‘A snake,’ said Maximus. ‘A fucking big snake.’

Everyone looked to where the alarmed Hibernian pointed, out into the atrium.

It was a fucking big snake all right: long, scaly, brown. And – if you knew snakes at all – completely harmless. But it was agitated, obviously disturbed, twisting and writhing here and there in the lamplight that illuminated the big open space at the centre of the big house in Ephesus.

Ballista asked Hippothous to get rid of it. Seeing the reluctance on his secretary’s face, Ballista remembered that many Greeks and Romans kept the creatures as pets. Possibly, he suggested, the accensus might just put it out of the house. Certainly get it away from Maximus. Hippothous went off to find a slave or two to actually catch the thing.

Ballista sat down, and called for his new body-servant Constans to shave him.

It was odd, the attitude to snakes of these Mediterranean types. On their account, the creatures had a bad parentage, born from the blood of the Titans, enemies of the gods. And they kept bad company: the hair of the petrifying Gorgons was alive with them. And then there was unhappy Philoctetes, bitten by a snake on the island of Lemnos, the smell of the suppurating wound so bad the other heroes abandoned him there when they sailed on for Troy. Yet despite all that, often Greeks and Romans would feed the scaly things by hand, offer them cakes, twine them fondly around their necks and set them up as guardians of houses, tombs, springs and altars. The fools.

The perspective of a man such as Ballista, born beyond the northern frontiers of the imperium in the misty forests and fens of Germania, was much more straightforward. There was not a snake in Middle Earth that did not share the old, cold malevolence of Jormungand, the world serpent who lay coiled in the icy darkness of the ocean waiting for Ragnarok, for the day when it was fated the serpent could return to dry land and the gods would die.

A snake without venom regretted it. Certainly, Maximus overdid things, but he was not a complete fool. Not about snakes anyway.

Constans came in carrying the shaving apparatus. He placed a heavy silver bowl of warm water on the table. Condensation ran down the side. Ballista repeatedly scooped the water up and splashed it on his face. He took his time; dousing his cheeks, admiring the bowl’s embossed images of the Persian king hunting a lion.

Constans busied himself with the whetstone, putting a fine edge on the razor.

At length, face glowing, Ballista leant back. Constans draped the napkin around his master’s neck. And, with just a little reluctance showing, Ballista offered his throat to the blade. Through the steam he could see his two freedmen, Maximus, with his short beard, and old Calgacus with his ugly face with its patchy stubble. Both were looking at him, and both were smiling. The bastards.

Constans leant over and got to work, skilled, diligent and slow. Schick, schick, the razor traversed the pulled-tight skin. Constans was a godsend. His dexterity meant that Ballista was spared visiting the public barbershops. It was not the expense, exorbitant though it could be, and it was not the idlers sat around on their benches, the endless gossip, or the enforced proximities that Ballista minded. His dislike of such establishments was more visceral. A shout, an accident in the street, a moment’s distraction, even a stone thrown by a mischievous youth or boy – it had happened – and you left minus an ear, or at best looking like a man with a bad-tempered wife with sharp nails.

Constans had repaid his purchase price in another way. A couple of years earlier, Ballista had freed Calgacus, along with Maximus and his then secretary the Greek boy Demetrius. After that, it somehow seemed wrong to have old Calgacus shave him. And, truth be told, the old Caledonian had never been much good with a razor. All too often recourse had to be made to spiders’ webs soaked in oil and vinegar to plaster the nicks, if not staunch the flow.

Out of Ballista’s line of sight, a caged bird was singing furiously. It was irritating. Hopefully it would not distract Constans.

Ballista knew it was ridiculous. A man such as himself. The first sixteen years of his life he had been brought up to be a warrior among the Angles, the tribe in which his father was war-leader. He had stood in the shieldwall when just fifteen. Killed his first man the same year. Most of the following twenty-four years, although technically a hostage, he had served in the Roman army. He had broken his ankle and jaw once, ribs twice, and his nose and the knuckles of his right hand more times than he could remember. There were scars scattered over the front of his body, and the back of his right hand was seamed with them, as you would expect of a swordsman. In Africa, he had won the mural crown for being first over the enemy wall. Again and again, he had stood with the front-fighters in hot battle. And yet he was nervous – no, be honest – he was scared of the barber.

Hippothous and two slaves appeared outside. The lamps were paling. Soon it would be dawn. The three men stood in a huddle, heads to one side, debating how to go about cornering the snake. The creature had plenty of room for manoeuvre. The atrium was big. The whole rented house was big. It was a house fitting the dignitas of a senior member of the equestrian order, the sort of house a sometime Praetorian Prefect would rent for his familia while waiting for the sixth day before the ides of March and the opening of the sailing season, waiting to start his voyage home to retirement in a comfortable villa in Sicily. Naturally, the Vir Ementissimus was paying a high rent. But that was of little concern to a man who two years earlier had defeated the Persian King of Kings at the battle of Soli and captured his treasures and harem. Of course, all such booty, legally, went straight to the emperor. But it was often striking how much never reached him.

Out in the atrium, the two slaves went to catch the snake.

‘You not going to help them?’ Calgacus asked Maximus. ‘A big strong bodyguard like you, ex-gladiator and all, quick on your feet; aye, very helpful you would be.’

‘I am not fucking scared of fucking snakes. It was just he was a bit fucking big.’

‘Aye, I know, and there were none of them where you grew up.’ Calgacus was enjoying himself. ‘You lying Hibernian cunt,’ he added amiably.

The slaves were not having an easy task of it. The snake did not want to be caught. It was probably long steeped in cunning. Certainly it was quick, slithering out of the questing hands. The slaves shouted at each other. Hippothous shouted at both of them.

Ballista hoped again that it was not going to distract Constans.

The slaves were running around like actors in a bad mime. The unholy row would have woken anyone – except the entire household was already awake: Ballista and the men in the andron; his wife, Julia, and her maids in the women’s quarters; the domestic slaves throughout the house wielding an arsenal of cloths, sponges, feather dusters, brooms, buckets, poles and ladders. A blur of sawdust tipped out, then swept up again, a cloud of chased dust; the usual frenzy of domestic economy.

Ballista had instructed the bell rung early this morning, with a good two hours of the night left. It was not a day to be late. It was the anniversary of the accession, one hundred and one years earlier, of the divine emperors Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus. It promised to be a grand day: sacrifices, a procession, singing and dancing, all sorts of entertainment, more sacrifices, speeches and a feast. It was a day on which the imperial cult would be celebrated, on which the expression of loyalty and religious sentiment would meld together.

It was not a day for Ballista to be late. Everyone knew what he had done the previous year – turned his hands on a man who, no matter how briefly and how very wrongly, had worn the purple. He had thrown Quietus – may his name be damned – from a tower, a cliff, the pediment of a temple; had stabbed him, strangled him, beaten him to death with a chair leg. In one lurid version, he had torn his heart out on an altar. The details of the execution might vary, but everyone agreed what had happened next. The soldiers had acclaimed Ballista emperor. Certainly, the barbarian had laid down the diadem after just a few days. And certainly, Odenathus, the king of Palmyra, who now oversaw the eastern provinces of the Roman empire in the name of the true emperor Gallienus, had pardoned him. But a man who has killed an emperor, or even an ephemeral pretender, will always be the object of curiosity and some suspicion. Not a man who can afford to be late for a festival of the imperial cult.

It was all rather worse than the idlers in the bars and baths had it. As soon as the deed was done, Ballista had written to the emperor Gallienus: a letter of explanation, a request for clementia, a plea to be allowed to retire into private life, to live quietly in Sicily. The cursus publicus would have taken the letter west at about fifty miles a day. It had been sent months ago. There had been no reply.

As youths, Gallienus and Ballista had both been held at the imperial court as sureties for the good behaviour of their fathers. The young men had got on well. They could even have been counted friends. Ballista had hoped it would help. He had hoped he would be allowed to live quietly as a private citizen, that he would not be convicted of treason. If declared guilty of maiestas, Ballista hoped his property would not be confiscated, that his sons might inherit. If the verdict was bad, he hoped for some form of exile rather than the executioner’s sword. For months, Ballista had hoped all these things, but there had been no reply.

That was not all. Many years ago, Ballista had killed another emperor. Not many people knew of the young Ballista’s role in the death of the terrible Maximinus Thrax. Most, if not all, the other twelve conspirators were dead. Ballista had only told five people. One of them was also dead. Three of the others were still with him: his wife Julia, his freedmen Maximus and Calgacus. But, worryingly enough, the fifth one, his ex-secretary Demetrius, was now in the west; precisely, in the court of Gallienus. It would not be good if a report arrived there that Ballista had been anything other than punctual for a festival of the imperial cult.

