Into the Darkness
For those who know where to find them there are passages between the worlds. In the hallowed and ancient places where space begins to bend and the walls between the material and the spiritual grow weak. These passages are usually guarded by fierce beasts or ancient enchantments, and only those who know the way and have the power to walk them can ford the divisions between the living world and the places beyond.
In an ancient forest, where the roots of old trees meld and merge into a floor of sinewy wood and branches curve into great yawning arches, two women moved furtively from the threshold of one world into the next.
“And you’re sure this is the way?” The shorter one asked, glancing at the other. Her face was non-descript, and seemed to shift with the movement of light against it. A beam of moonlight from the night sky above caught wrinkles on her features and silver in her hair, but in the semi-dark starlight her face was young and full.
“It’s the path I took” The other one said. Her face was more constant, with stern and matronly features under a long curtain of midnight-dark hair, and shining teal eyes. “And it won’t be guarded anymore. Escaped prisoners rarely safeguard their prisons. All we need to do is find the door.”
“If there’s one thing I’m good at.” The first woman said “It’s finding a hidden way.”
She waved her hand through the air and the branches of the trees began to shine. Veins of silver light like serpents wound their way across the wood as they moved and slithered over them. She watched them with a keen eye as they flowed like water from one branch to another, through the roots and the veins of leaves as they began to converge upon a single arch of tree branches until it was shining like a silver doorway. As they watched, the space within the arch grew darker, becoming a yawning black portal that spewed mist out into the forest around them.
“That’s the way” The taller woman said as she stepped towards the portal.
“Where does it lead out?” The shorter one said, lowering her hand. “I’m still not caught up on you Norse and all your worlds.”
“Helheim” The taller one said “Down among the roots of the World Tree, where the sinners and the oathbreakers go and suffer in the well of serpents.”
“Lovely” the other said, irritation on her face.
“The way is open, Hecate. There’s no turning back now.”
“After you then, Huldra.”
The two witches, Huldra the Unsealing Witch of the Dreaming, and Hecate the Shifting Witch of the Crossroads, entered the yawning portal with no small amount of trepidation. Powerful though they might be, there were places where even gods feared to tread. It was never good to trespass on the domain of another.
Through the portal, the world seemed to expand in every direction around them. They found themselves ankle-deep in frigid water with a floor like gnarled wood beneath their feet. They could hardly see a few meters past their eyes, but the world around them seemed silent.
“Do you mind?” Hecate asked, glancing at Huldra. Pointing a hand itno the air, Huldra shot an arrow of bright green light into the sky before it expanded in a sudden burst, sending rays of revealing light into the area around them.
The world they found themselves in was one of pure devastation. Tree roots as thick around as buildings had been shattered into a sea of splinters, great spears of wood driven deep into every surface from the destruction of the roots. In all directions there was only shattered and fallen wood, hanging limply or lying dead in the cold water.
“So this is the place then?” Hecate asked.
“Yes” Huldra nodded “Nidhoggr’s former prison.”
“Before you released it” Hecate noted, and Huldra shot her an irritated look.
“I know, I know, you weren’t yourself” Hecate said “But the facts remain.”
“We should hurry” Huldra said curtly “Our presence won’t go unnoticed forever.”
“Very well” Hecate said “But what is it you hope to find here?”
“A solution” Huldra said “To Nidhoggr, to all of this. To being the process of fixing what’s gone wrong.”
“I don’t think you understand how correcting mistakes works.” Hecate said, her face a slightly younger mask than usual “When you break something, repairing it doesn’t mean ‘un-breaking’, it means putting it back together as best you can. Idioms aside, nothing broken can ever be as good as new.”
“I’m aware” Huldra tried to keep the irritation out of her voice “But I need to do something. I need to do anything I can.”
“And we shall” Hecate said, giving her a reassuring smile. “Let’s start searching.”
Together the two of them set off into the darkest part of Helheim, moving slowly through the devastation as they picked their way through fallen roots and forests of shattered timber.
“So if this realm belongs to Hel” Hecate said “Where is she?”
“No one is sure” Huldra said “Most believe she’s Nidhoggr’s prisoner somewhere. But without her presence, the malevolent spirits of this place grow more restless. The strongest follow Nidhoggr’s path of destruction and join it as more souls for her army of the undead.”
“How efficient” Hecate said “Kill as many as you can, and soon enough your victims shall rise to join your forces.”
“And Nidhoggr will continue until there is nothing left.” Huldra said “When the world is turned entirely to chaos, creation is undone, and it along with the other Primordials rule over the pandemonium that remains.”
“Thank you for the colorful picture” Hecate said “Now what is it you hope to find here?”
“A weapon” Huldra said “Or chains. Or at least a direction to go in order to find them.”
“Of course” Hecate’s face seemed to transform into that of a sly old woman “You can’t kill the beast, so try to get it back in the bag. It’s the logical step to take, though are we the ones to do it?”
