freedom-loving and warlike people. But if they were so ignorant about two travelling men, one in chains, another with a huge box of gold, they wouldn't be a nuisance when... if Alberich went back, when everything was be over.

It had to be over. Alberich's determination almost grew into belief when they reached their point of destination and he saw that Dohko's homeland was a mountain chain with an occasional forest; the trees there grew on bare rocks -- and it meant their bonds with Earth were exactly what Alberich could wish for.

But it definitely felt the advantages and weaknesses, too. After all, they both were born in the same family, Alberich smiled, mirthlessly. Yet, it was obviously confident that Alberich would be co-operative -- and that was exactly the small chance Alberich hoped to use.

"We are home," Dohko announced. They stood on a peak in front of a huge waterfall. "From here, my ascendance will begin. I see the beautiful vision of a new world, Alberich! But for this, the old miserable, tainted world ought to be destroyed -- without any remorse, without any mercy, because it does not deserve more. We cannot build a perfect world on the rotten foundations of the old one, so our task is hard. But I am mighty, I am the supreme force! And the most important part is, that I am right! My goals are just -- and hence I can't fail!"

All that time Alberich had been backing away, step by small step. Dohko was so captivated by his own speech that he didn't notice, and Alberich decided that was exactly the moment he was waiting for. If he delayed, he might never have another try.


He shut his eyes, concentrating all his strength, all the willpower into the narrow beam of pure mental force; he let it go through his mind and then further. The bond with Earth -- not this earth he stood on, but the element; he released that primal part of his entity that had always been a part of Earth as well -- the only place from where he could direct his call.

'Almighty Earth, here I am pleading for your help. Spirits of the stone that dwell in trees, here I am asking for your support. You and me are one. You and me have an enemy. Here it is in front of you. Reach it through me. Use me to punish it.'

Dohko turned swiftly -- Alberich did not see that, but he sensed how the alien creature pierced him, cruelly, through Dohko's eyes.

"I've been expecting something like that," it said. "Although I feel disappointed. We could have done many things together, but now you will discover what happens to people who disappoint and annoy me. The earth won't help you; this is my earth, and this is my water behind me. You don't like water, right? Too bad, too bad...because soon this water will get upon you."

Alberich listened, not losing his concentration and succeeding in resisting the distraction; he felt how, despite Dohko's words, Earth attended to him; only attended for now, because it was slow and deliberate; it always required time to make Earth do its move.

He felt altogether how the hostile power of Water was rising in front of him, how it strengthened, shaped itself. The creature which possessed Dohko gained his memories and skills, too -- and Water responded to his call. Elements never cared about rights and wrongs of the mortals, so Water simply lent the part of its force to the one who asked -- and the waterfall changed its direction, slowly but irresistibly, until it formed a horizontal whirlpool which rushed towards Alberich with the precise aim and crushing force that Water was famed for.

It was late only by a tiny part of a second. Earth accepted the request of Alberich; through the iron chains, through the soles of his feet Earth entered his mind, building a supreme protection for his fragile body.

Earth and Water were never friendly elements; and perhaps the awakening of Earth's eternal opponent caused it to make an exception to its typical behaviour and hurry. The results of recurrent battles between the two elements ended with variable outcomes. In long time -- in the sense of millions of years -- confrontations Water had its advantages, but Dohko couldn't hold it for long. In such cases, Earth was invincible.

Alberich didn't even feel the attack. Only from a slightly released pressure on his mind he understood that it ended, and when he opened his eyes, he saw Dohko's tiny figure, rooted to the ground with astonishment in the background, the waterfall, which already returned to its normal shape.

'Almighty Earth, this is your enemy in front of you, defeated, but not yet destroyed. Do what you have to do. It is all yours.'

Fully awakened Earth was as fast as the other elements. Alberich didn't manage to finish his request and Earth already started to act -- gigantic roots shot out of the ground, one invisible moment... and Dohko was flung down the waterfall.

Alberich stood, panting, and looked at the empty space which had been occupied by Dohko just a few seconds ago. He did not want things to turn out like that. He had hoped he could get rid of the Ring other way... but where two elements clashed, the will and life of a mortal stopped being of any importance.

He forced himself to advance towards the waterfall, despite the total exhaustion he felt, and looked down.

It wasn't over.

