The Broken Crown
It was around midnight in Rome. The city was, for the most part, quiet. A few places might still be bustling on the busier streets, revelers and night-owls out for the excitement of the evening. There was also the occasional sign of the Night Guard, out on their nocturnal patrol as they moved through the city in hunting pairs.
For the most part, however, the city remained asleep and quiet, precisely how Angel preferred it.
Angel had often confused Capitolina whenever she told her that she saw better at night. Even for a wolf it was easier to see and track and hunt during the day, but for Angel, the clear crystalline starlight gave her the clearest view of creation. On nights like this, when the air was crisp and clear and the sky was full of stars, Angel could see for thousands of miles, to the very limits of her waning vision. On nights like these, she could pretend she wasn’t weakening.
Her vision had receded more and more as the years passed, since she was thrown from her former perch. Her powers as a Primordial were drifting away as she became less the Eagle and more the wolf. It was a fact she had come to accept, not easily but with resignation. Within a few years, the last of her power would be gone.
“My, my, how strange it is to find a wolf brooding like a gargoyle.”
Angel whirled around, eyes blazing with light. Two figures had snuck up on her from behind; that alone was reason for alarm. It took effort to hide from Angel. It was almost impossible to sneak up on her.
Her alarm faded somewhat as she recognized the faces of the two figures. They were witches of a particularly peculiar breed. She was more familiar with the taller of the two: Huldra. The shorter one was likely her associate and elder, Hecate.
Still, she wasn’t alarmed, but she didn’t let down her guard. Huldra had unleashed Nidhoggr, and for a moment hatred coursed through Angel’s entire body. This witch, this creature, was responsible for her downfall.
Another moment and the hatred passed. Angel knew better, she knew that Huldra had been compelled by Nidhoggr’s hold on her. And Nidhoggr’s hatred for Angel had been entirely Angel’s own doing.
“You two…what do you want in this city?” Angel asked.
“How uncivil, you make it sound like we almost aren’t welcome,” Hecate smiled, flashing a youthful smile under ancient eyes.
“Our goals are the same, wolf of Rome,” Huldra said. “The re-imprisonment of Nidhoggr.”
“It can’t be done,” Angel said. “Nidhoggr’s prison was shattered, the bonds of fate placed on it shattered. Another way must be found.”
“Don’t be so sure,” Hecate smiled. “We’ve been having some chats with a friendly squirrel we found. One familiar with the layout of Nidhoggr’s arboreal tomb.”
“Squirrel…” Angel paused then her eyes went wide. “Ratatoskr? He’s alive?”
“Mending,” Huldra said. “He was dying of his wounds in Nidhoggr’s old prison.”
“He also speaks in riddles, it takes some time to work out what he means,” Hecate said. “But we had a score of witches who are all too clever by half, no riddle can resist us for long.”
“Ratatasokr speaks according to his nature,” Angel said. “And he is a messenger, unused to speaking his own words.”
“But what he has told us is intriguing,” Huldra smiled. “Our group has begun preparing the spellwork he’s described.”
“Spellwork?” Angel asked.
“The reconstruction of Nidhoggr’s prison,” Huldra said. “To recreate it would require a massive alteration in the web of fate. It’s no easy task, and impossible for anyone who doesn’t seek the ire of the Norns.”
“So, we decided ‘hey, they hate us already, why not?’” Hecate added. “Plus witches love a challenge. This is going to be some pretty stupendous work.”
“I am…surprised your number care so much,” Angel said.
“Our kind has been toying with fate as long as we’ve existed,” Hecate said.
“Another reason,” Huldra said. “Is…I suppose it’s guilt. I was not fully responsible for Nidhoggr’s release but…I cannot simply ignore the role I played. I am going to right this wrong as best I can.”
“That is admirable of you,” Angel said. “But I do not understand why you need to bring this to me. Catarina perhaps, or Capitolina, but I have no role to play.”
“To the contrary,” Hecate’s smile never faded. “You were the most intriguing riddle of them all.”
“I’m a riddle?” Angel asked.
“One put to us by Ratatoskr,” Huldra said. “And that stumped us for quite a while.”
“The broken crown, the shepherd among wolves, the light in the darkness,” Hecate said, repeating the great squirrel’s words. “It took us quite a while indeed to work out what it all meant. But now we know, it’s not a literal crown but the crown of a tree. The shattered perch you were thrown from, the eagle who guides wolves like a shepherd, the light that first started burning in the darkness.”
“The biggest detriment, of course, was that none of us knew you were still alive,” Huldra said. “I thought you had been killed by Nidhoggr at the start.”
“Nidhoggr came close,” Angel said. “I only barely survived the fall.”
“It’s quite a ways to tumble, no doubt about that,” Hecate said. “But still, knowing your alive gives us the advantage once again.”
“An advantage?” Angel asked.
“You are a Primordial,” Huldra said. “One diametrically opposed to Nidhoggr’s essence. You could be the keystone of the entire operation, a seal forged with your essence is a seal the dragon could never break.”
“Whether that is true or not,” Angel said. “I’m afraid you may have come too late. I’m losing power rapidly, I doubt I could put much of my Eagle’s essence into anything.”
“Seems to be true,” Hecate playfully tugged at one of Angel’s wolf ears. “She’s more Lupa than Aquila, as the Romans say.”
