The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 43

 

“Ah, Huldra…” Cat said. “Er…Lady Huldra…Miss Huldra?”

She wasn’t quite sure how to handle the honorifics, but Huldra brushed it off.

“Huldra will do fine, Catarina,” She said, nodding politely, the divine aura soon fading from her voice. “I came to discuss this campaign you’re marching on.”

“Oh!” Cat stood up. “Of course.”

“So this is the Dream Witch?” Rosa asked, standing up as well as she looked Huldra up and down.

“That I am,” Huldra said. “And you are…?”

“Rosaria Kokinos,” Rosa said. “Champion of Ares.”

“Ah, the Greek war god,” Huldra said. “Well then, you will likely find this of interest as well.”

“Do you have a way to kill Nidhoggr?” Rosa asked. “That’s kind of priority number one.”

“Nidhoggr can’t be killed, can he?” Cat said. “At least that’s what Gisela keeps insisting.”

“They are correct,” Huldra said. “Nothing in any of the worlds can kill Nidhoggr forever. It is a part of the World Tree as surely as root and crown.”

“Then I take it you have another kind of plan?” Rosa asked.

“Trap it,” Huldra said. “As Angel has doubtless told you, Nidhoggr may yet be trapped within the realm of Helheim where it had been sealed since the dawn of time.”

“Angel mentioned it might be possible,” Cat said. “I was hoping we’d find a solution before we reached Nidhoggr.”

“You have,” Huldra smiled. “Because my…compatriots and I have been working tirelessly on a solution.”

“Compatriots?” Rosa asked. “Like other witches?”

“Just like,” Huldra said. “Some of the most powerful True Witches on the planet have been looking for a solution. And we have found one.”

“Excellent,” Rosa smiled. “What is it? Like a dragon-sized bear trap?”

“Something a touch more…arcane,” Huldra said. “A very complicated spell that should do just what we need.”

“A spell?” Cat asked. “Something I could have just looked up in a book?”

Huldra smiled slyly. “This kind of spell, if it was ever put to word, was written in tongues unspoken since before men were made from mud and driftwood.  A hundred mortal mages couldn’t make it work.”

“What does it do exactly?” Cat asked. “You have me curious now.”

“A good quality in any mage…in appropriate quantities,” Huldra said. “Allow me to illustrate.”

Before her, scrawled like images in the air, formed the illusion of an ash tree, no taller than she was. Worlds like spheres circled through its branches and along its trunk.

“This is Yggdrassil…as close as it can be approximated in three dimensions at any rate. The worlds twist among its roots and branches in their cosmic dance. At least…that is how it should be.”

She flicked her hand, and the worlds fell out of orbit, twisting wildly along the tree as great rents and savage claw marks appeared along the trunk, the crown shattering and scattering stars.

“This is the trail of destruction left by Nidhoggr as it tore across the world tree. It has sunk its claws deep, drawn ancient magic from the storied wood until it was as eternal as the tree itself, a creature bound forever by fate.”

“All of this doesn’t sound very helpful,” Rosa said, but Huldra silenced her with a look as Cat listened quietly.

“Nidhoggr, the Realms, the Tree. These concepts are tied too closely together for us to force fate against Nidhoggr. No force in the cosmos has a stronger connection the World Tree than Nidhoggr, save perhaps for Angel when she was at full strength. The key, then, is to sever Nidhoggr’s connection the World Tree while simultaneously cutting the walls between worlds.”

“And that can be done?” Cat asked.

“We were not sure at first, but we believe it to be so,” Huldra nodded. “Before the World Tree, before the nine realms, there were only two realms: Muspellheim, the land of fire, and Niflheim, the land of frost. Between them was the infinite primordial void, a chasm called Ginungagaap.”

“I think I read about that,” Cat said. “Gisela had it in one of her books. That’s where the Primordial giant, Ymir lived, right, the one whose body became the realms?”

Huldra smiled. “You are a scholar.”

Cat smiled, face reddening a bit.

“I realized, with Hecate’s assistance, that if you recreated those conditions…If, for a moment, it was on Earth as it was at the beginning of creation, then Nidhoggr would briefly become unbound by fate. The borders between worlds would evaporate, and the dragon could be thrust back into its ancient prison.”

“That sounds…dangerous,” Cat said. “A piece of infinite void on Earth?”

“A tiny portion,” Huldra said. “Like a pinhole in the fabric of reality…though up close even a pinhole can be dramatic I suppose. But it is hardly a threat to creation at large.”

“How long could this…hole into the void be open for?” Rosa asked. “What’s our window?”

“It would last moments, mere seconds at most,” Huldra said. “As they say nature abhors a vacuum, and Fate despises primordial chaos. For that brief window, we would be unmaking fate entirely, unraveling the threads in the most destructive manner possible. The retribution of the Three will be swift and terrible.”

“The Three?” Cat asked.