“No, unfortunately” Huldra said “We’re too…unbound. Too separate from fate to play a large role in it. But I do believe we have a part to play when all is said and done.”
“These Primordials aren’t bound like normal beasts.” Huldra said “It took Zeus himself at the peak of his power and the aid of his siblings and the traitor Titans to defeat Typhon, and that took a thousand thunderbolts and a mountain to drop on him. We’re a bit short on both. I imagine the Nidhoggr is similar?”
“Nidhoggr has been sealed beneath the tree since the dawn of time.” Huldra said “When Yggdrassil took root the serpent was trapped there. I have no idea how to bind it here again.”
“Or who’s the one to do it” Hecate added “Since it certainly can’t be us.”
“I don’t even know if it can be done” Huldra said “There’s no precedent at least.”
Hecate snorted “Precedent? The act in and of itself is precedent. This isn’t the tipping of the scales, Huldra. This is a cycle. Chaos wins then order wins then chaos wins again. The wheel will turn in our favor, that’s inevitable.”
“Inevitable or not, the world might be consumed entirely before the shift back occurs.”
“True” Huldra shrugged “But we need to make do.”
The two continued forward, not sure what they were searching for as they picked their way through the ruined realm. The light followed them, dispelling the darkness where they walked, and they both came suddenly to a stop when they say a great furry shape appear before them out of the darkness.
It was bigger than any bear, rivaling an elephant in size, and covered in light chestnut fur. Its back was towards them, the creature lying on its side, and a dozen spear-like shards of wooden shrapnel were impaled deep into its body. They approached with trepidation, hearing the beast’s labored breathing, and Huldra moved with caution until she saw the long water-soaked bushy tail.
“What beast is this?” Hecate asked as Huldra moved forward more quickly, placing a hand on the beast’s flank “Do you northerners have a Cerberus as well?”
“No…well yes, we do, but this isn’t Garm.” Huldra said, walking around to move to the beast’s head, “Come and see.”
Hecate moved to follow her, and when she saw the creature’s head she realized that it was the injured body of a monstrous squirrel.
“Awww” Hecate’s face switched to its younger mask “He’s adorable.”
“His name is Ratatoskr” Huldra said “A messenger of Yggdrassil…I had wondered where he had wound up. I assumed Nidhoggr had eaten him.”
Gently Huldra placed a hand on the squirrel’s large brow, stroking his soft fur. A shiver ran through his body, and Huldra could see that his injuries were severe.
“He’s in very bad shape” Hecate said, pity in her voice. “I’m not sure if we can bring him with us safely.”
“Ratatoskr” Huldra said, speaking in the tongue of animals “We need to stop Nidhoggr, to end all of this. What can you tell us, what can we do?”
“Seek the Crown” Ratatoskr’s voice was weak and high. “Seek the stars in the darkness, the shepherd among wolves.”
“Really? Is now the time to be cryptic?” Huldra growled, even as she tried to comfort Ratatoskr, her hand still stroking the fur of his head.
“You need to respect the game, Huldra.” Hecate said “This adorable creature is almost like a Primordial itself. It can’t give us a straight answer because it doesn’t think on the same level as we do. It’s a creature of pure fate, but that does mean that this riddle, while a doorway, is not a deception or a lie. Such concepts are foreign to them.”
“How do you know all this?” Huldra asked.
“I’ve seen creatures like it before” Hecate said “And don’t forget I am the oldest of our number. Show a little respect for your elders, child.”
“Right…” Huldra frowned.
“The question is the crown” Hecate said “I do love riddles.The crown…crown to what? A king’s crown? What King could have sway over Nidhoggr?”
Huldra went silent in thought, but only for a moment. “We don’t have time to sit here and think. We need to do what we can for Ratatoskr.”
“Agreed” Hecate nodded, but even as she spoke, more sounds began to echo out from the darkness, a chittering and clatter that announced the arrival of the worn out bones of oathbreakers in Nidhoggr’s thrall.
Huldra rose to her feet, flames burning in her hands. “Seems we’ll need to fight our way out.”
“What is it with you Norse and fighting?” Hecate chided her casually “So much wasted effort.”
Hecate waved her hand, and the silver liens of light began to form again, this time floating in midair as they rapidly began to coalesce into an arch of solid light.
“I know where I’m going this time” Hecate said “It’s always easier to get back than it is to go somewhere new. Now get the squirrel and let’s go.” She put a powerful emphasis on the last word as Huldra hurried forward, using magic to gently lift Ratatoskr’s massive form off the ground to float behind her.
“Where is this door taking us?” She asked as she coaxed Ratatoskr’s bulk towards the arch.
“Old Yaga’s cabin” Hecate said, a mile flickering across her face.
“Oh she’s not going to like that.”
“She’ll live with it.” Hecate said “Now get going. We have a lead now, and a crown to find.”
The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa