The royal palace of Miskandar looked neither royal nor palatial. Indeed, any of them might easily have mistaken it for a small office or an unusually stately shed.
Loki said as much, and was met with a wry smile from Skarra, the first he’d seen since they’d found her. “It was more impressive from outside when it was actually standing.”
“And inside?” Loki asked.
“Most of it is underground,” Skarra told him.
“Of course it is.” Loki should have expected as much—if anything could be made drearier, Miskandar would surely find a way to do so. “What makes you think that hasn’t collapsed as well?”
In other circumstances, Skarra’s confidence might have been reassuring. Now, Loki wondered if—despite her assurances—she was sliding into madness as well. Loki himself wielded illusion and misdirection as adeptly as any surgeon applied a scalpel; but his own gambits depended more often than not on their targets’ sanity. Other people were, above all, boring—consistent and predictable enough for Loki to slide comfortably into his preferred role as the fly in the ointment, the wild card in the carefully counted deck. Loki always had an end in mind. And every step—however indirect—took him further down the path toward it.
This, though . . . this was different. His comrades’ descents into madness were less the scurrying of rats led through a painstakingly constructed maze—the sort of maze Loki himself might have built—than disorder in its purest form, chaos to no end beyond further chaos. One by one, his companions had fallen, leaving Loki the lone, ironic bastion of sense.
It occurred to him, then, that perhaps he was mistaken, that perhaps the madness had not passed him by after all, but wormed deep into his mind and fed on his worst unconscious fears. Just as his companions were locked in their own worlds, their own minds, perhaps Loki, too, was trapped in a fantasy. Or perhaps he was the only one so beset, a lone lunatic amidst a company of sane comrades who fancied himself the reverse.
For all the idea appalled Loki, he had to admire its brilliance: what more horrifying fate in which to ensnare a trickster? And even if his senses proved true, he was still trapped in a nightmare—for while Loki hungered for control, there was little he avoided more fervently than responsibility.
Loki shook his head and rushed to catch up with Skarra. Mad or sane, there was work to be done.
Once, the palace had been guarded by a pair of intricate gates. Now, they lay twisted on the ground, a knot of warped and rusted metal whose shape defied logic. Loki wondered again what force had ripped through this world, toppling buildings and twisting the landscape into the stuff of nightmare. No storm could have wrought this kind of destruction; and while bombardment or any number of battering rams might have reduced buildings to rubble, the devastation they left would have been more uniform. Here, though, there was no recognizable pattern to the destruction, or at least none Loki could discern from his vantage.
Skarra, for her part, seemed unconcerned as she stepped delicately between their bars. Loki swallowed his doubts and followed, pausing to make sure their errant comrades were still close. He turned just in time to see Horangi leap at Thor, shifting form as she pounced, and barely managed to catch her midair with a hastily thrown spell. She struggled against Loki’s magic, twisting and snarling.
“My thanks,” Thor called.
“Don’t thank me yet,” Loki told him. “You’re the one who’s going to have to carry her.” He shifted his hand slightly, and the spell with it. Horangi settled heavily on the ground, growls shifting to gentle snores, her body seeming almost to collapse in on itself as it reverted to human form.
Was this what they had come to?
Thor hefted the sleeping goddess across his shoulders, stooping under more weight than her human size accounted for. It was just as well, Loki thought; Horangi was not the only one whose delusions might become dangerous as they continued. Even encumbered, his brother would be a formidable foe. With him weighed down, Loki might at least have a bit more time to react.
That left Zia, who had settled into brooding silence, allowing Thor to steer them along. Loki anticipated little trouble from them: Zia’s madness had thus far been marked more by distraction than rancor. What if it doesn’t stop? Loki wondered. He knew that time on Miskandar would worsen whatever was eating away at their minds, but there was no promise that distance from the planet would reverse it. And with Loki the only one untouched, he could imagine the conclusions everyone else would leap to.