Dohko was there, holding onto some thin root which wriggled madly, trying to get rid of the one it counted as an enemy. But Dohko somehow kept holding onto it; the instinct of survival sometimes did miracles. Occupied with staying alive, he obviously had no time to think about anything like a counter-attack.

"Grab my hand!" Alberich shouted, barely above the low rumble of the waterfall. Dohko heard it and lifted his head -- and Alberich flinched at the pure hatred flowing from Dohko's eyes.

'It is not Dohko. That's it looking at me,' he reminded himself, leant forward and made a grab for Dohko's fingers.

"No!" the agonised scream pierced his ears, for a minute outmatching even the waterfall, and Alberich felt something cold and slippery in his palm.

"Dohko, hold on!" he cried again, and at the same moment it dawned on him, that it was Dohko, the real one, looking up at him -- with no coils of black mist in his eyes, but only the growing dread of understanding.

For a few minutes they looked at each other, eyes locked and unspoken words futilely trying to break through, all at once. Then Dohko's lips whispered a mute 'Sorry', and he let go.

'Why...' the question formed in Alberich's mind. It was a completely useless question, because he felt the answer already.

'He was weak and foolish,' his next thought was cool and emotionless. 'He made many mistakes. In fact, he did everything wrong, and was no good at all. I would do everything differently...'

Slowly and somewhat dazed, as if in a nightmare, he opened his fist -- and there it was -- golden, glittery, lethal. So...beautiful.

With a desperate yelp, he flung the cursed thing into the waterfall.

"I can't say that was a good idea," someone's composed voice said. The words were smooth and quiet, and nevertheless they were superbly distinct, despite the waterfall's presence.

Only then did Alberich notice that he was not alone anymore. A man stood on the very edge of the peak and looked down with the undisturbed appearance of someone whose presence there was very natural.

"But you, of course, can be excused of that. It seems you really had no other choice," the man returned his witty gaze at Alberich -- and suddenly winked.

'Who are you?' the question hung in the air, unspoken -- but the newcomer answered.

"Oh, you know me well. Although I do not have hideous idols carved after me, like my dear one-eyed pal Odin, and people seldom name kids after me, like after that timberhead brute Thor, I am always there when these two, and not only them, mind you, stick in trouble. They do not like to admit it, but it's true: without me, they could never be the same as they are now. Got a clue, or yet thou want more?"

Alberich didn't.

"Loki, Father of the Beasts..."

"You know, Hel would be seriously upset, being called a beast," the God said, conversationally. "I can cope with all the army of bad names I am called, but you'd better not use this one in her vicinity."

"Why did you come here?" Loki's nonchalant and mockery-spiced words helped to restore Alberich's self-control.

"But is it not obvious? We -- all we, I mean -- followed your adventures with great interest. By the way, I won a bet against Thor -- he said that you wouldn't endure. But we suspected you would ask for explanations, and since I am the best in communication of any kind, here I am." Loki shrugged and directed his gaze towards the foaming water down below. "It is not over, you know. These wretched things never give up. You think it's gone, and then some gluttonous fish swims by, gets interested, and finally -- bong! -- you have it again, right in the middle of your dining table. That's what I call 'weird magic', my friend."

"I..." Alberich began, but Loki interrupted:

"Oops! It seems we have got a company. It's so touching, such a big crew of divine origins being interested in you, and showing such a deep concern. Don't you feel kind of blessed, my boy?"

Alberich turned back to follow Loki's stare. Two more newcomers watched them from behind, one of them was a woman -- but that and other details he noticed only much later, because at the moment all his attention was captured by the Libra box.

The carved Scales were in perfect balance again. Like on the day Alberich first saw it.

"Here they go, the friends of the dead man," Loki whistled, silently. "Get up, it is impolite to stare at our guests like that. Let's go to greet them, shall we?" He gently touched Alberich's shoulder, urging him to rise.

The touch of the God took most of his fatigue away. Alberich got up with an ease he never expected to feel again. But nothing could help against the exhaustion of the mind, not even the touch of the God, and Alberich followed Loki indifferently and oblivious to who these two were.

"The woman is the patron Goddess of your friend, may he rest in peace," Loki explained, though he wasn't asked. "And the mortal is kind of his brother-in-arms, comrade or suchlike. Hence I doubt you two will get along."

So, the Goddess of Dohko came here, too, to have her share. And he was so tired...

"I am..." he began, when they advanced, but the Goddess held her palm in a peaceful gesture to stop him.

"Don't, please. I already know what has happened." She exchanged quick glances with Loki, and Alberich understood the divine ones had their own special way to communicate. "I do not blame you for anything. You had no other way out."

Alberich looked at the Goddess -- she was a tall woman, quite Not elderly, but worn and fatigued. The Fates had no mercy on both gods and humans.

He dared to meet her eyes -- bottomless and full of wisdom, but not of that ancient alien wisdom, like he had seen in the dragon's eyes. Her wisdom was sad, quiet and warm. Almost human. And Alberich all of sudden felt that he was not afraid. Moreover, he trusted her.

"I know that you do not blame me. The problem is that I feel guilty myself, and you cannot change it. It's not whether what I did, was right or wrong. The matter is, that it is mine. My family is responsible for its appearance into this world, and it was me whom it wanted. For that, Dohko died, and that is my responsibility, and mine alone. No one is able to help me with that. And I'll accept any conditions to redeem my fault," he lost his breath after such a long speech, and stopped.

"What an impressive performance," Loki remarked. "Congratulations, Alberich, you just demonstrated that you've got a bit of godliness inside of you. It's only us, the Gods, that are said to be responsible for everything, even if we have no idea of what's going on. You took the burden of Alberich the First, though it was not actually your fault in anything. This puts you very close to the world saviour that stands in front of us," he gave a deep mock bow to the woman.

"How dare you..." The companion of the Goddess, who had kept still and silent till now, took a step forward. Alberich automatically fixed on the details -- bright eyes, burning in a very young face that looked strange with two dots where his eyebrows should be, the armour of a strange design. It looked like it had been made of gold, and it was easy to understand that the man was one of the guards of this goddess, to which Dohko belonged as well... her only protector now, as he remembered from Dohko's story, told to him such a long time ago.

"Calm down, Shion," The warrior obediently returned to his place after the silent yet strict words of his Goddess. "Loki has very...personal ways to express himself, but he is right."

She turned to Alberich and gave him a long, serious gaze.

"I see your determination and I could argue whether you deserve to carry this upon your shoulders, but I won't. You time is almost over, Alberich. Soon I will have to go, and I don't want that at all, although I know that one day I shall return..." The words ended in whisper, but she contained herself almost immediately. "The world must be ready for my next return, these are the rules. I hoped that Shion and Dohko would take the preparation on themselves. Well, I was wrong...sometimes, there are accidents that even I cannot forecast. Dohko is lost, that's true. But the Libra Cloth is here, and I feel that it has chosen you. It is yours from now, Alberich. I won't teach you what to do with the Cloth -- with time, you'll discover it by yourself. And while I chose Shion to be my attorney on Earth, I appoint you to be my chronicler. You match perfectly because of two reasons: the first is that you are an outsider -- and in being so you can estimate the situation objectively; the second -- I know that after this day your loathing to fight will dominate your personality. Do you accept my conditions?"

Alberich just nodded, indifferently.

"I am finished," the Goddess looked at Loki, who did not add anything for one time, and suddenly asked: " Please do not be too pressing on him. He has had enough already."

Before Alberich managed to ask anything, the two strangers had vanished -- as silently and unnoticed as they came.

"Noble deeds done, let's go back to lesser pleasures," Loki positioned himself comfortably on the Libra box. "In brief words, why I am here. First, it was not destroyed, and of course it has in no way abandoned its plans. So it, it definitely will, reappear. Next thing is, that Odin visited the Norns recently, and they said that the Ring is much more dangerous than it may seem. If it finds the fitting wearer who will not bend to its will, but who will be equal, together they will form the supreme team, which, the Norns said, can easily challenge us, the Asas, and in the forthcoming battle the victory would not necessarily be ours. Odin was not thrilled about the news...", Loki smiled at his memories, "...and now, the bad news. The Norns said that this perfect counterpart of the Ring will come from the same family and will have the same name as the Ring's creator. That means your name, Alberich."

Alberich's eyes widened, horrified.

"But I..." he tried to explain, but his mind refused to obey him, thoughts moving somewhere in the backside of sanity.

"Don't worry, you are not the one," Loki continued, obviously knowing what Alberich was going to say. "You just proved that. Unfortunately, another thing that you proved is your superb resistance to its influence. You did not let yourself be either fooled or enslaved. And that's why we cannot let you go. Set a thief to catch a thief, people say; we need you -- your experience, your resistant nature altogether with your family's ability to sense its movements, to feel when it will arise to the world again."

Loki, unlike Dohko's Goddess, was not asking. He stated the fact, and this was the perfectly habitual behaviour of Alberich's gods. If Alberich had been as he was before, he perhaps would have started to argue why the Gods were now commanding and who gave them the right to arrange his life. The mortals of his land never feared to challenge the Gods, and the Gods were used to that. It was their life.

But now Alberich was too tired and emptied; Dohko's death, Earth's invasion to his soul -- that was too much for him to cope with.

"I will not go against Athena," Loki said, and Alberich heard the name of his future Goddess for the first time. "You may be here, do what she will ask of you, and live the life that you choose. When the time comes, I will find you -- and I hope I will have a plan at that moment. Anyway, our task is to disarm it."

"Loki," Alberich whispered, shaking his head, "I can't do that. I am too weak, you are the witness. I have no power anymore."

"But you do," Loki objected. "You just proved it minutes ago. You can withstand anything."

"What happened... it depleted me. I am nothing but an empty shell now. Neither willing to fight, nor confident," Alberich did not complain, he simply tried to explain the situation. "Will you help me, Loki?"

"I can help anyone," the God said thoughtfully after a pause, leaving aside his usual mocking tone. "The matter is my price. It is claimed to be very high. By anyone, whom I agreed to help. Are you still willing to pay?"

Alberich remembered the visions at the dragon's cave. Remembered Dohko's face on the moment he let go, remembered the drilling, persistent whisper of the Ring.

"Yes. To fight the evil...yes."

Loki said nothing, only nodded, and then in the next moment he was gone.

And the waiting began. Alberich cut every bond that used to connect him to his previous life. He feared even to think about Earth inside him and buried this part of himself deep down. He got old soon, too soon by the standards of his race, without Earth; but he never cared. All who could see him were a few local people and his -- now his -- Libra cloth; but they did not mind.

And somewhere deep in his soul, under many layers of indifference, the small flame of hope still flickered. About the prophecy, which might never come true in his life.

* * *

Right after Loki's visit that ruined this last hope, events started to develop with an amazing speed.

First was the death of Shion -- he received a message from the trusty impassionate Libra. Shion was old then, but Alberich knew he was not human as well -- no human could live so long -- but he died not of age. The Gemini Saint, young and inexperienced, was driven insane by the duality of his Cloth and forced into murder. Libra Cloth brought all news in detail, being sure he would not interfere -- and he did not.

Soon after that, the world had seen the next birth of Athena. Despite the many efforts that Gemini put into destroying her, she survived. She had always been a survivor, the old man remembered. He was sure she'd withstand, but even if not, he would do nothing anyway.

Then people started to send him children. They wanted those kids to be his pupils, people said. The old man accepted them because Libra told him it had to be like that. He was not teaching them, really, he only let them learn -- and by this, doing practically nothing, he earned fame and respect as a great teacher. Life walked strange ways.

Then, one day, he found a small girl in the woods. Human children were not natural survivors in the wilderness, so he brought the girl home -- to care for and heal her until she would be able to get on her feet and go away.

She did not go away, neither when she recovered, nor later. Perhaps she had no place to go -- the old man hadn't asked. So she simply stayed, serving him timidly, obediently and almost invisibly. Like a shadow, she was silent and inoffensive, so Alberich got used to her presence, and even liked her in a strange quiet way.

Then one of his pupils was chosen by the dragon of the river, and won the dragon's treasure -- together with the quiet girl's quiet love.

And then the Goddess' war started and finished quickly, when she challenged the impostor and won. Nothing strange in that, she had always been a winner, Alberich thought, and she knew whom to choose for her army -- the equal winners.

After the war was over, Libra demanded him to share the story that he knew -- about Shion and Gemini. He obeyed. The young Gold Saints listened to him, and he felt how their respect towards him had grown into nearly supernatural worship. He let them think so; it was of no importance.

Soon after that, Loki came again. With a story.

* * *

The very young man, almost a boy still, was descending the steep, rocky shore, heading purposefully to the sea below -- or, rather, towards the small square, hewn skilfully in the rock -- it was located on the high peak, ploughing far into the sea. There were steps, made in the cliff all the way to the square, but for some reason the boy didn't use the more comfortable way, risking to break his bones by jumping from one unstable sheer stone to another. Although the old, mossgrown stones seemed unaffected by the disrespectful behaviour of the boy, he moved in a light, graceful way, as if he was weightless.

Incidentally, it might seem for the occasional passer-by, that he indeed was suchlike -- this short, slender, even skinny youth, risking his neck with the typical self-confidence of an inexperienced adolescent. Sometimes, he looked back over his shoulder, squinting his eyes, searching for something -- it most likely was the young maid, dressed in white, who was also heading towards the square, but in a far more normal style -- by steps. The boy had an advantage in distance, since the safe steps made a wide curve around the mountains. The two tiny figures in the majestic environment of the place where the sea met the mountains looked very peaceful and somewhat romantic -- the girl in pure white, and the boy, who's risky way apparently was connected with the girl -- youth seldom chose safe ways, when it wanted to make an impression.

But anyone, who had seen more than average things in one's life, would not be tricked by this illusion. They would notice, how precisely cautious and accurate the boy's movement were, entirely free of any teenage clumsiness. 'He's no way what he seems,' they would say.

And if they could look directly into his eyes, their suspicions would instantly turn into firm conviction. If the saying was true that eyes were the mirror of the soul, those emerald eyes disclosed a merciless assassin who enjoyed his job greatly.

The thoughts of the young man were about the girl in white.

'She will notice me sooner or later -- when I let her discover me. Then she'll ask what am I doing here, because it is forbidden and so on, and she will play angry. Or maybe she will get angry for real, that's possible. Ah, but it doesn't matter. Either way I'll answer that I am here to protect her and serve her, despite the prohibition, let's not forget to add a touch of desperation into my voice. That should do the right impression. Yes. To risk life, go against the rules because of her... She will be impressed, no doubt about that. And then I shall back away, this will leave her without an opportunity to come with an answer and altogether it will provide the time for my seed to grow. I have nowhere to hurry. She doesn't seem to be marrying Siegfried anytime soon, and he will in no way bring anything fresh into their relationship, poor Siegfried, who was first in the row, when the Gods doled out devotion, but who was hopelessly late for wit, let alone creativity. Oh yes, he would make a perfect decoration for the throne, so devoted, so purely lacking an own opinion and will...but the problem is, that I do disagree with such a vision of the throne. No, Asgard needs someone very different, and I have a clear idea of whom exactly. Luckily, I have not that bad a mind, and I have means to put my idea into reality. To think about it, Hilda would make a much better decoration to the throne -- and Siegfried...well, he could beautify my own collection a lot...yes. That's exactly the place he would fit best.

Yet Hilda's tough, I must admit. Not at all like her sweet little sister, my current object of practice. If I really were after her, Hagen already could go and be devoted to someone else. It is amazing, how little effort her type of woman needs -- a bit of attention, some tiny drama -- as if I do care what Hilda thinks about my little innocent hobby -- and she runs after me..."

"Where's the fire?" A voice, utterly unexpected in this place, ploughed into his stream of thoughts like a warship into an unsuspecting bay. Angered and embarrassed by the fact that someone caught him unawares, the boy turned to the voice.

The man, slightly older than him, was leaning against the sheer wall of the seashore's cliff, with all his posture demonstrating the calm conviction he had a full right to be there. His eyes, tiny imps of humour jumping in them (the boy nearly saw them making faces at him), explored the boy idly, with amiable interest and open jeer.

After being taken unawares, the next thing the boy hated most, was to feel mocked. The stranger, however, did both things at once. 'Your time is out, friend,' the boy promised in his thoughts; but the man attracted him in some weird way -- there was some kind of mystery about him....mystery and something else, and the boy hated both mysteries and indefinite things. He had to clear it out.

"What do you mean?" Frowning, he addressed the stranger.

"Oh, I just watched you for some time, how you hopped from stone to stone like a little funny frog," (another reason for this bugger to die, the boy noted), "and wondered, why are you in such a hurry? Is the Priestess a clue or is there something else?"

The daring words angered the boy even more. Such a precise guess of his intentions was scary, and he didn't like to be scared. His response to this was always the same -- to strike back without warning or delay. But this time something was holding him back, his intuition said that the stranger might not be that simple.

In addition, another unpleasant thought was disturbing his mind. 'Is there something else?', the stranger asked. The worst bit was that there really was 'something else'. Some subconscious, but irresistible call that forced him to come here -- exactly on this day, exactly in this place. Yes, he had his plans towards Hilda, and he believed this was his prime goal, but the invitation from the deep of his mind didn't want to hide; he almost, almost managed to strangle it, but now these words -- and it emerged out of the place it had crouched all that time, waiting for the moment.

"I do not know what you are talking about," the boy succeeded in playing cool and unimpressed. "And I do not know why are you asking me all these silly questions. If it is some kind of a game, then I must say you will regret choosing me as your object."

"Will I, Alberich the 14th of Niblung?" The stranger's eyes sparkled mockingly, and the boy felt a cold touch of frightening astonishment in his heart. The stranger knew his name. His full name. "And you know perfectly well what I am talking about. So is it or is it not, after all? And about the game," the stranger smirked, "let's just say I was trying to win some time. As a matter of fact, I just did."

Before Alberich came up with another question, he glimpsed the white figure, passing by the place he stood. Hilda walked by, sunken in her thoughts. She hadn't noticed anything.

"Oh blast, I am late," he thought, and at the same time he heard 'See you soon'. Instantly, he turned back to the stranger -- and saw nothing but the cliff. No sign of any intruder.

"What...?" he began, but immediately calmed down. It was unwise to have too many unsolved things in one's mind. The stranger had mysteriously vanished -- so, this affair could wait now. Later, he would recall the events, analyse them and reach a decision -- but later, on a cold head. Now, Hilda was the prime target. He had missed her, but still there was a chance to catch her on her way back and fix the situation. He would wait there a little longer...

And then the sea exploded.

* * *

"Can you imagine? It expected the vicious killer, and what it got was Odin's chaste maid! Of course, old Odin won't be happy about that at all, especially when our Lady Purity begins to discover certain sides of herself," Loki giggled in a very ungodly manner, "but I can always get away by saying that there was no other choice. Incidentally, in this case it would even be true."

"What will happen now?" the old man asked, silently.

"Now? Hilda will declare war on Athena's Sanctuary -- don't ask me how I set that up, you wouldn't want to know -- all I can say is that it was the only way to get you involved. Yes -- now it comes the time for you to act."

The next day his pupil came to ask whether he knew anything about the Ring. The old man told him the story, a story which Loki had created in front of him just minutes ago before the pupil's arrival. He told him all the story. Almost all, save the last words.

"...and then Odin's sword casts a bunch of light and acoustic effects, while I will conjure some flashy illusions, blasty-blast, it crumbles into pieces, at least they see such a picture. For real, I simply steal it and carry it away, somewhere far enough, where it will be disjoined from our world again, I hope for long. That's all, happy end."

"Happy indeed?" the old man asked, bitterly. "And what about the innocent people losing their lives, where is the happiness of that?"

"Don't worry either about Athena or your pupil's friends," Loki waved his hand, airily. "I have no wish to conflict with Athena, so I arranged our so-called defence a bit. Jormungand and Fenrir agreed with my plan, such nice and obedient kids these my boys are... Sleipnir will obey Odin's orders, Fafnir will cheerfully lose to spite his murderer's family, both Tigers are fakes, and Lyre always tends to choose suicidal freaks anyway. So, there're no problems except one -- the robe of Delta. It does have a very annoying trait -- it does not obey any orders from either the Asas, or the Vanas, or whatever gods. In this sense, it's independent -- yet, it depends on one particular family, the same family who only can control the Deathfingers -- the source of power of the Delta Robe. And guess who'll get this Robe?"

"Him." There was only one choice.

"Yes," Loki nodded. "And exactly here we will need your help, since no god has the power to affect Delta in any way -- but you are from the family. It must obey you, it has no choice -- that's the rules. You have no right to make a mistake here, Alberich, and if bending Delta Robe to obey your commands, not his, will turn to be the only way out, you must use it, even if it will cost him the loss of all of his defences. With no doubt, with not a second thought."

"Because it will try to get him at any cost."

"Exactly. The boy is its purpose, its only motivation. While it has him, it will struggle and fight. But take the motivation away -- and I will deal with it easily."

"So you are asking me to help..." the old man paused before daring to say, " killing him. My descendant. The one with my own name."

"It's the lesser evil, please understand," Loki avoided to look at him. "Once you asked for help, remember? And remember what I said about my prices? They are high, I said. The boy has to die, Alberich."

"The lesser evil..." the old man whispered. "Is there such thing at all?"

"In our case -- a definite yes."

It didn't take too long. His pupil sent him a desperate subconscious call for help -- and the old man, against his will, admired the power of the boy with his name. He had already defeated three of his enemies. Three, alone. He controlled the Deathfingers with brilliant ease, the spirits of the trees came to help him so willingly... he was the Master.

But there was no way for the self-confidence of youth to overcome the cunning of age.

'Now, listen to me, Shiryu, listen carefully...'

For the first time in his life he was teaching for real; passing his real knowledge, sharing his true power, lending his wisdom. Against his own flesh and blood.

...when everything was over, the day ended exactly like Loki had said. It admitted its defeat -- after all, it was timeless and could wait a little longer.

"But I sincerely hope that time will not come soon. At least, not while we are still here and alive."

He and Loki sat in his usual place, the waterfall rushing down in front of them. Loki came to tell him about the events. He felt obliged, he said, because they had become some kind of comrades. The old man doubted that, however. The Gods, and especially Loki, were famed for feeling no obligations to anyone, ever. But who knew, maybe the Gods, like humans, preferred to share their dirty deeds. To feel easier, relieved. At least a little bit.

"They are all dead, Loki. The first line of Asgard's defence, the prime warriors. The supreme selection of our men. All of them."

"But I thought that you'd understand! When I said that there would be no problems... There weren't any, like I said, but you know our people, Alberich -- they always fight to death. Never surrender..." The notes of self-defence in Loki's voice did not fit him. "Besides, Odin will care about them now. They are our heroes, after all. And of course we will never let our land down. I'll think something on that, be sure," but the uncertainty in Loki's voice sharply contrasted with his words.

"Whatever. It is over now, the Gods saved humanity again, interfering in the exactly calculated moment and proving that we, mortals, still depend on them," the old man said. He wasn't sure himself, whether his words sounded sarcastic incidentally, or on purpose.

Loki always was able to sense irony. But now he came with an unexpectedly serious answer.

"The humans do not need us, Alberich. For quite a long time now, you don't need us. You created us -- and then, in the ancient years of humanity's weakness and fear, we were useful... but now humanity can manage without our intervention.

But we do not want to go away. Please understand us, we fear the non-existence like any other living being; all the Gods feel their power grow unstoppably weaker and search for their own ways to survive. Like Athena -- what was she then in ancient times, and what is she now? A weak girl, always in need to be protected and saved, her people no longer trembling weaklings but her guardians...and I can't blame her. That's her way to survive, to gather these tiny bits of belief that we all live onto.

The matter is, that we, the Gods of Asgard, are different. We are supposed to be mighty, fearless, undefeatable. In every single way superhuman, we cannot show our weakness -- because then we are doomed. If that boy became as powerful as he could be, then he would see what we really are. Him first, then others would follow...and we are not ready for Ragnarok, Alberich. Not yet."

With some obscurely tranquil surprise, the old man realised that despite the many years he had lived in this world, there still existed things able to shock him.

Was the boy evil, was he not? -- the Gods did not care at all. They were not saving the world from any possible downfall, the only thing that drove them was their will to survive... such a natural, such a lame reason of those who were believed to represent the unattainable. The ultimate forces of Good and Evil...all they wanted was to keep their comfort at any cost.

"You must all be satisfied, then. You proved you can still toy with people whenever you wish to. That, no doubt, would add some points to your survival account; more than that -- now, when our land is shattered, your concern about it will uplift you even higher. Congratulations."

"We are the Gods indeed, Alberich. And the Gods are not used to say 'thank you' to the mortals..." Loki hesitated, but did not finish the sentence after all. "I promise we will leave you alone from now."

He kept his word, Loki, the God of lies and mischief.

* * *

The waiting went on. After all, it was the only thing he was able to do now. He fulfilled his duty, his disgusting duty to his Gods -- but there was another one.

Not to the Goddess, whose gift -- Libra cloth -- still stayed with him. He would certainly respond to her call if any occurred, and serve her as dutifully as he was able to.

But that wouldn't be for her.

He had to pay his debt to Dohko. And if he succeeded, that would be the only good moment in his entire life.

The End

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