“The keepers of Fate,” Huldra said. “Past, Present, and Future. I daresay after this is over, my sisters and I will need to scatter to the winds to avoid them. This is not the sort of trick that gives you a second chance. In that brief moment, on that battlefield with Nidhoggr, we will not just be unmaking creation, we will be ripping a hole in time, fate, and destiny. This is not action taken lightly, and there will be ramifications.”

“Something this drastic…” Cat thought it over. “There are other Primordials…we can’t keep doing something like this, can we?”

Huldra shook her head. “No…but order and chaos…there is a balance to these things. If Nidhoggr is defeated the scales will be tipped back towards order, the inertia of destiny will be on your side. Here, you’re working against fate itself. All signs point to the end of the world, the dissolution of reality as you know it.”

Cat took a long breath, sitting back in her chair as she stared into the grass.

It was an easy thing to say you were saving the world. Heroes do it all the time in the stories. But the stories never talked about this kind of burden, this kind of anxiety and stress. She was eighteen years old…how did the fate of civilization wind up in her hands? And now…Gisela had said she might be a hero, an archetype to do impossible things, but if Huldra was right then fate was against her.

How do you get a happy ending when the story is trying to end in despair?

“Hey…Cat,” Rosa was looking at her, concern on her face.

“If I may,” Huldra spoke. “Catarina…I would like to speak with you alone.”

“S-sure…” Cat nodded before turning to Rosa. “I’ll be…back in a few.”

“Yeah…” Rosa nodded back. “We’ll talk later.”

“Right…”

Quietly, Huldra led Catarina away from them and away from the camp until they were out of earshot of any listeners.

“I am sorry, Catarina.”

“Sorry?” Cat asked, looking at her.

“I released Nidhoggr. Whether of my own volition or not…I bear some responsibility to the world as it is now and to you.”

“Ah…” Cat said. “Well…thanks for that…er…the apology I mean.”

“I know, it isn’t much,” Huldra placed a hand on her shoulder. “But Catarina…I am going to make right what I set wrong. No matter the cost, I will be with you to whatever end.”

“Mmm…” Cat’s mind was hardly there, still stuck on what was to come. “What will I need to do for this spell?”

“That is what I wished to discuss,” Huldra said. “The spell will open the door, tear a rift in reality, through which you can send Nidhoggr…but he must be pushed through by force. That dragon will not willingly go to its doom. I can open the door but you must force it through.”

“Which means I still need to beat Nidhoggr,” Cat said. “Somehow…”

“I’m afraid so.” Huldra said. “My sisters and I will be preparing the spell with Angel’s assistance.”

“Angel?” Cat asked.

“We need a Primordial’s energy to call on such power. Only a being whose essence was intermingled with Primordial chaos can help generate a spell to make it again.”

“Ah right…” Cat nodded. “So I guess it will just be me and Nidhoggr.”

“Catarina,” Huldra’s fingers tightened on her shoulder as she bent to look into her eyes. “I want you to remember this, above all else. You are not alone. Your companions, your allies, an army at your back. All of us are with you, all of us are trying to help you succeed.”

“But in the end, it’s me,” Cat said. “I need to push Nidhoggr through that door.”

“Each and every one of us will be pushing with you,” Huldra said.

“I just…” Cat shivered, feeling the weight pressing down on her. “I’m scared…I’m really just…terrified. Of the dragon, of fighting it…but most of all I’m scared of failing, I mean…I’m just a girl! I have a nice sword and some armor but Nidhoggr is this gigantic…chaos…worm thing! I can’t cut holes in a cosmic tree! I can’t fight cosmic eagles and I don’t live forever! It’s just…I’m like this little breeze…I got lucky and I knocked some leaves over…I blew away a shadow but it’s just…one breeze against a storm and I’m going to break if I even get near it…”

Huldra listened quietly, even as Cat stammered, tears welling in her eyes.

“Catarina…” When she spoke, the cadence was kind and soft. Like Hanne’s voice, or Schehera’s, or her mother’s.

“I understand…they’ve told you they believe in you, that you have all the traits of a hero, but you just don’t feel it. You just feel like a person…like you always have. Nothing’s different or special, not in comparison to something like this. Is that right?”

Cat nodded quietly, red-faced and embarrassed to be losing it in front of a Witch-Goddess.

“I’m a witch, Catarina, and a good one. I don’t put stock in heroes and my very existence toys with the fabric of stories and fate…so I don’t believe in you because you’re a hero. I believe in you because you’re strong. Because you faced Nidhoggr’s shadow without turning back to save the ones you’ve cared for, and now they follow you to face the real thing. I have faith in you because I believe in you, child, and not in heroes. And I’ve been around long enough to know that while the storm wreaks havoc, given time and circumstance it’s the little breeze that tears the mountains down.”

After a long deep breath Cat managed to pull herself together.

“I…thanks…Huldra.”

Huldra gave her a gentle smile. “Thank you, Catarina. It is only because of you that what we do is possible. But I’m not alone in believing in you. See to everyone with you, let them know how you feel and I know they will remind you that even to the very end you will not stand alone.”

“Right…I will, yes,” Cat nodded. “There’s some…important things I think I need to say.”

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

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