Where All Roads Lead

Chapter 34

April 10th, 2024

“So how does this work, exactly?” Cat asked.

The pair of them had moved upstairs to the barren room Hildegard used for her own magic practice. It was little more than blank walls, floors, and ceiling, as the candles and target dummies, as well as jars of material reagents had all been cleared out of it.

“We must enter a dream,” Mary said, stooped over the ground as she traced a circle of fine white ash across the ground. “From there I can lead you into the dream of the Lady Huldra.”

“Right…” Cat nodded along. “But what then? The way you said it made it sound like Nidhoggr was in her mind, not her dreams.”

“Something you must understand,” Mary continued, working even as she spoke. “Is that Huldra is a unique brand of witch, one that occurs very rarely across history and culture. She is a being for which the lines between mortal, witch, and god are all quite thin. Are you familiar with the deity known as Hecate?”

“I think I’ve heard of her,” Cat nodded.

“Hecate is another such ‘True Witch’, in her case she is known as the Unbound Witch of the Crossroads,” Mary said. “What they are and where they come from is…uncertain to say the least. I only know what I do because Lady Huldra created me. They might simply be divine aberrations, those caught in a nebulous place between mortality and godhood, or perhaps they are all merely minor aspects, living incarnations of the great forces of magic. What you need to know, however, is that they are as powerful as they are inhuman.”

“I think I understand,” Cat said. “But it doesn’t answer my question.”

“Lady Huldra is known as the Unsealing Witch of the Dreaming. The separation between her mind and the realm of Dreams is so thin as to be almost nonexistent. She can walk through dreams with a thought, bring order to the chaos between the dreams, and enact the will of dreams upon reality. We can reach her very core through the Dreaming alone.”

“Well, you say it will work,” Cat said. “So I’ll trust you at least.”

Truth be told, she didn’t really understand everything of what she was getting herself into, but she knew enough. Enter the mind of this True Witch and slay the dragon within. If she succeeded, Hildegard would be cured.

She had not asked what would happen if she failed.

“Be seated in the circle,” Mary said, and Cat took a seat, crossing her legs with her sword in her lap. Mary moved to sit across from her, making sure the folds of her long white cloak were within the edges of the circle.

“Normally we would enter your dream, and from there follow a trail of dreams into that of Lady Huldra,” Mary said, checking to make sure the circle was unbroken. “But we are short on time, and I am not an average Oneiromancer, so we are going to…brute-force this somewhat.”

“How exactly?” Cat said nervously, hands tight around the scabbard of her sword.

“I will be using my connection to Lady Huldra to enter her dream directly.”

“Is that…worse?” Cat asked. “Sorry I’m still new to this whole ‘dream walking’ thing.”

“It will be…somewhat disorienting,” Mary said after a moment’s consideration. “But you should be able to fight at full power.”

“Do I get any cool dream powers?” Cat asked eagerly. “Like I have dreams where I can fly, will I be able to fly when I’m there?’

“Probably not,” Mary said. “I will be working against Lady Huldra to keep the dream stable. It will be as…real as I can make it.”

“Why not stack the odds a little?” Cat asked. “These are dreams right?”

“Please bear in mind,” Mary said. “That dreams are highly mutable to both sides, and a nightmare is still a dream. By keeping the dreamscape stable, it ensures that they will not try to gain an advantage either.”

“So how do I keep it stable? Cat asked.

“That is for me to contend with,” Mary said. “Your only duty is to slay the spirit of Nidhoggr within Lady Huldra’s soul. If you attempt to alter the will of the dream on your own, then it will be your willpower measured against Nidhoggr’s as it will try to do the same.”

“Alright, sounds simple enough,” Cat nodded. “I’m ready.”

“Good,” Mary said. “Because I already began the ritual.”

“Wait…what?” Cat said, but even before her words had finished her vision began to blur, her eyelids grew heavy, and a sudden wave of sleep washed over her. She never stood a chance of resisting as her eyes fell shut against her mind’s protest, shoulders slumping as her head nodded, with Mary’s shining turquoise eyes being the last thing she saw before she fell asleep.

She was in a dark forest when she woke up, the trees and bushes around her lit by a pale blue moon that sent its light down in great silver shafts through the treetops. She was still sitting, and she was glad to see her sword was still in her lap. Taking it in her hands, she stood up and looked around, hoping to see some sign of Mary, or anywhere she was supposed to go.

As she looked, the trees before her seemed to open, their trunks and branches bowing outwards to form a path through the trees. As a trail took form, shining turquoise spheres of light appeared in a line above the trail, casting their light down upon the newly-cleared trail.

“Guess I should go this way…” Cat said as she nervously set off down the trail.

There was still no sign of Mary, but she was a dream spirit after all; maybe she was there right now, invisible to Cat. More worryingly, maybe she wasn’t there at all, and Cat was walking right into a trap set up by Nidhoggr and the enslaved Dream Witch. The color of the spheres, however, were the precise shade of blue-green as Mary’s eyes, giving them a reassuring presence. Even if she couldn’t see or hear her, it made her feel as if Mary was close by.

Swallowing the growing fear in her chest, Cat began to walk along the trail.

The path had been level at first, but it soon came to shift upwards until Cat was climbing a winding uphill trail along a mountainside. The trees grew sparser as the wind grew cold, and soon a gentle dust of snow began to fall as she hiked further up the mountain. Time was difficult to factor in. She was still in a dream of sorts so she couldn’t easily determine the passage of minutes or hours. By the time she was nearing the mountain’s peak, it felt simultaneously as if she had spent the better part of a day hiking, and as if she had spent no time at all.

The mountain plateaued at the top, creating a shelf of relatively flat, snow-covered stone that rose above the last of the forest. As Cat cleared the treeline, her breath steady as she worked her way towards the peak, she could see that while the moon was bright, the sky was far from clear.

Great dark forms twisted across the sky, arching from one horizon to the next as they twisted, intersected, and divided above the mountain like a great net that contained the world that met directly above her head. Though a few stars could be seen from the gaps in this colossal barrier, everything within, even the moon, seemed to be held beneath the great dark forms which rose to meet in the sky directly above them. Cat stared up at the great shadows in the sky, and she recalled part of a story that Angel had told her a year before.

There is a great tree that holds the cosmos together, all the worlds are held between its branches, and the stars rest upon its crown. That is Yggdrassil, the World Tree, and its roots had been Nidhoggr’s prison. With this in mind, Cat could see how this great barrier could be the great roots of a cosmic tree. The dragon could escape its prison in body, but the shadow of its mind still lurked there.

She was on the right course.

Catarina drew her sword as she neared the mountaintop. Caeruleamor’s shining silver-white metal seemed to glow with its own light as she drew it, gleaming in the frosted air. Snow crunched under her feet and her breath came in wisps of steam as she rounded a patch of boulders that marked the end of her ascent and arrival at the mountain’s peak.

As it had looked from below, the mountaintop was a broad flat area of stone, covered in a few centimeters of snow that gave it an almost unearthly quality. Standing on the white with nothing around save for the moon, stars, and the roots of the great Tree, it was almost like standing on the surface of an alien moon. She stepped forward, leaving a lonely track of footprints in the snow behind her as she looked out across the horizons and saw the expansive dark forest below.

At the center of the peak, from the darkness in the sky, something began to form. It seemed to draw itself out of nothing, a great bulky body that ripped itself free from between the beams of silver moonlight. Steadily it grew larger and longer, great rolls of dark flesh billowing outwards and resting on the ground, an immense serpentine shape coming into being.

As it drew more of itself into existence, the dark shadow-stuff began to gain definition. Lines began to harden and form into a skeletal visage. Flesh withered as quickly as it formed, leaving great patches of exposed muscle and bone visible across its ever-rotting form. A pair of enormous batlike wings began to spread, their fingers withered away until only scraps of dark flesh remained. Its entire body was corpselike, decaying flesh bound and tied together into the hulking form of a draconic monster.

From the billowing coils, fearsome claws, and great wings a head began to emerge. Rising from the mass of its body, a fearsome serpentine head, scaled skin clinging tightly to sharp bone, stared down at Catarina. It was surrounded by a mane of horns, great spikes that breached the skin where it was drawn too tightly, and from the deep shadows of its eye sockets came a pair of burning cold blue lights.

It was a massive dragon, its length impossible to determine as it coiled and undulated upon itself, but even seeing it now Cat could sense that it was merely a shadow of something larger. The air around it seemed to flicker in a dark haze, shadow smoke rose from its body to make it indistinct and almost transparent in some places. As it emerged from nowhere, the sky itself seemed to grow dark around her. Cat gripped the hilt of her sword tightly with both hands as she stepped forward towards the dragon. It opened its mouth, lined with countless teeth as it spoke.

And they come alone, this little silver thing.

Bright eyed and foreign forged, weak and lost.

In far flung dream they seek, the unseating of a greater being.

Of dragon, death, and rotting root. Of darkness from the deep times drawn.

 

Nidhoggr spoke in a voice that was not its own. The dragon had chewed on the corpses of the slain for countless years and now it spoke with their combined shrieking voices. Its breath was rot itself, as sickening to smell as it was to listen to, and there was an otherworldly echo to it that made Cat’s very bones shake. It was a tremendous voice, powerful and terrifying, forced through the mouth of this dark serpent before her. The message was clear, even if she could not understand the words. She was alone against something far more than a dragon, and even this was but a mere shadow of the real thing.

Cat raised her sword and pointed its edge at Nidhoggr.

“I’ve come to slay you, dragon!” She shouted at it. “So I can free this witch and heal my sister! I won’t be stopped by a serpent like you!”

It sounded a bit flat in her ears as declarations went, though she wondered if it could even understand her. She had heard the words it said before, but the noises it had made weren’t quite right, as if it had been speaking another language entirely and it was the intent, not the words, that had reached her mind.

Among the names of serpents, the striking malice sinks deep.

The poison of the world tree, the devourer of flesh

From the shadow mountains rise, and cold peaks dwell upon

No steel can harry ancient flesh, no mind pursue what dwells within

 

It spoke again in that strange verse-like tone with that same overwhelming voice. From the cruel edge and the hint of dark laughter alone Cat could tell she was being mocked. She doubted she would get much in the way of banter from this monster, but she didn’t need to get it angry. Cat just needed to kill it.

Cat charged forward, sword raised as she kicked up small clouds of loose snow with each step, leaving a trail of wet stone behind as she broke the unperturbed surface of the mountaintop. With an almost casual ease the great tail of the serpent swung out to meet her, a whip-like tendril of shadow and diseased flesh that tore through the air. Cat rolled under it, not slowing down as she drew closer to the beast.

Nidhoggr readied itself, sharp claws digging into the earth as it opened its great mouth, whipping up a great storm of snowflakes as it uncoiled itself. From deep within its gullet came a plume of sickly black and green gas that spread towards her, stinking of death and rot as it spread through the air.

Cat raised one hand, focusing her magic as the snowflakes surrounding them were redirected towards her hand, forming into a barrier that collapsed into steam at her command, creating a gaseous shield that collided with Nidhoggr’s poison breath and forming a massive plume of vapor that filled the mountaintop.

A few great whips of its massive serpentine body cleared the air, dispersing both Cat’s steam and the poison gas harmlessly into the sky. Cat had not stopped running, eliminating the distance between her and the dragon. Magic wasn’t going to kill this monster; she needed to get it in sword range.

Nidhoggr didn’t seem to realize the danger Cat’s sword posed, and it threw all of its great bulk into the next attack, massive coils undulating as it moved to surround Catarina. Claws shattered the stone as it dragged itself along, great wings flapping until they were practically in a snowstorm, all the snow that had been on the ground whipped up into a frenzy around them.

Nidhoggr’s great head pulled back, arching into the striking position of a snake, and Cat readied herself, magic flowing through her body as the slick ground hardened into ice beneath her feet. With a snap of its fangs the dragon struck, head whipping down on her with terrifying speed. Its bulk, however, made it slow enough for Cat to avoid, throwing herself out of the reach of its jaws as her feet slid across the ice with practiced ease. The dragon had missed its strike, and worse still left its chest exposed.

Cat gripped her sword with both hands, pulling it back before driving it with all her might into the creature’s chest of withered muscle and grey sinew. The silver blade, shining with a light of its own, tore through the Nidhoggr’s flesh, and where it cut it left dancing blue lights in its wake.

Nidhoggr screamed with a roar that echoed across the mountain as its body lashed in pain. Cat barely had enough time to pull her sword free and run before she was crushed by the great coils of the writhing serpent, needing to fling herself to the ground to avoid its massive bulk.

The reverberating echo of the Nidhoggr’s roar of pain made her very bones shudder, as if it was screaming with the voices of all the dead it had consumed.

No steel of man or dwarf she swings, this thing of light and mortal flesh

It brings a blade of Urd to bear, biting tooth of burning starlight

Of glossy pinion made and forged, from fallen wing its power plucked

The vicious voice from great tree’s crown, by serpent fang made silent tune

“That’s right!” Cat grinned as she got to her feet. “I’m not some pushover to be thrown around. This sword was made from one of Angel’s feathers! And that means it can hurt even something as powerful as you!”

The great dragon coiled and uncoiled its serpentine body as it prepared for its next strike, tail whipping through the air as it gathered itself together before lunging at Cat, throwing all of its massive weight towards her. Cat steadied herself, taking hold of her sword with both hands as ice began to spread from her feet, covering the mountaintop around her in a thick layer of dangerously slick ice.

Nidhoggr’s coils slid loosely across the ice, but its great claws easily smashed through it to keep itself steady as it swung its long tail towards her. Cat ducked low, bringing her sword up in a fierce upward jab that caught the flesh of the dragon’s tail. The withered muscle and stretched skin burned and sizzled away at the touch of the blade, but it still had the incredible force of the dragon behind it, and Cat was thrown bodily off her feet and sent skidding across the icy ground.

Her hand dragged across the ice, her magic slowing her slide and keeping her steady, but the dragon recovered more quickly than she did. Like the blow of a sledgehammer the dragon’s claws came down on top of her, its massive hand pinning her to the icy ground as its claws dug painfully into her shoulder and side, the massive weight of the dragon crushing down on her ribs.

Her breath was squeezed out of her chest, arms struggling for grip as she saw her sword, thrown from her hand, just out of her reach. As she stretched her arm, fingers trying to reach the end of the pommel, another squeeze from Nidhoggr sent a wave of spasming pain through her as she felt herself being slowly crushed beneath it.

The great jagged maw of Nidhoggr stooped low over her, empty blue eyes staring into her own as it opened its great maw. Its stench sent a nauseating sickness down her throat as she felt it burn and blister against her skin, the withering breath sucking the last of the air from her lungs as it spoke.

Of supple flesh and stitched bone, fragile daughter of Embla

No elder blood or carven name, brought low with just an empty hand

No dragons here stand, only darkness awaits

 

The dragon squeezed its claws again, and Cat screamed as she felt her ribs began to crack, the sharp claws cutting through her meager armor and into her flesh. Still the Nidhoggr spoke, and this time its words came through clearer.

Die and be mine

 

Cat’s eyes stung and watered, her vision hazy from the decaying breath of the dragon, but past its forest of teeth and down its dark maw she saw lights within its throat, burning blue like countless tiny eyes, staring out at her from within its endless stomach.

She was being simultaneously crushed, cut, and suffocated as the dragon drew out her death, but as it drew back its great serpent’s head, jaws open wide, she could see her death fast approaching as it prepared for the kill strike.

Cat tried to summon up what magic she could, reaching into her body’s native aether to cast a spell, any spell, but the battle and the intense pain of Nidhoggr’s crushing claws kept her firm calling up anything more than the weakest sparks.

As Nidhoggr drew itself up to its full height, head arched backwards like a cobra, she thought of what Mary had warned her of. This dream felt all too real, she had reached her very real limits and she had done little more than scratch the dragon. The thought of failure was almost as great a pain as Nidhoggr’s claws. She had come this far and died for nothing, lost in a dream.

Cat’s hands balled into fists. Mary’s rules be damned. This was a dream, she knew it was a dream, and she wasn’t about to be beaten in a dream. She didn’t need to call up her own native aether, she had all the fuel she needed if she desired it.

Nidhoggr’s head came down, bone-like fangs glistening in the moonlight, but as it did a dozen massive spikes of ice rose from the ground to meet it, impaling the jaws of the serpent like glistening blades of crystal. Most of them shattered on impact, unable to breach the Primordial’s hide, but it was enough to stop its strike, and more than that it was enough to loosen the dragon’s grip on her. She reached out as far as she could, stretching her hand to take hold of the hilt of her sword, willing the dream to nudge the sword into her hand.

With the familiar weight of the sword once more in hand, Cat swung it upwards, cutting a gash in Nidhoggr’s leg that caused it to release her as it edged backwards. Cat rolled to her feet, and while she tried to will the dream to dull the pain, it still came through as all too real. Her breath came in ragged pants, her legs shivering and the bloody wounds on her shoulder and side showing no signs of stopping, her face burned and she was still trying to blink the poison from her eyes.

“I’m not about to lose to some rotted out carcass!” She shouted defiantly, trying to buy time as her vision recovered. “Not even a shadow of the real thing! I won’t lose to you in real life and I definitely won’t lose to you in a dream!”

Lost in a dream far from home, the bitter drink of defeat

So far deep in delusion, unable to see the truth

The horns of Ragnarok blow, the Dark Hills empty

Trapped in a place before the World’s end, lost in a dream of the past

Cat’s vision had mostly returned, and she swallowed the pain in her body. Her hands tightened around the pommel of her sword.

“Maybe it is all just a dream,” Cat said. “Maybe none of it really matters. The new Rome we’ve built, the people I’ve helped, the new friends I’ve made…maybe it’s all just one last dream we’re having before the world really ends…but that’s enough for me!”

Cat stepped forward, pointing her sword at Nidhoggr.

“I’ll keep believing in that dream! I believe that the world can come back, better and stronger than it was! I believe that every person I help, every single person I save, will help the world a little more! I believe all of it matters! And more than anything else I believe in what I’m doing, in what I am! Even if it’s just a dream!”

Cat placed her left hand over her heart, feeling it beat even here in the dream. It was her dream to be a hero, to help everyone she could. But hers was one of countless dreams. It had been the dream of the wolves and the citizens of Rome to rebuild their city. It had been the dream of Vittorio in Sicily to see his country rebuilt. It had been the dream of Asha to earn a second chance and follow in Cat’s footsteps.

All of it had been nothing but dreams. But dreams could build cities, and dreams could kill dragons.

Catarina felt a warmth behind her, and the dark sky began to fill with a faint pink and yellow glow as the first rays of dawn approached, banishing the night.

Nidhoggr did not bother with reply, it charged her again, maw first, once more throwing all its weight behind its attack. Cat focused herself, digging her feet into the frozen ground as she braced herself, the coils and wingbeats of the serpent sending up another blizzard of snow as it opened its mouth impossibly wide to lunge forward and devour Cat, but this time she was ready for it.

At the last second, Cat lunged forward, closing the last meter between before driving the tip of her sword into the roof of Nidhoggr’s mouth, its own momentum forcing her entire sword through its jagged skull and piercing the creature’s brain. Her success, however, was short-lived as the colossal weight of the dragon kept moving, its inertia forcing her off her feet as she and the body of the massive black dragon were thrown from the mountaintop.

Cat rolled over stones and down the slope as the undulating body of the Primordial thrashed around her, massive coils smashing against the earth as it fell down the mountainside. Unable to find her footing, Cat fell to, rolling painfully across barren stone and missing the crushing coils of the dragon’s death throws by the skin of her teeth. She just needed a handhold, something to grab onto as her hands clung uselessly to the loose dirt and stones of the mountainside.

Whether by luck or the virtue of the dream she all but crashed into a warped and withered sapling that had taken root in the mountain’s slope. Clinging to it for dear life, Cat watched as the long sinewy body of Nidhoggr crashed into the forest below, toppling trees and shattering stone as  it coiled and uncoiled, its screams echoing across the landscape.

Cat continued to cling to the small tree, one arm and her legs wrapped tight around it as her free hand clung to her sword. As the last of Nidhoggr’s screams faded and silence began to settle across the dream, Cat looked toward the horizon and watched the sun slowly begin to rise, the early morning light banishing the great binding roots of Yggdrassil, leaving the sky clear save for the brightest stars.

“There is a power in dreams.”

Cat turned, almost jumping out of her skin as a figure seemed to simply appear next to her.

She was a tall willowy woman dressed in ornate robes crafted from rich silks with a long cloak of thin fur around her shoulders. She had the same glossy dark hair and blue-green eyes as Mary, but they were older eyes and her hair reached to her waist. She turned to Cat, fixing her shining eyes on her.

“It is rare for me to offer someone my gratitude, rarer still for that someone to be human,” She said. “But nonetheless you have earned it.”

“Ah…Lady Huldra?” Cat said.

“I am,” Huldra nodded. “And thanks to you I am for the first time in years truly myself again.”

“Well…you’re welcome,” Cat said, before adding awkwardly. “Well…i-if you’re grateful, I could use your help with-“

“Your sister,” Huldra nodded, her eyes turning form Cat towards the lightening horizon. “I will see to it that it is done.”

“Thanks…” Cat felt relief wash over her and she joined Huldra in silence staring off into the distance.

“Catarina!” Mary’s familiar voice, mixed for once with shock and surprise came next as the much smaller young woman appeared next to her opposite Huldra. “I…you actually…” She failed to summon words as she looked towards the devastation Nidhoggr’s body had left behind.

“What, didn’t think I had it in me?” Cat smiled.

“Well…I am impressed,” Mary said. “But I sensed you used the dream to your advantage. That should have let Nidhoggr beat you.”

“There are a few things you still do not understand, little mara,” Huldra said. “The Nidhoggr failed to utilize the dream because it was no longer its dream alone. The Dragon of Yggdrassil has long since forgotten the light and color of the sun.”

Huldra turned again to Catarina. “You did not try to manipulate Nidhoggr’s dream, but you called upon the power of your own. Through will alone you merged your dream with that of the dragon’s, melding the dreamlands together.”

“Can’t really say I know what that means…” Cat said sheepishly. “But it worked!”

“Simply put, your will was stronger than Nidhoggr anticipated.”

“Told it not to underestimate me,” Cat grinned.

“You have done a tremendous thing,” Huldra said. “But if you seek to challenge the Dragon of Yggdrassil again, understand that it will be expecting you, and you will not have the power of the dream behind you. What you fought was a shade of the real thing, a small shadow thrown against the wall, bound by the limits of the dream.”

“I don’t plan to stop,” Cat said. “No matter what. I won because of my dream, and I won’t give it up because I’m scared of a dragon.”

“Then the only advice I can give you before you wake up,” Huldra said. “Is to keep tight hold of that courage, and that dream.”

 

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The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa
JP Link:  https://www.jukepop.com/home/read/9551?chapter=69&sl=850

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