With a final, slightly disconcerting flourish, Constans finished the shave. Ballista thanked him, avoiding the eyes of Maximus and Calgacus. On cue, their breakfast arrived. The Jewish slave woman Rebecca put out bread, cheese, soft-boiled eggs, as well as honey, yoghurt and fruit. A substantial ientaculum for a Roman or Greek, nothing too taxing for the three northerners.

‘Tell me, darling girl,’ said Maximus, ‘are you frightened of big snakes?’ He spoke to Rebecca but was looking at Calgacus. She blushed and shook her head. Calgacus ignored him. ‘Sure, you must be getting used to them,’ the Hibernian continued, all wide, blue-eyed innocence. ‘Living here, I mean. I heard tell there was one hereabouts built on such a heroic scale it won applause when its owner took it to the baths. Ugly-looking thing, though, it was.’ Rebecca left as quickly as possible.

‘Bastard,’ said Calgacus.

‘Poor girl,’ said Maximus, ‘ending up with you on top of her.’

Hippothous came in to join them. The snake was gone. They all started eating. The magpie was hopping about in its cage, squawking annoyingly.

‘I hate caged birds,’ said Ballista.

‘You have always been a sensitive soul.’ Maximus nodded. ‘There is a terrible sadness in their singing.’

‘No, it is the smell – bird-droppings, moulting feathers: puts you off your food. I would wring that fucking thing’s neck, if it were not for my wife.’

Breakfast finished, Constans and three other slaves helped the men into their togas. The draping, winding and folding took a long time. The Roman toga was not something you could put on without help and, once arranged, the heavy thing curtailed any sudden, unconsidered movement. No other people wore such a garment. Ballista knew those were three of the reasons the Romans set such store in it.

Eventually, the four citizens were appropriately accoutred: gleaming white wool, deep-green laurel garlands, the flash of gold from Ballista’s mural crown. There was no sign of the women and the children. The magpie had not let up.

‘Tell the domina we will wait for her outside, down on the Sacred Way.’

Outside, a cold pre-dawn, no wind; the stars paling, but the Grapegatherers still shining faintly. There was a hard frost over everything as they walked down the steep steps. Dogs barked in the distance.

The Elephant was no more expensive than the other bars along the Embolos. Nothing was going to be cheap along the Sacred Way. The heavy wooden shutters were open. Hippothous and Calgacus went inside.

The sky was high, pale blue, silvered in the east, streaked by a lone long stretch of cloud, like a straight line carefully drawn. The swallows were high, wheeling and cutting intricate patterns.

‘One day, do you think the sky will fall?’ Maximus asked.

‘I do not know. Maybe.’ Ballista carried on watching the swallows. ‘Not in the way you Celts think it will. Maybe at Raknarok, when everything falls. Not on its own.’

‘Your cousins the Borani and the other Goths, they think it will fall.’

‘Not my cousins. Nothing but ignorant refugees.’

‘And they speak highly of you,’ smiled Maximus.

The others came out with the drinks: four cups of conditum. The ceramic cups were hot to hold. The steam smelt of wine, honey and spices.

‘Calgacus, do you think the sky will fall?’ Maximus asked.

‘Aye, of course. Any day now.’

As a Hellene, Hippothous, unsurprisingly, looked superior.

Ballista regarded his friends. Calgacus, with his great domed skull and thin, peevish mouth. Maximus, the scar where the end of his nose should have been pale against the dark tan of his face. And then there was Hippothous. Things were not the same with him as they had been with Demetrius. Of course, Hippothous was older – most likely about Ballista’s own age. Yet possibly it was more a question of origins. While Demetrius had come to Ballista as a slave, Hippothous had been born a free man – according to his own account, a rich young man that misfortune had turned to banditry or something close to it. It could be the latter was just too new an addition to the familia yet to be a friend. But there was something about Hippothous, something about his eyes. Ballista was far from sure about his new secretary.

The chariot of the sun hauled over the shoulder of the mountain. Up above, the swallows flashed gold and black. Along the Embolos, many of the early risers turned to the east and blew a kiss. A few went further, prostrating themselves in the street in full proskynesis . None in Ballista’s party moved. Each to his own gods, some to none.

‘ Dominus.’

Ballista turned, and there was his wife. Julia looked good. Tall, straight, what the Greeks called deep-bosomed. Her hair and eyes were very black against the white of her matron’s stola.

‘ Domina.’ He greeted her formally. Her black eyes betrayed nothing. Things had not been comfortable between them for a year or so. He had not asked why. And he was not going to. It might be to do with a girl in Cilicia called Roxanne. The unease had appeared after that, after he had come back from Galilee, where he had been sent to kill Jews, when Julia had returned from the imperial palace in Antioch. Someone there might have told her about Ballista in Cilicia, about Roxanne. Things were not comfortable. But the daughter of a senator never made a scene in public, and she did look good. Then there were their sons.

‘ Dominus.’ Isangrim stepped forward respectfully. He was a tall boy, just turned ten. And he was quick. He knew his mother expected a certain formality between father and son, expected him to behave with the dignitas appropriate to the descendant of a long line of senators on her side. But he knew it irritated his father. Having held the dignified pose for a moment, Isangrim grinned. Father and son clasped forearms, as Isangrim had seen Ballista do with Maximus, Calgacus and the other men he had served with. They hugged.

It was all too much for Dernhelm. The three-year-old escaped the hand of Anthia, one of the two maids with Julia. The boy launched himself at his father and brother. Ballista scooped both boys up. He heard a tut of annoyance from his wife. Ignoring it, he swung the boys high, burying his face in the neck of first one then the other, hair flying, all three laughing; deliberately defying her.

As Ballista set his sons down, another small child barrelled into them. Wherever Dernhelm was, Simon, the Jewish boy Ballista had brought back from Galilee, was also likely to be found. They were much of an age; both full of living. Rebecca started forward to retrieve her charge. Ballista smiled and waved her away. He hugged Simon as well. He had been told often enough by his wife that it was a bad idea to treat a slave child as if it were free, to make a pet of it. He knew it was true. He would have to do something soon. Modify his behaviour or manumit the child. Then there was Rebecca herself. She had been purchased down in Galilee to look after Simon. With her, it depended on what Calgacus wanted. Soon Ballista would have to ask him.

The Caledonian himself came forward. ‘Aye, that is it, why not mess up your toga.’ Calgacus often seemed to be under the misapprehension that, if he adopted a muttering inflection, his voice, although pitched at a perfectly audible volume, would not be heard. ‘After all, it is not you that has to sort it out.’ Quite good-naturedly, he shooed the children away.

‘And it is not you either these days.’ Ballista gestured to Constans. The voluminous woollen drapes of the barbarian’s toga rearranged just so, Constans collected Rebecca and Simon and went back up the steps that ran between the blocks of housing that clung to the terraced hillside. Ballista, his wife and two of her maids, his sons, his two freedmen and his accensus set off up the Sacred Way.

The Embolos ran away uphill in front of them, the smooth, white base of a vertiginous ravine of buildings climbing the slopes on either side. Now there was activity along its length. Precariously up ladders, men fixed swags of flowers from pillar to pillar, garlanded the many, many statues. Others were bringing out small, portable altars, readying the incense and wine, kindling the fires. The air already shimmered above some of them.

All the Ephesians were taking pains over this festival, none more so than the members of the Boule. The four hundred and fifty or so rich men who served on the city council had paid for the flowers that festooned all the streets and porticos. They had paid for the frankincense and wine the ordinary citizens would offer as the procession passed, and the much greater quantities of wine they would drink when it was gone. It had cost a great deal – Ephesus was a large and populous city. Yet it might prove worth every obol. The city had been on the wrong side in the latest civil war. The year before, it had supported Macrianus and Quietus against Gallienus. Of course, it had had no real choice. But that had not always helped in similar circumstances when the winner was feeling vengeful, or simply short of funds. If imperial displeasure fell on the city, it would fall on the members of the Boule. Rich and prominent, serving for life, there was no way they could escape notice.

No one had more reason to be generous than the current asiarch in charge of the day’s festival. As high priest of the imperial cult in Ephesus, the metropolis of the province of Asia, Gaius Valerius Festus could not be more prominent. He was one of the very richest men in the city. Recently, he had pledged a fortune to dredge the harbour. He had been one of those whose homes had been deemed palatial enough to entertain the pretender Macrianus and his father when they travelled through on their way to the west to meet their fate. To add to his sensitivity, his brother was a Christian. The deviant brother had disappeared from jail and had been in hiding abroad for more than two years. He had reappeared shortly after the fall of Quietus. The emperor Gallienus was known to be extraordinarily relaxed about such things, but the family reunion had caused no great pleasure in the soul of the asiarch. It was no wonder Gaius Valerius Festus had invested a huge sum in the festival: choirs, musicians, several leading sophists – and the gods knew they did not come cheap – and a whole herd of oxen to be sacrificed and provide a roast meal for everyone in the city.

They had made no distance at all, had not even got past the temple of Hadrian at the front of the Varius Baths on their left, when they were brought to a halt. Up ahead, a muleteer was having problems with his charge. Long ears back, the beast was circling. It had shed its load of flowers. Now its narrow hooves were stamping and slicing the fallen blooms into a muddy mush.

Ballista checked that his sons were out of range. A mule finds it easier than a horse to strike out in any direction. Seeing the boys safe, Ballista put it out of his mind. He looked back the way they had come, down to the library of Celsus, and beyond to the harbour. Just a few days, and they would take ship for the west. There was no point in waiting in Ephesus for Gallienus’s decision. It would find them wherever they were. That was part of the god-like power of an emperor. Allfather, Death-blinder, Hooded One, let the decision be good: no worse than exile, with the estate to my sons.

Ballista was half aware that Maximus was giving the party a lengthy account of breeding mules in Hibernia. It all seemed to hinge on cutting the mare’s mane and tail before taking her to the donkey – it humbled her pride; would probably work on women too. There was a small stream of water running down the Embolos. Idly, Ballista’s eyes tracked it back up the hill, past them and under the careering mule. The rivulet ran on beyond where the driver’s stick was being employed in anger. The water was coming from the left-hand side of the Sacred Way, from the Fountain of Trajan.

Twice the size of a man, Trajan soared up, his head and shoulders reaching level with the second storey of the building. He was near naked, as befitted a god. Other, smaller deities peered out at him from their columned niches. In the big pool at his feet, barbarians cowered. It was from this pool that the water was coming.

Odd, thought Ballista. The Romans were so good at hydraulic engineering. The water was starting to pour over the rim of the big basin at a prodigious rate. It was thick, brown, muddy. The mule, stamping and splashing, whinnied; a high call ending in a frightened hee-haw.

Realization came to Ballista in a rush: the fountain and the mule; before that, the snake and the caged bird; it was spring, a dead calm, no rain for days. Allfather, all the signs were there. They had to get out of here, get to a place of greater safety. The mule, sharp hooves flying, blocked the way ahead. On either side, the buildings crowded up on top of each other: a death trap. It had to be downhill. To where? The open orchestra of the theatre? No, definitely not; not with the tall, delicate stage buildings and the monuments looming above the seats. The gate into the commercial agora, the Gate of Mazaeus and Mithridates? It was a good structure, solidly built. No, of course not there – beyond it, the agora itself.

‘We are going to the agora.’ Ballista’s words cut across the prattle of Maximus. The familia stared. ‘We are going to run. Calgacus, you go in front; get people out of the way. Maximus, you carry Dernhelm. Isangrim, with me: hold my hand. Julia, you and your women, keep close. Hippothous, bring up the rear.’

Julia made as if to question all this, but stopped as the two freedmen and the secretary obeyed the instructions. In position, the men hauled up their unwieldy togas. A moment’s hesitation, and the three women more demurely rearranged their costume. High on Maximus’s shoulder, young Dernhelm was roaring with laughter.

‘Time to go.’

Bystanders gawped, reluctantly moved out of the way as the familia set off, slow at first, down the street. ‘Faster! Move faster!’ Ballista shouted. Aided by the slope, they picked up speed.

Out in front, Calgacus was yelling: Vir Ementissimus… diplomata

… shift it, you soft southerners. The fine details may have been lost on most pedestrians, but the general intention was clear. The crowd stepped to the sides, pointing, laughing, treating it like a prelude to the festivities. As he ran, Isangrim’s hand sweaty in his, Ballista thought how embarrassing this would be if he were wrong.

They pounded on; past the tomb of Arsinoe, past the Heroon of Androclos. The noise came as they reached the Gate of Hadrian: a great clattering rattle, like an empty wagon or chariot driven fast over cobbles. The bystanders looked this way and that, searching for the source of the noise. There was nothing in sight, just the big man and his familia, garments ridiculously hitched up, tearing past as if Hecate herself were after them.

As they hurtled into the square in front of the library of Celsus, the noise changed to a strange, hollow rumble, like distant thunder. The paving stones shifted. Ballista and Isangrim stumbled. Holding each other’s hand, their momentum helped keep them upright. Maximus was holding Dernhelm just ahead; Calgacus still out in front; the others behind, still on their feet. They all ran.

The noise surged, changed again – now a bull roaring in a cave. The ground punched up into their feet. Ballista lost his grip on Isangrim. Down, scrabbling on the gritty stones. People falling, screaming all around them; Ballista reaching for his son. Between the paving slabs, earth was thrown up like chaff from a winnowing sieve. The slender columns of the library of Celsus swayed. The air seemed to tremble.

Ballista and Isangrim clasped hands, clawed to their feet. They could see Maximus’s back vanishing into the gateway. High on the pediment above the Hibernian’s head, the statues of Augustus and the first imperial dynasty shifted and moved – a sinister, stiff ecstasy of primitive priests about a macabre blood ritual.

‘Come on!’ Ballista shouted.

Together, father and son ran into the shadow of the vaulting – a terrible crashing behind – on under the colonnade. And then… And then they were clear; out in the open spaces of the commercial forum. Nothing here to threaten them. Keep away from the equestrian statue of the emperor Claudius in the middle, and there was nothing but wooden stalls little higher than a man. Nothing to fear.

Calgacus and Maximus had pulled up in a clear space. They were doubled over, panting like animals, hugging Dernhelm. The little boy was wide eyed, silent. Ballista and Isangrim joined them.

Ballista kissed both his sons, and looked around. Hippothous and one of the maids had joined them. Julia? He looked around again. Where was Julia? He directed his gaze further afield. People everywhere: standing, milling, some running. No sign of her.

‘Isangrim, stay with Calgacus.’

‘No,’ shouted Maximus. ‘I will go back.’

‘No, look after the boys.’

Ballista headed back, against the gathering flow of humanity. Still no sign.

The din was deafening: shouts, screams – humans and animals – the horrible grinding as the works of man fell in ruin. But now the ground was still. For how long?

Back under the colonnade. Ballista shouldered his way under the gateway. Allfather, where was she?

A man ran blindly into Ballista. He was shrugged aside. Ballista fought through to the other side, desperately scanning the square.

There! Off to the right. Julia was kneeling by a fallen statue, and under the statue lay the maid Anthia. Dark blood pooled out.

Touching Julia’s shoulder, Ballista said something. She took no notice.

Ballista let his bunched-up toga drop. The white folds fell in the blood. He reached down to see if the girl was alive. What if she was? He could not lift the solid marble statue. He felt for a pulse. Guiltily, he was relieved she was dead.

Ballista started to straighten up. He stopped. Had his fear overcome his senses? He looked up. Another statue was poised on the very edge of the gate. He remembered another gate, another city. The great temple at Emesa, the statues turning in the air, rigid as they fell; the heavy, brittle impacts; the carnage among his men; the slicing pain in his leg. Now, the ground in Ephesus was still. For how long?

Again he bent down, felt for a sign of life.

‘She is dead. Come.’

Julia did not move. Inexplicably, she began to recite Latin verse:

‘Why, victor, celebrate?’

Ballista put his hands under her armpits.

‘This victory will destroy you.’

Ballista got his wife to her feet.

Quid, victor, gaudes? Haec te victoria perdet.

Half-carrying her, Ballista pulled Julia away.

Back in the agora, they reached the others.

Nearby, above the cacophony, came the sound of a hymn: Poseidon, Earth-holder, steadfast stabilizer; Avert your anger, Hold your hands over us.

Fools, thought Ballista: wrong reason, wrong deity. The gods had chained Loki deep in the earth, suspended the serpent above his head. Loki’s good-wife caught the venom in a bowl. But the bowl must fill, must be emptied. And then, in the dark, the poison gathered on the fangs, balled out and dropped on the Evil One’s unprotected face. Loki screamed, and hopelessly fought the chains and the rocks that secured them.

No point in praying. Nothing to be done.