In the angular space where three ancient school buses meet, yellow paint scored and blasted by the elements, a skald is telling of the end of the world. A pale woman, veiled, layered in furs, she sways as she lists the gods and their deaths.
Fenrir breaks free and kills Odin. Thor and the Midgard Serpent kill each other. Loki turns on the Aesir and he and Heimdall kill each other. Surtr sets Asgard and Bifrost on fire and kills Freyr.
The Nine Worlds burn, and plunge into boiling sea.
"All this has gone before," she says, and her head raises as you pass. Beneath the veil, her eyes glitter. "All this is yet to come."
She has a modest audience, less than a dozen. The desperate, the hopeless, the mad. But they sway in time, and moan as the verses pour from her lips, and something in their eyes is fire.
On and through, and the day grows colder still. There's a frost in the air now, on the lips, on the tongue. Bokkr wraps his face, breath freezing on the thin cloth of a child's scarf adorned with a raging green jötunn. Fenrir just snorts, but ice crystals glitter in his beard.
the rattle of runestones announce the presence of an oracle. A pale, beardless young man sits cross-legged in the corridor between a fishmonger and a carver of strange, wooden trinkets. Before him, a circle of runes carved into the concrete promise truth, insight and binding fate. The young man is slumped a little, an elbow on his knee, idly pushing the stones around the circle with one finger of the other hand. He looks up, right at you, and his mouth is bruised and bloody. "You seek your fortune?" he says, a little hopefully.
"Er, yeah." He shows the scrap of cloth that Surtr had dropped. "The one who carried this troubles me. I would learn whether his wyrd is entangled with mine, but I'm not.." he lets the sentence trail off for fear of offending the other. "Can you guide me?
The boy looks a little unprepared for an answer in the positive, but he recovers well. "Yes! Yes, certainly." He waves for you to sit, turning and shuffling aside to make room for you out of the corridor's occasional traffic. Scrabbling among the pouches and rune-carved boxes, he produces a cheap scrap goblet with a little cry of triumph. The other hand opens towards you. "Fire?" he says hopefully. "For me, and for the knowing."
Dragi holds out a bit of treasure -- some matches, a lump of amber -- for the boy to see, then closes his hand when the boy reaches for it. "Know this. I have danced without legs and slept in lost cities and driven a thousand clicks with a corpse for a passenger. Do not think to impress me with rolled-up eyes and foaming mouth. I will know, and I will beat you, and I will name you to the market boss as a fraud and cheat and watch them crush you beneath cold stones."
Dragi isn't actually confident of any of these things, but he likes to make a first impression. "But for a true seeing, fairly given, this is yours, and more later as may be." He opens his hand again, warning given, and lets the boy take his payment. "Are mushrooms involved?" The little red fly-cap mushroom was a staple of religious life in Tyrs Hafn, and he emphatically doesn't miss it. To give the boy credit, he seems to take the threat in his stride. "I'm no charlatan," he says, with a hint of pride in his raspy voice. "I learned the runes from Gosti Finehair, who learned them from Skoffir Twice-Burned, who learned them from Magda the Crone, who learned them hanging from the Ash. My seeing is true if you are."
He drew himself up as he spoke, and now slumps a little, coughing. But he nods and takes the payment, making most of it vanish.
"Mushrooms," the boy's eyes widen, as he strikes a match on the roughened side of the scrapweld goblet. "Damn. What I could do with some mushrooms..."
He drops the match into the goblet, and fire flares up with a puff of sharp, resinous smoke. He breathes deep of the fumes, and thrusts the cup in your face for you to do the same. The stink makes your eyes water, and as you breathe deep the flames of the candles around you seem to start to twinkle and dance like stars above. "Spit," the boy commands, and when you look at him his pale hair seems to bristle and glitter like gold.
He spits into the goblet after you, then shakes in a pouch of pale, rune-carved knucklebones that clatter dully as they fall. "Hear me, Odin," he begins to chant, stirring the woodash and spittle with a gnarled finger of yew that seems to flex and writhe slowly in his hand. "All-Father, I name you. Wanderer, spear shaker, thronesitter, wise one, gallows-lord, drinker of the draught of knowledge, rune-singer, one-eye. I name you with your names. I call you with your names. Odin! Woden! Wednesday! In Hel's silent hall - hear my song! Throw off death's veil, Lord! Call down the shaking rainbow! And let. Us. Pass!"
With that he casts the runes clattering across the floor between you.
Right after inhaling a lungful of the intoxicating smoke, Dragi remembers how much he hates this mystical shit. Life is not so beautiful that one needs to see it laid out in front of the eyes like a map, but here it is, staring back at him from the runestones, Fehu the fire and Uruz the Ox, and most of all Tiwaz, the god's rune, pointing at his heart like an arrow shot from the bow of justice. He hears people talk about what they see in the great blizzard of the world, and some joke about ice maidens and white bears, but Dragi has travelled the blizzard many times and he knows. It is a long cold wandering among the dead, with only one's sins for company and no prospect of rescue.
The bones rattle across the cold concrete, skittering to a halt. The boy leans forward to study their pattern. There is Raidō, the journey, nestled close beside Tiwaz. Here are Kaunan and Hagalaz, flanking a face-down stone as though in escort. The boy reaches down dreamlike and turns over the stone.
Ūruz. The lamentation of the clouds. The ruin of the harvest. The abomination of the shepherd.
"Curious," the boy says, and his voice is strangely doubled. When you look up at him, another face is looking down at you. A face impossibly old, stern and noble. The boy towers over you, you realise. The hand that holds the runestone is a mailed fist, clenched tight, thrust into the mouth of a wolf. There is a sword in the other, held hilt-up like a cross, blood running down the blade from too tight a grip. The point rests heavy on the ground, sunk deep into the earth.
There is chanting, voices in the swirling blizzard.
—an axe age, a sword age shields are riven a wind age, a wolf age before the world goes headlong. No man will have mercy on another
Molten fire is bubbling up through the wound in the Earth, smoking around the point of the sword. Dark figures rise up with it, marching beside the flow of fire, directing its sweep across the land. Fish Hold burns. Splitsville burns. The nine towns become furnaces, places of raging flame, swirling smoke - ashes, only ashes. Nine worlds and all their people all burn, all the world. In Forge Surtr sits laughing on a throne, and he too holds a sword, but this one is burning, burning bright. Its flames lick at the fringes of the shadowed woods.
The wolf catches your eye, and bites down hard. The boy screams, pulls back a torn and mangled wrist. "We see you," the wolf declares, licking blood from scrapweld fangs. "Run all you like, there's no escaping Fate."
It grins, and shimmers like heat haze. "Where is Summer?" It says, in Surtr's voice, and its face is Surtr's now. Behind steel spectacles, fire burns in his eyes. You reach for the sword in the boy's bloody hand, but it withers and is consumed by frost. "Too bad," the Jötunn says, in a voice like the crackle of a diesel engine, and he raises his flaming sword.
The blade sweeps down, and you feel its heat.
You feel the heat. Around you, shouting, chaos. The boy sat across from you is a column of flame, writhing silently. You can smell him cooking as you scrabble away. The charm-carver is wailing, begging for the gods protection. The oracle's other market-neighbour, the fishmonger, quick-thinkingly empties a bucket of ice over the boy, dousing much of the flames.
The boy collapses, and the fishmonger beats out the last flickering fires that play over him with a heavy oilskin.
The boy groans weakly, blood and meltwater pooled around him. His shirt has melted, fused with his skin. His face is turned away from you, which seems a mercy, but his hair is all but gone, his scalp red and black in equal measure. His right arm ends at the wrist, in a mess of soot and blood.
You become aware of a throb in the palm of your hand. One of the bones is clenched there; it crumbles to hot white dust as you open your hand, and falls through your fingers like the softest snow. Your whole palm is a blister, but burned into the web between thumb and forefinger are three dark lines. The rune Fehu; fire of the sea.
"What in Hel's name happened?" the fishmonger challenges you. A small crowd has gathered to observe the spectacle. You can still smell the boy's burning flesh.
"I saw it!" The woodcarver says. "He burned like the wrath of god!"
"Bullshit," one of the crowd snorts, a woman in fire-stained leathers. "A lamp or something fell on him. From up there." She points at the ledge hacked into the wall above your heads, every inch of it filled with candles and other lightbringers.
"There was no lamp, fool," the woodcarver snaps at her. "His blasphemies have displeased the gods!" He fixes you with a wild eye. "You! The eye of Odin is on you now! Cower! Cower!"
You walk in a valley of dust and ash, and the snow is falling softly. No, not a valley, a riverbed; long dried up and gone. To the east, far to the east along the length of the riverbed, where the mountains rise, the scar of a once-great torrent is clearly carved. At its base, where a pool once glittered deepest blue, a vast dark emptiness.
Ahead of you a wall, as tall of the mountains. Scarred and torn by weapons of war. Its highest battlements crumbling. The great gate hangs open, not broken but unlocked.
You pass through, and the hall stands before you. Beneath the ash and snow, still it glitters – but the roof is long collapsed, the shields that thatched it and the spears that held it up rotting at the edges of a great dark hole.
Each of the 540 doors is flung open, and you enter in. The hall is dark, the floor thick with ash; the ruins of one last great feast still mouldering on the tables. Among the rotting benches, rust-ruined breastplates are strewn all about.
From the throne at the high table, a figure watches. Broad-hatted, cloaked in grey, a spear across its knees. A wolfskin draped across his shoulders – a mockery, you somehow sense. Trembling, you approach. Shadows hood his face, but his beard is long and grey.
You step up onto the dais, raise the broad brim of the hat to look upon his face. The dead flesh is withered, a dried husk, grey as beard and cloak. One shrivelled eye stares blindly out at you, and the mouth is twisted in shock, dismay. As if faced with a fate unplanned for.
“Who’s there?” a voice rings out, quavering and weak. “The einherjar have marched… and no valkyr remain to choose.”
You turn. Out of the shadows at the edge of the hall, a huge figure slowly emerges… tentatively, feeling his way as a blind man might.
“Hel? Have you come to torment me again?”
Ylva feels strangely calm and speaks without fear.
"I'm not Hel, though I may be due to meet her soon."
She touches the place where the exit wound should be.
"I think I've been murdered for greed and pride, and I don't know if I'm coming back from it."
"You are dead?" the huge man says, in his quavering old man voice. He shuffles closer, emerging into the dim grey light that enters the hall through the broken-backed roof overhead. He is huge indeed, vastly muscled despite his age. And blind in truth, eyes white and staring. He shakes his head. "No. The dead no longer come to this place. The bodies of the einherjar lie where they fell, out on the field. There are no more - and none to choose them. Until..."
He tails off, and you can read a thousand sorrows on his face. "Come here," he says finally, and raises one massive hand - strangely gentle - towards your face. "Come here, and let me get a look at you." Ylva hesitates, as a very early swims to the surface, a drunk man (her father?) whispers "Never trust the fucking gods". Is this man a god? Aren't they all dead? Either way...
Either way he seems harmless enough, and she's already dead. Or...
"Dead, or dying. Got my insides on the outside and enemies all around in any case."
Then she makes a decision and crosses the distance between them, leading his hand to her face.
The blind man - the god? - brushes your face with heavy, scarred, slablike fingers. Each of his hands is big enough to wrap around your whole face. He pauses as one finger explores the scars around your eye, and you see something like fear on his broad, craggy face. "No," he mutters finally, and his hands move on. "Hmm."
His hands brush your neck, your shoulders, your breasts - it should feel like an outrage, but somehow there's no sense of violation, of malign intent, to it - and move on. One hand pauses at your side. "Here," he says, pressing a huge palm hard into your abdomen, and you give a gasp of pain. "Mortal indeed."
The other hand traces back up your spine, to the nape of your neck, running clumsily through your rough-cut hair. He pauses, heavily lips pursing. "Wait." His fingers move round to the unmarked side of your face, above your ear. His face is grave. "This ain't right..."
And you scream as he pushes a heavy finger into the hole in your skull. Again. You feel him fishing around in your head, in your mind. Memories from what passed for your childhood. Your first love. "Almost..."
You remember laughing with the others as your brother raises his spear. The whisperer at his shoulder, always with that sly smile.
You don't have a brother.
"Wait..." the blind god in Odin's hall is pale as he draws out... something, pinched between two bloody fingers. You nearly sag to your knees, but his other hand grips your arm tight. He's wiping the thing on his ash-smeared tunic, blood.
A spearpoint. Fire-hardened wood.
The god is pale, staring at the thing he holds. "No, no, no." He releases your arm and you drop, forgotten, head and guts alive with pain. The hall swims around you, gloom deepening into true dark.
"Baldur?" In the dream, you lie in a ship with a great curved prow, the fire all around you. A dead man stands at the helm, his eyes on the horizon. Behind you, on the beach, a score of figures; hooded, cloaked, weeping.
Ahead, far ahead across the storm-tossed sea, a grey and dreary shore.
Hel is waiting.
(Gerda’s painting) Gerda tugs, and the cloth falls in one heavy slump to the floor.
Below, a forest scene. Trees pressed in close on all sides, heavy and oppressive, rising beyond the frame of the canvas. Dark runes slashed into dark wood.
Three woman gathered at the side of a pool, watching a fourth figure - pale, bloody of face and hand - as it kneels beside the water. Around one out-thrust hand, the water boils red.
Intricate ropes of gold wind around the pale skin, the bare head. The face lined with pain and weariness beneath a mask of blood. But in the one eye is captured... something profound. Realisation. Awareness. Horror. All of these are there, in the strokes of Gerda's brush.
Behind, from the shadows beneath the trees, something dark and massive watches. A suggestion of scale and claw.
"Not a death this time," Gerda says, and she almost sounds relieved.
"It's beautiful....," Miekke comments, made breathless by the painting. "I... that's just beautiful, Gerda. I don't even know what to say. You've made more of these? Why have I never seen them?" Gerda nods plainly. "You have," she says. She seems strangely dissatisfied with your response, as if she was expecting something more... profound. Her eyes keep going back and forth between the painting and you, like she's searching for flaws.
In which, you are not sure.
"You have," she says again. "My father hangs them downstairs, some of them at least. The violent ones. I think he likes to imagine what it would've been like to kill a god." Miekke doesn't really hear Gerda's response. They're staring at the painting, and the eye within the face of pain and weariness engulfs them. The first thing you know is pain; pain from the eye you plucked out. The second is the smell; the stink of the primal forest, the tall dark trees that gather inhospitable around you. A rich, loamy, leafy smell, undercut with the crispness of pine. There's snow on the branches above you, but down here in the shadows it's cool, not cold. And the water in the well is warm as blood.
The three sit across from you. Your one good eye is bleary, watering; each time you look at them they are sat somewhere different on the rocks. Their faces smear and judder as you try to focus, but you feel sure you know them.
When they speak, their voices blur and blend as their faces do. You think one is speaking, but another's lips move; the voice comes from the place of the third. "You have sacrificed-" "-given half the light- "-of the world;" "washed yourself white-" "-so pure-" "-so pale-" "-white as the membrane-" "-the skin that lies inside-" "-the shell of the egg-" "-so holy-" "-so wise you will be-" "-tell us, far-rider -" "-wanderer-" "-yes, tell us-" "-does it hurt?" "-no, not that-" "-no, no-" "-we know it hurts-" "-Mimmir told us-" "-poor Mimmir-" "-tell us instead-"
One of them is beside you, her hand cool on your shoulder. She draws a ladle forth from the well, brimming with water that seems to shimmer with an inner light. You look up into a face that is clear and dark, a face you recognise. "Do you think it will save you?" she says, as she raises the well-water to your lips. Miekke looks into the woman's face, wide-eyed, searching for understanding. They're afraid to breathe.
There's a weird sense of discontinuity, of inhabiting another skin. You feel the bonds of fate growing tighter, tighter. Leading you down the path once more... to Ragnarok.
Part of you, the part that is Odin in this place, despairs. You are so weary.
The world must end again... but not yet. Not yet. "Save me?" AllFather-Miekke croaks, their voice raw and unused. "Do you think that the point of this? It's to save us all."
"I have to try."
That last is only a whisper, as their attention has shifted from speaking to more focused intent as they take the proffered water. Diving into it with the thirst of one seeking to avert Fate, the water is not drunk so much as it is devoured. Impassioned, fully exposed, seeking to digest it all in one raw, exposed moment, with no care for the protection of self. Diving into the deepest of pools, throat first, losing oneself in the sound of the splash as the rich water engulfs the entire person in its embrace. The water of the well was warm to your hand; but it burns down your throat like magma, floods your being with heat and knowledge. You remember creation, Ragnarok, rebirth; Lif and Lifthrasir, man and woman, sheltering in the branches of Yggdrasill, the world ash, to emerge once more as the world begins again.
But mostly you remember destruction. The winter unending. The jotunn Surtr and his flaming sword. The Fenris-wolf, its teeth closing on your throat. The Nine Worlds descending into fire and death, collapsing into the cold wide void of Ginnungagap, over and over.
The death of everything. Over and over and over.
As fate has decreed.
But you struggle to your feet, lone eye blazing with knowledge. With one hand you reach out and carve a rune into the bark of the towering World-Ash.
ᛉ – Algiz, which means Life. A protection from enemies, a defense of that which one loves.
And Urðr, the weave of destiny... it trembles.
You come back to yourself, and to Gerda hanging onto your wrist, crying "Stop, stop!", and to pain.
The hand Gerda is restraining - your fingers are bloody, and you can feel the mess your nails have made of your cheek, your eye; they pulse with fire with every heartbeat.
You blink, and it's painful enough that you nearly shriek. But your vision clears some; you're not blind. Beyond Gerda, who kneels appalled in front of you, the painting.
The door opens; Urdakott is there. "Hel's black heart," he curses, and it seems aimed at Gerda as much as you. "Cover that damn thing up!" He vanishes back through the door, leaving it hanging open.
Gerda glances back at the painting, from it to you. She releases your hand, throws the patchwork blanket back over the canvas. "I'm sorry," she says. "I didn't expect..."
Your mind, though, is spinning. The pain from your eye is a little thing, inconsequential beside the revelations that course through you.
You have been here before, time after time.
The pain of the injured flesh is as nothing next to the pain of remembrance. They look at the young girl in front of them, and at the cascade of emotion that inhabits her face and her body.
"Show me the others," they command, with the force not of a mesmerizing sword-dancer, but that of... something more. "I can't," she says. "He put some up, downstairs - the deaths. He likes those. But the others..." She shakes her head. "He burned them."
Gerda looks at you then, and it's clear she's afraid. Not of you, but of what might change. "I'm sorry," she says quietly, miserably. "I just wanted to paint you. What I saw inside you."
The heart is warm and tough. As you tear at it with your teeth, hot coppery blood fills your mouth, flows down your throat. You feel its warmth fill your stomach.
Above you, the sky grows overcast. So focused on the work of devouring the heart, it's not until the first snowflake brushes your eye that you look up.
Realise you stand alone on a plain of ice.
A cold shadow passes over you. You cannot help but shudder, know it's the cold of death, of eternity on the Corpse Shore among the murderers, the adulterers, the oath-breakers.
And the vast bulk of the worm Níðhöggr crashes to the frozen earth.
You feel the ice shake beneath you as is raises up, shakes itself. Malice Striker, scaled in scabarous blue and grey.
As it turns towards you it stretches out its terrible wings, feathered with the bodies of the inglorious dead.
"Ah," the worm hisses, fixing you with a basilisk eye. You cannot move, cannot speak. "One of mine." Its skull-like head comes forwards on a long sinuous neck, death in the jaws that gape.
"Not yours." A voice behind you. Völva steps from your shadow. "His fate lies elsewhere than Nástrǫnd."
The worm rears its head back, hisses. "Has he not murdered? Has he not broken oaths - is he not planning to break one even now? I can see it wriggling in his mind like a red worm." It writhes, and flaps its wings, and the foul corpse stench rises from its body. "Is the child that nestles beneath your heart not his?"
"The adultery is mine," Völva says, raising her chin as you wonder at her calm. "I will answer it in my own way."
"No," the worm growls. "You will answer it in mine." And one great wing sweeps forward, quick as thought, to brush across Völva - her face, her breasts, her belly - with a terrible gentleness.
She staggers. Sobs. Drops to her knees in the snow. And is gone.
You feel the worm's attention turn back to you, like an avalanche descending.
"Would you too deny me?" Malice Striker purrs, winding its great head towards you. "You, who calls yourself Loki. Hah! Murderer, deceiver - will you deny what you are?" "I am a wolf, unfathered," Loki answers, before lunging at Malice Striker to rip it to shreds. The worm rears back hissing as you leap at it, machete swinging. The smell of it is foul, this close - the rotting, inglorious dead.
Your first wild upward blow scrapes on the boney plates of Níðhöggr skull-face, the tip of the blade scoring a line up towards the eye as its head draws back.
It roars, spreads its corpse-hung wings. One heavy foreleg knocks you staggering. You feel the claws bite. Its bulk is over you, its death-cold shadow swallows you. Span-long teeth snap inches from your face. Foul dark ichor runs sluggish from the cut you gave it, beading beneath the eye like a tear.
And your heavy second swing bites deep into one outstretched wing. Tearing through corpse-flesh, ancient bindings, skin and tendon.
Níðhöggr roars again, in dismay and pain. The stink of its breath is the wake of battle, the days-old unburied dead. It recoils from you, hisses. "You are not Loki!"
You advance, grinning, feral. Desperate, it spreads its wings again, leaps at you, past you. Knocking you flat. A crash shakes the ice. You scramble back to your feet, turn. The worm is struggling to rise, wing hanging ragged at its side. It wheels, tail whipping at you. Crashing into your shoulder, tumbling you back to the ice. You rise, blade in hand, blood in your mouth.
"Peace, unfettered!" the worm roars. You sense its desperation. "I mistook you!"
You snarl like the wolf you are.
And Níðhöggr... flinches. Then-
-you are on your back in the snow. The taste of bile in your mouth. Your gang milling, shouting, confused. Hel kneeling beside you. The hilt of a knife between your teeth. Blood and snow and sunshine. And the road.
You try to rise, feel weakness flood you. Where the worm struck, in your shoulder and your hip, flesh and bones are screaming.
Volva lies foetal in the snow a couple of feet away. Pale, shivering. Weeping silently. Agneta squats nearby, watching her worriedly.
"Well," Ketil says, kicking the pile of still-steaming reindeer meat. "I sure ain't eating any of that."
"You... alright, boss?" Hel says. More calculating than concerned.
The fire and the wind. Burning ice, biting flame. And you, caught between them. There's laughter around the fire.
The wolf within you snaps and snarls, struggles to free itself from its fetters. A silken ribbon, strong as iron. You recall the binding, the merriment - the relief - as you strained and snarled and could not work yourself free. The taste of blood, the consequence.
And the expectation. That subtle moment as your fetters... gave. Just a little.
The wolf within looks up, its mouth bloody still. Its eyes promise nothing; only destruction, chaos. A tearing down of things.
The bindings on its jaws are fraying, weakening. It will work itself free, sooner or later.
A slash of your knife could quicken the process. Focusing in further, Loki imagines his knife—so comfortable in his hand but so clearly of it—and starts to worry at the bindings of the wolf with it. "No chains, inside or out," he mutters as he sets to his work.
The fetters part under the blade of your knife like they'd been waiting for it, and the wolf lunges up. In an eyeblink it has you on your back, your knife off buried in a snowbank somewhere. Mad red eyes stare down into yours, and there's no gratitude there. A low growl rumbles up out from out of its great black body, and the wolf opens its jaws-
Abruptly, with a dreamlike discontinuity, you are surrounded by grazing reindeer. The wolf's head snaps up.
The deer panic, scatter in all directions. Among them, the leaders of the herd; a golden stag with mighty antlers and a sleek, shimmering silver doe.
The wolf leaps off in pursuit. Pauses. "Hunt with me, brother!" it cries over its shoulder. Then it is off, running, jaws gaping against the snow and sky.
With a laughing howl, Loki follows after, chasing with reckless abandon.
The reindeer scatter before you, criss-crossing your path and that of your... packmate? Whatever the huge black wolf is to you, he runs like the wind, jaws gaping, breath wild and ragged. A panicking deer darts across his path and he rakes it open from neck to rump without breaking stride, blood spraying in the snow.
But you are fast, and faster still. Your paws pound the snow as you hit your stride, closing the gap between you. You scent the blood, and it is rapturous. But above and beyond that, your sharp eyes make out the headlong flight of the herd leaders. The stag, proud and golden, its rack of antlers a fearsome weapon - but heavy, and slowing it. Ten strides ahead, the silver doe - quicksilver fast, slippery and wise.
Most of the herd are behind you now - and you are alongside your packmate. Lost in the joy of the hunt. He dwarfs you - a mass of muscle and rage.
But you are no pup even so, a killer, an alpha. Behind you, you sense your pack has joined you; four or five wolves at your back, running hard.
And as your muscles begin to burn, as the two deer begin to veer apart, the hunt truly begins. Without hesitation, Loki follows after the silver doe, after the true challenge. He has no doubt he could kill the stag in battle after running it down. But to hunt certainties is to not hunt at all. The doe is fast, and sure-footed in the snow. It jinks through the snowdrifts, and mighty leaps carry it over the deepest drifts as it aims to lose you; while on the ice it seems almost to fly, abandoning cunning for sheer straight-line speed.
it's all you can do to keep up. Your lungs are straining, your muscles roaring with exertion. But you begin to close the gap.
The doe, seeming to sense the race is lost, tacks suddenly, sharply right. Off the ice and towards the copse of dark trees that rises from the edge of the frozen lake.
A desperate move. You can feel the forest's strangeness, its vast, alien indifference to wolves and men alike. Shadows flit between the trees, shapes bigger and more fearsome than any man or wolf. The hunt is to perfect to give up, Loki presses on, and as the doe makes her desperate turn, he launches himself to take her throat and life. As the doe turns at bay, you launch yourself at her throat; but you realise mid-air you've misjudged – both your leap, and her determination. She skips nimbly aside, spinning to deliver a double-hoofed kick to the ribs that lifts you off the ground and dumps you gasping in the snow.
Then your pack catch up, and are on her. Bursting through the trees into the clearing, circling her, keeping her turning. Nipping at her rear and flanks as you regain your footing. You join the harassment, and she does her best to keep her face to you, but the constant pressure of the rest of the pack is wearing her down. You can smell her fear, her desperation as she tries to break out but is driven back into the centre of the clearing by the pack's snarling lunges.
One of the wolves darts in, but too slow; she spins, knocking him howling with a sideways butt of the head. There's a gap in the circle as he scrambles.
An opening, an opportunity. She takes it.
And so do you.
This time your leap is true. Your weight staggers her, and your forelegs wrap around her shoulders as the two of you tumble in the snow. She kicks, writhes, but the pack close in tight. You bite and bite, taste quicksilver blood in your mouth, hot and salty. She's on her back, your jaws on her throat.
She goes suddenly still, and in her wide black eye you sense a recognition of the inevitable. Loki savours the exhilaration and anguish of the hunt for a moment before he closes his jaws to take the life of the beautiful creature. The doe thrashes once, hooves kicking in the bloody snow. The pack are pacing back and forth; all hungry eyes and hungry jaws. The trees loom dark, pressing in at the edges of the clearing.
There's a moment of intense dislocation, like your heart and mind were suddenly hooked sideways a thousand miles, and you're sitting in the dark. Back in yourself, two legs two arms. The taste of quicksilver blood still rich in your mouth.
Pitch dark, total and entire. No moon, no reflection off the snow. Nothing. You can't remember the last time you were so utterly, utterly blind.
Loki pops a pain pill and swallows it dry, moistening his lips after on a handful of clean(ish) snow. "Anyone who can hobble over for some pain pills, give them. Collect those who are salvageable and load up to make our way to someone that can really patch us up." Loki blinks his eyes and mind as clear as he can, and looks at the sky to try and get his bearings on who would be the best to go to. All the while feeling the howling of the blizzard making promises, promises about better routes to go through the snow, about better destinations. With a snarl, he lets the howling wind in, hoping to clear the cobwebs at the very least.
You open your mind and the blizzard rushes in, and it knows exactly where you should be. Marching among the un-numbered dead; howling as you cut a swath through the einherjar; tasting the all-father's blood on your teeth. This is the Wyrd laid out for you, your fate.
The frost you invited in, it eats away at your mind, your soul, your sense of self. You feel yourself growing indistinct.
Yet something in you speaks out; reminds you, you have a choice. Surrender to fate, or carve your own path. Loki, you named yourself - the deceiver, the betrayer, the rebel. And the voice that rings in your blood and in your bone, it asks: will you earn that name?
Or are you just a wolf?
Loki holds to himself, as agonizing as it is, letting the winds cut through him and then readying himself to push on.
The blizzard blows through you, and it has ice in its teeth. You can feel it driving you, turning you, pushing you in the direction Fate has laid out for you, and you struggle to stand, to hold your ground, to remain Loki.
It takes all your will, your stubbornness, to cling to who you are. And it costs you - every icy gust strips something away. A memory, a dream, a piece of your past. But one image remains, unyielding, though you cannot quite recall what it means. An older man, his beard turning grey, half his face in shadow - a brother? Father? Whoever he is to you, whoever he was, he nods; and you feel his approving hand on your shoulder, callused and heavy.
Something snaps. Like a thread in some great tapestry, it all begins to unravel. You brace...
A drop of liquid strikes your forehead, and you wake. You open your eyes wide with sudden pain as the venom begins to burn. It runs down into one of your eyes, and as half the world goes black you start to scream. Where is Sigyn? High above you, wound through the stalactites that dot the roof of the cave, the serpent hisses with delight. You watch another drop of venom form at the tip of its fangs, all the colours of Bifröst packed into its swelling curve. You hear Sigyn's hurried footsteps, returning with her bowl. Too late, too late. The drop is falling.
And you wake again, in truth.
"Your Valkyr brings me," Superior says. "Literally. She broke into my car while I was... asleep... and brought me here against my will. And now she's avoiding me, when I need to speak with her." Her gaze keeps drifting off you to the bottle by your hand, and she licks her lips unconsciously.
"But perhaps..." She looks you in the eye then, and you get the impression that she's gathering her courage. "Perhaps your thread is woven in with hers. Perhaps you share more than a death." She hesitates. "Were... were you given a message?" she asks, her cracked old voice quavering ever so slightly. "No message. There's... I saw..."
She shivers, suddenly unsure of how to speak of what she's seen. To describe her... vision, her experience, to a believer is different from telling her friends, her chosen family.
"Someone is still there. A god, or a giant. Blind and bent by sorrow, he seemed."
Her words come in short bursts.
"He seemed alone, but... like he was waiting."
She glances to Camo, then looks Mother Superior in the eye.
"They're not all dead. The world isn't over. There's still hope." You see Superior go pale at your words. "Hope!?" she stares at you in utter dismay, then slumps against the bar, draining the drink you poured her and snatching the bottle to pour another. "Hope!" She laughs, and it's not a pleasant sound at all.
Camo's expression is comical, eyebrows raised all the way up as he regards the old woodswoman, and he glances at you as if to say what the hell?
"What do you hope for, tell me that? Prosperity? Peace?" She laughs sourly again, and knocks back the drink. Reaches for the bottle. Ylva snatches the bottle away with well-honed reflexes, then pinches the fingers of her other hand and makes a gesture like striking a match - with her reserves tapped out she can't afford to let anyone drink for free.
"In this world? Nothing so grand. I hope to eat, drink, and fuck another year, and dream to die in a warm bed. Same as everyone."
She stands relaxed, facing Mother Superior squarely.
"But now I have hope for the world after this. It may not be all ice and shadows."
She shrugs, making a gesture that takes in the bar, the hall, the world.
"Maybe we can still get more than this." Superior's lips purse sourly as you snatch the bottle away; she sweeps one finger round inside the empty glass, sticks the finger in her mouth, sucks the last few drops of booze from it. "Ain't none of going to die in bed," she says, in a voice dead and dull, as she turns back towards the door. "Ain't none of us gonna see the world after this."
She pauses in the doorway. "The gods ain't yet dead," she says, shaking her head. "And you reckon that's cause for hope."
Her bitter, hopeless laugh hangs in the air long time after the door clacks shut behind her.
As you open your finger, the forest seems to... come into focus somehow, to sharpen. You sense the weight of its attention, drawn by the spilling of blood. Then you exhale through bloody lips, and as the breath and blood mingles with the wind your mind is snatched up like a rag.
The wind whips through the dense dark trees, and you are drawn along with it. Through the shadows and light that dapple the snow. Through the barbed and tangled undergrowth. Through the scars cut by men, and the fresh wounds where men work still. With trucks and axes and buzzing saws, the thieves. But the wind recoils from something, from the eye that marks them, that burns in the shadows of their minds. Recoils and draws you onwards. Through the hidden clearings where the skogsrå and the huldrefolk dance, through the rookeries and parliaments in the high branches.
The ravens take exception to your intrusion, and tear your mind ragged with beaks and claws until the wind takes you beyond their reach. Takes you over the wall of the town, through the narrow, frozen streets, through the sulphurous steam that clouds the air over Ragnhall, cooling and freezing.
And deposits you back in yourself, exhausted and ravaged by a sudden splitting headache.
Even so, you sense all is not as it was.
A shadow detaches itself from the base of a nearby pine. "You have returned to us, systir." The hulder is beautiful, pale as milk and moving with sinuous grace as she crosses the clearing towards you. "Will you stay, this time?
For a moment she is confused - she feels the sharp pain from the wounds inflicted by the beaks and claws of the ravens, the gashes in her face. Reaching up to wipe away the blood, though, her fingers come off clean. The pain is still there, but the wounds not of this world. She blinks, almost reeling, as the shape of the huldra detaches itself from the pine.
Its´ words hit something inside of her - touches an emptiness at the center of her heart. Makes her feel naked, skinless. She backs off one step, then another - her hand going inside the coat, fingers closing on the taped handle of the stubnosed revolver, her memento from the market massacre.
"I don´t know you." Her voice is sharp, but lacks the hard weight of conviction.
There's a moment of disconnection, sharp and jarring, and the world seems to lurch sideways. You remember hanging from the tree, your blood pooling in the snow below you. The ravens that perched on your shoulder; their beady black eyes inquisitive, speculative, as they regarded you. Snatches of thought and memory return to you. The girl you were. Your life, your name. Your death, and what was taken from you. Odin, eyes glittering beneath the brim of his wide grey hat, laying a rune upon your brow. The arms of the hulder, the tree-spirit, as you hung from her branches.
Those same slim arms embrace you again.
Then rougher, thicker arms are around you, restraining, roughly shaking you. "Hey! Hey! Get a hold of yourself!"
The girl walks through the God-Chamber, bare feet on smooth stone. The runes on her bare skin is painted with blood, carriers of great power. The chamber is immense around her, and the light from the lanterns so very far behind now. In the darkness around her, faint glints of steel and dark glass from the sleeping giants. Sound doesn´t move through teh air as it should - some of them seem to reverberate forever in the immense space, others are swallowed entirely by its´ cold and stale air.
Her voice, as she speaks, is dry but quickly finds strength and traction. As she speaks the words, raises her hands, there is a humming sound from all around her. Panes of glass flicker and wake, bathing the chamber in light. Motes of dust dance all around her as she raises her arms and calls out to -
Zed barely has time to register what happens - Skuld´s leg hooks around his with snake-like speed, and the air is pushed out of him as he slams into the ground, cutting off his words and the yell that tried to form into a thin wheeze. She has twisted around, landing hard on top of him with an arm across his throat, one of her knees pushing down on his gun-arm as it twitches weakly in muscle memory and makes an attempt to move. Before he can fucking blink, there is a blade pointing at his eye and the valkyrie´s own pale pair stares into him with a fury that chills his bones.
Her lips peel back from her teeth as she hisses. "Who the fuck do you think you´re touching?"
"We see what you are, Skuld." She makes an odd gesture, drawing the V of forefinger and thumb over her eyes and thrusting them at you, and the other two copy it. "Valkyr. Draugr. We see you. You would ask us to lend strength to your arm? Your war?"
"Your promise," the other woman interjects, as smoothly as if they spoke as one. "Your promise to look past us without seeing, when the sword-din rises." She is not sure whether to laugh at the man or smack out a few of his teeth to make him appreciate the gravity of the situation - to some extent this goes for all of them. Their words take some of the fire out of her blood, though; makes it easier to cool it, to soften edges that want to be sharp. Part of her wants to ask more, to tear at the morsels of revelation.
Instead she straightens up, lends weight rather than rage to her voice. "Lend your arms to my war, woodcutters, and when the storm is upon us I´ll look past you." Her voice drops just a little. "Fate-mark, crow-mark, death-mark, I´ll look past. That is where it ends, though. I can´t keep you from getting a bullet to the face if you go act stupid."
She peeels of a glove, spits in her snow-white hand; there´s a touch of steam as she holds it out to seal the pact. "Still, it is a whole lot more than anyone else gets." "When it all comes down, we'll hold you to that," he says, and tugs off his own glove.
You prowl through Surtr's mansion, wincing occasionally as an unguarded movement tugs at the wound in your side; Eir clearly knows what she's doing, but even with expert care a gunshot is not to be dismissed.
The suite where you were laid to rest is in the northern end of the villa, closest to the steel works and to the Scrapyard; you find a window in a stairwell which looks out north, across a slice of town that might seem almost picturesque but for the dull, ruddy glow of the steelworks, which gives the snow a hellish aspect - as if blood had been poured across the town, and pooled on the roofs and in the spaces between buildings. You look down on Forge, and wonder why you've never noticed before - is it the elevation, your new and lofty position?
No, you realise, as you look further out. Beyond the light of the furnaces, and the occasional desperate trashfire in the Scrapyard. the world is utterly dark.
The sky is clear, stars twinkling like little touches of frost. Where is the moon? You frown, count backwards; no, it should be waxing nearly full.
Where is the moon?
The reflected glow of the steelworks on the snow paints a swathe of the stairwell ruddy, and Miekke's white skin canvas. It's a beautiful sight, though too reminiscent of Brokkr's workshop.
Not really thinking about it, upon wondering at the missing moon Miekke lifts the flap of their eye patch up and gazes at the sky with their injured eye. It's only as they feel it between their fingers that they realize they were wearing an eye patch.... curious.
The ruddy light of the forge floods everything, making even the sky a crime scene. The stars twinkle red like bloody jewels, turning as the world turns. Simulataneously they inch across the sky and roar through the cosmos; simultaneously glitter prettily and burn with a power like nothing in all nine worlds.
A great golden stag broaches the horizon, curling up into the sky and dimming the light of the stars. It is running hard, nostrils flaring, chest pumping like bellows. There's a note of wild panic in its eyes.
You hear the howls before you see the wolves. The hunters on its tail. The bigger of the two, black and vast and hungry-looking, a shadow against the blood-red sky, snaps at the heels of its prey.
The second wolf, muzzle bloodied with silver. Slower, weighed down with a full belly, yet its yellow eyes are bright and keen. And its teeth are just as sharp.
They will catch him, you know. In time. But today the stag escapes them, slipping below the horizon, and the blood-splashed stars prick the night again, twinking ruby and silver. The wolves slow to a trot, and the second raises its bloody muzzle to howl...
Then the first wolf turns, and notices you, and the force of its regard blasts and shreds you like the worst winter gale. It is all wolves, all monsters, all bad men, the destroyers and the ravagers and the enemies of hope. It is Fenrir, and Garm, and Sköll, and Hati, and Urdakott, and that smiling psychopath Loki, who left you out on the ice.
And then a face pushes forward, through the fading image of the wolf. Surtr.
He looks down at you, eyes flat behind the discs of his spectacles, and you realise you're on the floor. "When we found your bed empty," he says, in his bass growl, "We thought you had fled."
There's a question there. And perhaps, perhaps, something like relief.
Ylva and Skuld #603
there, sure enough, something moves. Crossing the breadth of the street to the base of the steps, it seems to flicker between forms. Now a man, beautiful blue-eyed and pale, swathed in ragged finery; now a withered corpse, naked and blue with cold; now a wolf crouched low, scenting the trail, its coat painted in in blue and grey.
Abruptly, Skuld is seized by a chill. Your own footprints are clear – dashed lines through the otherwise unbroken snow.
It leaves no prints at all. BANG BANG The bullet tears through Skuld's target, vanishing into the snow behind with a puff of white. It staggers. The man, the wolf, they look up at you, with eyes bright blue and hungry.
Then there is only the long-dead corpse, already stiff as it topples sideways.
Snow begns to cover it almost instantly.
Silence returns to the city; your breath, your heartbeats, are the only sound you can hear. Your every nerve is wired, awake to any sound, any flicker of movement.
But there is only the gentle fall of snow.
You remember... a stage. An impression of movement, lithe and irresistably compelling. The raw emotion, the urgent, confusing need which flooded a mind just emerging from childhood. And with that emotion, you are there. A boy again, staring up at the pale gold-scribed creature as they dance above the sword, as they spin and form graceful shapes. Not much older than you, really, but so far beyond, so far removed, as to be like touching the sun. You can smell the people around you. Hear the faint whipping thrum of the dart-and-rope as Miekke weaves it about them. See the sheen of sweat on their pale limbs.
Then the memory, your...sense of the scene... changes. And across the stage, in the crowd, you are being watched. A woman; tall, ice-white, with eyes crackling with fire. There's a terrible lurch of recognition, of realisation that you know her.
Then she steps up, is striding across the stage towards you. You start back. But Miekke moves elegantly with her, makes her part of their languid dance, and the dart and rope that spins around them has become a weighted noose. Skuld bends to sweep up the sword from beneath Miekke's feet, and in her hand it warps and shimmers; she holds a wolf, a snake, a bloody spear.
The two dance close, bodies pressed, moving as one, the noose blurring about them as they spin. Faster, faster. The crowd are stamping their feet, roaring for blood. The stage is a swirl of snow-white flesh and ash and knotted rope. Faster and faster and faster still, a blizzard, a whirlwind of snow and blood and death. The beat is the clash of swords on shields; the roar of the crowd the cries of the dead and dying.
Then with a stamp and a crash of sudden silence, the dancers... freeze. Wrapped in each others' arms, the rope wound round their throats.
Skuld's arm thrown out. The spear, cast long. It arcs over your head, the crowd, the battlefield.
"I dedicate these deaths..." the dancers whisper as one.
"Hey." A boot prods you. You open your eyes. Alfvin, one of Surtr's guys, is standing over you. You're in a courtyard you don't remember coming to, near the town's main gate. A thin crust of snow crumbles off you as you rise stiffly to your feet. "You doze off or something?"
Behind him - hooded, older but utterly unmistakable, is Miekke. In the flesh.
You go limp in your hazmat suit, eye working back and forth like the brushstrokes of a frenzied artist, not just perceiving but painting the soul of this place onto your brain. You see yourself, prone and twitching in the dark places beneath the hall; see Been, all numbers and guilt, muttering in math as he diagrams and annotates the flow, the pipes and valves and cisterns that have tamed the roaring cauldron, the untamable torrent, Hvergelmir, from which all other rivers flow. That holy water, bound by iron and runes, churns and boils up from the underworld, and is funnelled and channelled and put to use - yoked and tamed by the works of those who came before.
Up from the spaces beneath, your mind's-eye travels. And here is all life, all its mysteries and contradictions. Love and hate and song and war and death and birth, laughter and sorrow; these walls are steeped in the stories of mankind, drenched in them. In the tales of the gods, who are dead. It is an echo chamber; the howl of the blizzard, the maelstrom, reverberates and resonates in these halls, in Ragnhall, as history and myth are retold, again and again, layering anew each time until the world-as-it-was is buried, vanished, swallowed up by the remix and reinvention of how-it-was and how-it-is. Have things always been like this? You sense the earth beneath you fighting back, trying to reassert itself, but it is... so weak. It can barely remember what it was - only that it was... otherwise than this.
Your mind's eye soars, up and up, through the elegant hammerbeam roof of Ylva's hall, and the petty settlement of Logger Town spreads itself about you, a pitiful huddle of warmth and life against the encroaching cold. And you sense it is encroaching; implacable, patient, the blizzard grows in strength, Fimbulwinter will not be denied... yet the gods are dead, Ragnarok has been and gone, and still this little patch of defiance, huddled in the lee of a woodland so ancient and strange that even the alfar, deep to the south and deep in denial, burning themselves out to hold back the blizzard, would shudder to set foot there.
Up and up and further up, until the clouds glint around you with held-back frost. And here is a fine view - all of Midgard stretched out before you, as you rest on this highest seat. You settle in Hliðskjálf, feel the imprint of Odin's backside on that ancient stone, and look out as the Allfather might; yet you have two eyes to his one, and you see a world encased in ice. The giants have won, and only here, in this farthest corner of the world, does life remain.
Protected? Or simply left 'til last?
From Hliðskjálf you look up, and see a sky flecked with blood-red stars. The wolf stands over its celestial prey, gorging on silver flesh, and the eye of the doe is black and sightless...
You plummet. Down, the wind howling about you, or is that howling the wolf at your heels? Down and down, straining to return to your own self, to tether your spirit...
And you open your eyes with a start, and a strange stab of pain in your leg. Already the details of your vision are fading, rendering into abstracted impressions.
But one thing remains clear. The howl of the wolf, silver heartsblood staining its jaws, as the pack descends.
Something is coming. Coming here, you're sure. And chaos follows in its wake.
He decides he's been here before. It is the top of the world - and the bottom. The lord can go back, or he can enter. He almost looks back, hearing the trees cease their growling behind him, but decides better of it. One foot after the other, he wades into the rushing black river, feeling nothing. The lord keeps his eyes on the hunter of the far bank, closer and closer.. The forge-child is down to his neck, and stops, for he knows the current will seize him if he tries to push his luck.
Where the lord had stood on the bank, a child now yells from the river, beckoning across the flow with a commanding question. It is all lips, no sound. Just silence. On the far bank, the hunter staggers under the weight of the question. Colours swirl behind and around him, all the colours of Bifrost, flickering and incoherent, trampled into dust by the march of the dead. Behind you, the shattered gates of Asgard hang open, the forges cold.
The hunter frowns. "This isn't right." His feet are encased in ice, creeping down the bank of the river like a live thing. The water begins to freeze, radiating out. The ice is up to his knees, now. His waist. He twists, as if hearing something behind him. "I must...!" He tails off, uncertain. Looks at the runebound horn in his hand. "Hasn't this... already happened?" As he raises it towards his lips, the ice encases him entirely.
The leading edge of the ice rushes across the river towards you, around you, trapping you half-in, half-out. A strange ship is coming downstream towards you, seemingly drifting through the ice as though it were not there. The dead crew it, blue and cold in their silent ranks. The helmsman smirks at you. "I can see how this must be confusing," Loki says, then turns to his crew. "All out! Turn Asgard upside-down! Again!"
You watch, struggling against the embrace of ice. The dead disembark, march silent through the gates of heaven. You sense they are searching for something.
Meanwhile Loki steers the ship to the far bank, jumps down beside the hunter. He sighs, glances your way. "Wyrd can be such a bitch," he says, and his eyes are knowing. He turns away, embraces the frozen hunter. Ice swallows him in an instant, and you only then realise they both have daggers at each other's back.
The ice that traps you is rising, the cold burrowing deep into your bones. You struggle against it, but the world goes white.
As they walk she stares up into the darkening sky, following Skuld more by sound than sight, the snowflakes swirling and dancing in patterns that almost seem meaningful if you only look long enough. The blizzard is coming, but here it's still mostly quiet, the crunching of the snow under their feet louder than the soft keening of the wind among the ruins. Ylva, you're looking up into the darkening sky, the snow weaving patterns across your sight. So you're not your usual gainly self when your foot catches on something under the snow. The white rises to swallow you, crashes hard and cold against your bare skin, worms under or through the layers of cloth.
You bounce back up quick as you can, pull yourself up on the pale cold hand Skuld offers.
But it ain't Skuld.
A man, beautiful blue-eyed and pale, swathed in ragged finery, grips your hand; there's a flicker, a disconnect like the world just stuttered, and you stand facing a withered corpse, naked and blue with cold; then a wolf, teeth locked on your wrist, ready to bite down.
"I tried to warn you," the dead god says, his eyes alight with cold fire. "You shouldn't have returned, father. Only the dead rule here now."
Those burning eyes flick to the towering edifice you've just fled, and something like pity dims their fire for a moment. "And see what has become of poor stupid Thor?" Ylva feels a fearless fire inside her, the impatience filling her growing intolerable.
"Speak plainly or shut your mouth, corpse. I have no time for your riddles."
Face down in the snowdrift, she mumbles "And I'm not your father".
"Are you not?" the dead thing says, and then cocks its head as if hearing some distant call. Something changes, something in its posture, its bearing - like the difference between a wolf and a kicked dog...
In the east, the blizzard is rising.
"Well. My mistake, then. You have his stink all over you. A lover, perhaps? Or another of his by-blows?" You feel its teeth tighten on your wrist. "I need to find him, mortal. Tell me where greybeard is hiding." Ylva is torn between fear and awe and anger, trying very hard not to let the latter win out as she's keenly aware of the wolf's teeth against her skin.
"If he can hide from you then surely I could not find him."
Before she can catch herself she continues, "And if there's any stink on me other than human filth, I would welcome it." Skuld, you bend to lift Ylva... and you stagger as the world seems to shift beneath your feet. The white of the snow, the dark shadows of the dead city, it all blurs sideways...
And when the colours stop running, you're standing beside the hallmistress, one hand on her shoulder. A dead man grips her other wrist.
Burning blue eyes in a corpse's face. "You." There's a figure blazing with brilliant light. Ylva, you feel its heat blister your skin. Then, the cold fingers of a dead man.
The corpse god is looking from one of you to the other. "Is this another of your tricks?" He sounds weak, uncertain. A second time he stiffens, turns to look east, distracted. Ylva, you feel that burning, grave-chill, needletooth grip loosen on your wrist for a second.
Through the dead city, a figure approaches from the east. Out of the blizzard. The moment the corpse god's grip loosens, Ylva tries to pull free. Her anger is fierce now - anger at being hunted, anger at being accosted by these cryptic dead gods who refuse to stay dead or admit they're alive, anger at fate for being unclear about what she should do.
"If it was, why would I tell you? Figure it out for yourself, corpse."
Grabbing hold of Skuld, Ylva tries to will herself back to Midgard, to leave the dead god to his dead god business. "Because..." He is looking towards the approaching figure, realises too late that you've slipped away. "It's me or her, father."
There's no sign of the wolf now, no sign of that brilliant beautiful figure that burned itself into your eye. There's only the corpse. And he doesn't seem to even try to catch you as you flee.
You glance back, and see him bow his head before the approaching figure - a slip of a girl, hooded in shadow. Who reaches up to wrap slim pale arms around his neck, raises her hooded face to his, and kisses him deep.
There's something... terrible in the dead god's expression as their lips meet. Lust and loathing tangled all together.
Then a gust of rising wind blows snow across your vision, and the two of them are gone.
And you're staggering arm in arm through deep snow. The dead city's broken towers rising high above you.
And the blizzard is all around you.
So you lie in the snow, in each other's arms, and you doze. You dream a little, maybe; of the gods you learned in stories, and the gods who seem more and more to be intruding into your own.
You dream of the Allfather, one eye flashing. Dead at Ragnarok, or supposed to be, but here he is, runes dropping leaden from his tongue to spit and sizzle as they hit the snow. Driving back the blizzard.
You dream of Loki - not the smiling psychopath who prowls the ice wastes, but Loki Laufeyjarson, bane and boon to the Aesir, bound screaming beneath the earth after one joke too far. Bright Baldur dead at his brother Hod's hand, a dart of mistletoe through his heart. Consigned to Hel Half-Dead's realm, to sit at her side as consort.
You know the stories, you've sung the songs. You know how this is supposed to go. Fire and ice, at the end, as the dead march on Asgard and the winter wind blows through the golden halls. It all sinks back into the waters.
But here again is Odin. And with his one eye he winks at you...
...and you wake, to silence.
You're feeling it settle into and over you - not calm, far from calm, but a strange kind of separation from yourself. The noise, the acrid stink of cordite, the percussive snap of each aimless bullet. The howl, somewhere, of a wounded man. The foul smell of someone who's shat themselves, or maybe just taken a bullet in the guts and guaranteed themselves a slow and agonising death.
None of this is in the songs you sing. But this, this is the path to Valhalla - in blood and chaos and indignity. The rune carved on your chest is burning, burning like the wound were new. Your fingers are numb on the pistol grip. You rise to one knee, turning, lowering the rifle, keening a song of death and glory as your finger tightens on the trigger.
There is a moment. You remember Miekke dancing, long ago. A spear hurled high.
And you level your rifle across a vast, unending battlefield. A plain strewn with broken shields, shattered swords, discarded spears.
And bodies enough to end the world.
Overhead, in the moonless dark, you hear... no, feel... the thump of enormous wings. Something vast is circling.
One last breath escapes Freyr's mouth, a cloud of breath escaping rows of clenched teeth and rising to dissipate mere fingers above his brow. He holds it there and goes silent. The hunter rests on the bank of the iceflow. He looks for his quarry on the other side - the one who will receive his gift of death. Where is it? Horned, furred, caught by arrow from the bow? The rifle scans the battlefield, a circle of blood and bone and fire lost in the vast dark husk of Ymir, the cosmic man. And all along, it keeps flapping, the thundering wings of omen, vibrating into the hunter's very marrow.
Freyr, you hear the great flap of wings overhead, look out across the vast and lifeless battlefield, and know you are seeing Ragnarok. The end that was. Or will be? Where is Loki? Where is Miekke? Dead among the countless dead, you sense. Part of you is screaming, pumping the trigger in wild rage... but that part of you is hamr, just meat and muscle.
Your higher soul, your hugr, is gripped by something... strange. A sense of dread, as those great wings thump overhead and you look up to see the stars eclipsed by some huge, circling shadow. And for the first time in your short, strange life, you understand what terror is. You've heard others speak of it, but it's been until now an alien thing. A concept.
Now, though. Something vast is hunting you across this sea of corpses. Run, your hamr tells you. Abandon your hate, your mission, your charge.
Freyr, you're frozen a heartbeat too long, as your hugr and hamr war for control. And with a whump and a rush of stinking wind like a battlefield of decaying corpses, a vast reptillian shape crashes down heavy in a flurry of snow and bodies, claws pinning you to the frozen earth.
A vast dark head descends, and Níðhöggr regards you with gleaming eyes. You feel the weight of its awful regard, near as crushing as the sheer physical weight pressing down on your chest. "Ah," the dragon purrs, and it sounds so horrifically pleased. "The one that got away."
You feel its claw start to pierce your side...
Then a deafening mechanical roar splits the air. The dragon's head snaps sideways, and light floods over it - giving you a moment's terrible sight of teeth and rotting scales, of the bodies that hang damned from Níðhöggr's foul wings - before everything becomes tangled and confusing. Pain from your side, brilliant light, . Something massive crashes hard into the dragon - or has it just become man-sized? - and it launches itself away skywards. Bullets are suddenly singing past you once again, and the orange firelight is casting everything in stripes of orange and black. Your rifle is in the snow beside you, its barrel steaming.
And Miekke - near naked, streaked with blood - is a couple of feet away, on the back of a roaring snowmobile.
Miekke, as Freyr stumbled up and lurches towards your bike, you can feel the blood running down your back from where the bullet clipped your shoulder, hot blood in the cold night. From around the circle the Wolves are still firing, their gunshots muffled by the ringing in your ears, by the hammer of your heart. You press yourself low against the bike, and suddenly you can feel the bullet still inside you, as it grates against the bone. You howl at the sudden pain, at the feeling of wrongness, the feeling of violation. Your vision blurs - with tears, with faintness. There's an awful sense of retreating within yourself... no, of being roughly pushed aside. And you remember... something.
A line of poetry. A song.
Freyr… A smell intrudes. Among the blood and snow and cordite, the stink of flesh... burning. And some part of you sees the rune burning in the flesh of Miekke's shoulder, molten and burning like a brand.
Miekke, the pain is receding. You feel stronger somehow.
No, not dying. Something... more.
A throaty chuckle erupts unbidden from your mouth. You start in shock. Who has stolen your voice? You fight back. Take back your body your soul your voice your heart.
The other relinquishes its grip. Steps back with a mocking bow, and a twinkle in his one good eye.
Miekke and Freyr #811
here's a strange sense of dislocation, Freyr, as you grit your teeth against Miekke's probing hand, and for a moment you are both Miekke and Freyr; you feel their cold fingers in your side, and feel his bloody heat beneath your fingers. The delicate bones of their pale arching spine; the so-welcome roughness of his grip upon your neck.
Miekke; you feel that same duality. The heat and the cold. The need and the want. Sensuality and rage.
And then there is only the single you - looking out through a single eye. In the orange heat of the old dwarf's furnace, stripped to the waist and striped with sweat and soot, weak from hunger, your throat torn from runesong, your beard singed and thrown back over your bare right shoulder, your arms shaking with fatigue, the black-feathered shell of your Hugr shattered on the anvil before you.
You whisper "No..." as two of the clay figures, the Fylgja you have poured your self into, crumble back into dust.
From its perch on your left shoulder, lone Muninn gives a mournful cry.
And a single knock, vast and booming, shakes the ironbound door of Brokkr's forge.
"What are you doing, you fools?"
The question, hoarse and furious and leaden with fatigue. Even as you speak it, you know it's not rhetorical. Miekke Strange, sharing a mind with that one, and in this one's body. Did they invite the man into their other form? Were they intermingled without their intervention? No, this was their dream. The other's presence was accident, result of something still not understood. Something to be known.
"Trying to grow, Allfather. Trying to understand." ???? The second dreamer is inert, faint and silent. Its presence, dim and small, sinks into the cast of a single sensation which washes over the body - a lurking, germinating anxiety, washing over in shivering waves of somatic dysphoria in the rhythm of a latent, dying heartbeat. As a strange tic or compulsion, the single eye is urged with each wave to peer deep into the flames of the forge.
Miekke, Freyr "You are not here to understand!" He roars, and you all feel the strain, the rawness of a throat parched for water. "You are vessels, not partners! A mask, not the face it hides. You are not-"
"Odin!" The door stands open. A woman there, beautiful but barely more than a girl, posed half in the light of the forge, half in shadow. Her face angled sly in near silhouette, one eye filled with delight that is horrifying in its intensity. There is something wrong with her face, you sense. With the half cloaked in shadow.
"No!" Fear, dizzying and visceral, seizes the body you inhabit. "You've led her right to-"
Freyr, the fire you were losing yourself in, it's vanished in an eyeblink. The heat, too; you shiver in the sudden cold, in the gently falling snow that drifts down through the vast gaping hole in the roof of this once-great hall – the shields that thatched it and the spears that held it, long since rotted to dust.
You are yourselves again. Clothed in your own true flesh. But you feel something... missing.
Surrounded by open doorways, you stand amidst the ruins of one last great feast, still mouldering on the tables. Rust-ruined breastplates strewn all about amidst the rotting benches, half-buried in ash and snow.
"-me..." A dusty, drawn-out croak from the high table. From the throne, and the figure cloaked in grey, A spear across its knees. A wolfskin draped across his shoulders. Slowly it raises its head. Beneath the broad brim of the hat, dead flesh; a withered husk, grey as beard and cloak. One shrivelled eye stares blindly out at you, and the mouth is twisting, wringing out a long low moan.
“Who’s there?” a voice from the shadows at the edge of the hall, quavering and weak. “More visitors?"
You turn. Out of the shadows at the edge of the hall, a huge figure slowly emerges… tentatively, feeling his way as a blind man might. "Why do you return here?" the huge old man says. "What do you hope to find?"
"The one that got away, of course." The woman, the girl, is approaching down the length of the hall. Hands out to her sides, half a smile on half a face. The other half is a corpse's snarl, flesh mottled and dark, lips drawn back from pale protruding teeth. Eye white and unseeing.
"Hel." The massive, ancient blind man shrinks back, but lifts his face desperately, bravely. "How many times? How many? He is not here..."
The goddess of the unworthy dead draws nearer. And her living eye flicks wickedly between you both. "You're sure about that...?" She says.
???? The interloper stands at the dreamer's side, now more clearly present, a short child with a bare scalp. He makes a hissing noise that echoes, and begins to grow and age. From shimmering follicles upon his scalp grow and extend stalks of gold, lengthening into great long locks of sunlight like the roots of a tree. They reach down his back, reaching for his hips, before the man, now bearded and old, begins to side-step, silently, closer to the dreamer.
The man, the radiant sunlight about his brow and torso reaching its zenith and beginning to whiten, places a calloused left hand around the dreamer's back and onto their farther shoulder and another hand on their right hip, all while he stares down the approaching figure. A triple drumbeat reverberates from his form across the hall like a murmurous heartbeat, and his long arms lift the dreamer up and into his embrace.