“We can still work with that,” Huldra said. “The barrier around this country…I should have recognized it the first time I came here. That’s a barrier formed by your essence, not dissimilar to what we need.”
“That barrier was made using the tools of a forge god,” Angel said. “And even still…it won’t last forever. We don’t have the resources to make anything more permanent.”
“I think you underestimate the resources you have,” Hecate said. “More than the legions and your champions, this city has three pantheons of gods backing them. Put your Pontifex to work, it’s time to start asking favors.”
“Three?” Angel asked. “Is the Norse pantheon coming around?”
“What’s left of it,” Huldra said. “But Freya has made contact with the Olympians. I plan to dig up old connections to make contact with Odin again.”
“We’ve been trying to get pantheons to cooperate for years,” Angel said. “We’ve met with consistent failure.”
“The tide is starting to turn,” Hecate said. “Those of us still attuned to it can feel the shift in the wind. This campaign against Nidhoggr is the first real push back, and the gods are starting to realize they need to capitalize on it.”
“And you say you need me,” Angel said.
“We do,” Huldra nodded. “Your essence, your spirit, whatever remains of the Eagle in you will be necessary.”
“How did you even find me?” Angel asked. “I covered my tracks.”
“Not all of them,” Huldra smiled. “The girl, Catarina. I knew her sword was an oddity, but when I knew I was looking for you it was easy to deduce; the same goes for the shield around Italy.”
“When did you…” Angel began to ask before nodding her head. “Ah…of course, the dream.”
“That’s right,” Huldra smiled. “Cat brought her sword with her into the Dreaming to face Nidhoggr, and when she did she brought a little of you with her.”
“What part will she have to play in all of this?” Angel asked.
“In all likelihood, she’ll be the lynchpin of the entire thing,” Hecate said. “That girl has more threads of fate woven into her than some small countries. I haven’t seen anything like it since antiquity.”
“That sword carries a permanent piece of your essence,” Huldra said. “It will be the key to Nidhoggr’s prison, but we will need your help constructing the lock and the bars to hold it there forever.”
Angel was quiet. She was quiet for a very long time as her mind worked. This could be her last chance, the very last thing she could do to help the war against Nidhoggr before her strength as a Primordial abandoned her entirely. A seal, a cage for the dragon, would stand as a testament to what she had been, a last eternal mark left on the world by the great Eagle before its wings finally vanished. It would be vindication for a life that was finished. But it would also be her final admission that there was no going back.
Doing this would likely mean burning through the very last vestiges of her power. If she wanted a seal that would last forever, even with the aid of multiple gods of multiple pantheons, it would leave nothing left for her to keep for herself. The Eagle would be gone, and her wings and her sight gone with it.
She thought of Catarina and the group she had gathered to her, of the legions being assembled and the thousands preparing to march north and fight. She had seen mortal armies marching before, seen millions die on battlefields across the eons and mocked the pointless waste of life, the senselessness of mortals sacrificing their already brief lives. But she wasn’t the Eagle anymore, she was a wolf, and she was among them now. She could see them as she never had before, their nobility and their courage. If all of them were prepared to give everything, even their lives to stop Nidhoggr, then she had to do the same.
“Very well,” Angel said. “Where do we begin?”
Both Huldra and Hecate smiled, Hecate stepping forward. “We’ll need a spell to work the land, weaken the borders between worlds to make a portal big enough to force Nidhoggr through. We witches might be able to pull something like that together.”
“We’ll need chains as well,” Huldra said. “Stronger even than the chords that bound Fenrir, something to lash Nidhoggr to the roots of the World Tree.”
“Then we’ll need forge gods,” Angel said. “I know one, and the champion of another.”
“Then we’ll need the seal,” Hecate said. “A spell or artifact to bind Nidhoggr to Helheim. Seek out the Egyptians, they were good at keeping their Primordial trapped in their underworld.”
“Pontifex Nora and I will see to it,” Angel said.
“Last but not least, the most obvious.” Huldra said. “Get Catarina to Nidhoggr, and make sure she wins.”
“I do not know how much of that I can assure,” Angel said. “But…I will do everything in my power to make it so.”
“Good,” Hecate smiled kindly at her. “How’s it feel, Angel, to be the one Primordial on the side of humanity?”
“Mmm…” Angel was quiet again for a moment. “I can’t say…not because I don’t think I’m on their side but because…I don’t believe I’m a Primordial anymore.”
“Maybe not,” Huldra said. “Maybe you’re not an Eagle anymore, but you’re a good wolf.”
A portal formed from starlight opened behind the two witches as they moved to leave.
“We’ll be in touch,” Huldra said. “Rally your strength, wolf of Rome, we will need every ounce of it to win.”
Angel watched in silence as they departed before turning her eyes back to the stars. She wouldn’t be the Eagle anymore, unable to see across the worlds with a simple flick of her eyes. She wouldn’t be able to tell when the stars were right or wrong, but maybe she would be able to see them as mortals did, full of possibility and beauty.
She wouldn’t be an eagle, Angel doubted she had more than a few years of flight left in her even without this mad plan, but even if she couldn’t fly, she realized, she could be free. For now though all of her thoughts would need to go to Nidhoggr’s defeat. The end was coming soon.
The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa