Atop the Bald Mountain
Cat could feel the slope of the mountain rising under her feet as they moved as swiftly as they could up the long slope of the Brocken. Their earlier strike might have cleared the skies, but more monsters were rushing down from the peak to meet them and slow their progress down.
Nicomede lunged in front of Cat, shield raised as it deflected a series of serrated spines thrown from the back of a tiger-sized beast that snarled at them. Rosa and Torleif rushed ahead, flanking it from either side as it was caught between Rosa’s raised spear and Torleif’s hammer.
“Dammit, there’s a lot of these things!” Rosa spat, pulling her spear free from the fallen monster’s hide. “Angel! Any chance you can go full wolf and give us a lift?”
“For Catarina possibly,” Angel said. “But not all six of you…”
“We can’t afford to be separated,” Gisela said. “If Catarina and Angel were caught off-guard alone…”
“I know, I know!” Rosa said, interrupting her. “But we need to keep moving and we’re not gaining enough ground!”
“Do you guys hear that?” Nicomede asked, fingers tightening on his spear as the rest of them fell quiet. Something very large was crashing towards them, tearing through the forest of the mountain’s lower slope as it ripped trees and bushes aside.
“Something big!” Torleif said, readying her hammer.
“Defensive positions around Cat!” Rosa said, halting the charge as they maneuvered themselves into a circle around Cat.
Cat still had her sword in hand, ready for anything as the crashing came closer. Nicomede was at the front, shield raised as they waited for whatever was plunging through the trees at them. As it got closer, Cat began to make out the shape of something huge, easily the size of an elephant, covered in brown fur as it charged straight at them.
“Wait…” Rosa paused, spear still leveled. “Is that a…”
Megame blinked in surprise. “It looks like…”
“Big Squirrel!” Torleif shouted as a monstrous squirrel appeared before the group, halting its charge and falling back on its rear haunches as it cleared the last trees before them, just out of range. It looked down at them with inquisitive black eyes, more curious than monstrous.
“Ratatoskr!” To all of their surprise it was Angel who shouted as she rushed forward, throwing her arms wide as she attempted to embrace the colossal squirrel, her arms simply lost in the fur of its belly.
“You know this thing, Angel?” Cat asked, hurrying past the others to stand next to her.
“Ratatoskr…” Angel said. “Is my oldest friend…I knew him from when I was the Eagle…I’m so grateful you’re alright.”
“Eagle shine,” The voice of the monstrous squirrel was soft and high with clear affection. “The heavens so dim for your absence.”
“What’s he doing here?” Rosa asked.
“Witches from across the Realm send words of hope,” Ratatoskr said.
“That must mean they’re in position. Mmm you always were such a good messenger,” Angel smiled, stroking the fur above his nose. Ratatoskr responded with a few soft chirps as his massive nose nuzzled into her hand.
“Well that’s good but we’re still at least a few kilometers from the top,” Rosa said.
“The one called Ratatoskr can carry more than mere messages,” The squirrel chirped proudly at them.
“Is…are you offering a ride?” Rosa asked, and Ratatoskr nodded as it lowered itself onto the ground.
“I’ve never ridden a giant squirrel before!” Torleif said eagerly, climbing atop Ratatoskr’s great back with help from Rosa.
“I think this is a first for all of us…” Nicomede said with some apprehension.
“We’ll take what we can get,” Rosa said as the seven of them climbed aboard.
“Thank you, Ratatoskr,” Angel said. “As soon as we’re at the peak, retreat. I don’t want to put you in Nidhoggr’s path a second time…I’ve missed you.”
“I missed you too, Eagle sky.”
“They call me Angel now, Ratatoskr.”
“A good name for winged one, Angel below is as angel above.”
“Everyone safely aboard?” Rosa asked.
The rest of them nodded, holding onto each other and great tufts of fur.
With the final assent, Ratatoskr took off into the forest, great shoulders and claws breaking through the trees as the rest of them bent low, clinging to his back as branches whipped past them overhead. He started slow, but like a locomotive he quickly picked up speed as he ran with immense speed up the mountain, fording creeks and ravines without pause as he skillfully wove towards the peak.
Cat clung on as hard as she could, hands on Ratatoskr’s fur as she kept her head low, feeling the wind whip at her hair.
“You know!” Nicomede shouted over the wind. “You think something like this would be weird! Riding a giant squirrel to fight a dragon, it’s almost too…fairy-tale-ish to believe, right?!”
“Cat and I fought monsters with an army of ghosts!” Rosa shouted back. “This feels about right.”
“Yeah I had a talk with the World Serpent while a god lived in my body!” Torleif shouted. “Everything else is just…less weird!?”
“I played card games with Death!” Megame said. “This is very nice in comparison!”
“I’d rather not talk about it,” Gisela said. “But believe me it can always get stranger!”
All of them shared a brief, almost disbelieving laugh. Cat couldn’t help but join them. All of them, Angel, Nicomede, Megame, Torleif, Gisela, Rosa, and Cat, all of the had seen impossible things and taken part in what once would have been miracles. To whatever end, they had all come together from across the world to this instant, on the slopes of the Bald Mountain, to do what no one thought could be done.
Cat remembered her last conversation with Asha. Today was not the last day, she was going to look forward to tomorrow, and all of them would be together without the shadow of the dragon hanging over their every waking moment. This would not be the end of their seven winding paths.
“We’re almost there!” Gisela shouted. “We’ve fallen out of range of Evangeline’s communicators.”
“The magic here would probably garble it all up anyway,” Nicomede said. “Right now, keep all focus on getting Cat to Nidhoggr and make sure the plan goes into motion!”
Finally, Ratatoskr breached the treeline, and they could see the rocky slope that led to the low flat top of the bald mountain. The grey stone here was flecked with brown dying grass and traces of snow that grew thicker towards the peak. The sky overhead was dark, a roiling mass of thunderheads and black clouds that churned like smoke. Shortly before the peak Ratatoskr ground to a halt and the seven of them disembarked.
“Thank you, my friend,” Angel said, stroking his nose. “Now get far…if all goes well we will speak again.”
“Take care, my Eagle Angel,” Ratatoskr said. “It has been nice to hear your voice again.”
“Mmm, if you would…” Angel said quietly. “I have one last message…to a dear friend of mine in Rome. Should the worst happen.”
As Angel whispered into Ratatoskr’s ear, the six other Champions and Catarina huddled together as they looked towards the peak.
“Do we know if everything’s in place?” Cat asked.
“It is indeed, Catarina.”
The air beside them shimmered as Huldra stepped seemingly from nowhere to stand beside them.
“Ah, Huldra you made it,” Cat smiled, a bit relieved to see her there in person.
“As I said I would,” Huldra nodded. “Though it will not be without difficulties. My sisters and I will need to isolate the peak of the mountain and I will be the …lynchpin so to speak. The spell will take some time to prepare and I will be vulnerable.”
“And something will have to keep Nidhoggr busy inside…” Cat said.
“So we’ll need to split the group…” Rosa said, clear annoyance in her voice. “Nico, you and I will go with Cat and-“
“No,” Cat interrupted her firmly.
“What?” Rosa looked at her. “Cat, if you think-“
“You two would be at a huge disadvantage,” Cat said. “Neither of you can really hurt Nidhoggr, and we don’t know how well Nico’s shield will hold up, or for how long. You two would be nothing but bait.”
“I’m not sending you against Nidhoggr alone, Cat!” Rosa said. “If we have to be bait then everyone’s prepared to-“
“I’m not!” Cat said. “Too many people died getting us here! I’m not prepared to let people die just to keep Nidhoggr’s attention off of me! Especially not you!”
Cat turned to Huldra. “How long will the spell take?”
“A few minutes,” Huldra said.
Not long, Cat knew, but an eternity when fighting a dragon.
“And then we will have but a few moments to drive Nidhoggr through the portal.”
Cat turned back to Rosa. “This is how it was always going to be. Me and Nidhoggr.”
Rosa looked at her, her face a mingled mix of anger, fear, and anxiety.
“I can do this, Rosa,” Cat said. She looked to the others, all of them looked back at her… Torleif was trying to put on a brave face but she could see the worry and fear beneath. Gisela and Angel were inscrutable, but both of their faces were set in determination.
“I can do this,” She said to them. “You’ve all carried me this far…let me do this.”
“I trust you, Cat.” Nicomede had an expression of resolute duty.
“Before anything…be safe, Cat-chan. We’ll be with you as soon as we can,” Megame said.
“Y-you can do it!” Torleif tried to put on her bravest face. “You’re way cooler than that Barcelona dragonslayer!”
“I believe in you,” Gisela said.
Cat looked at Angel, who nodded in reply.
“You’ve been carrying part of me with you for years,” Angel said, gesturing to Cat’s sword. “But it wasn’t my feather that took you this far. I am at your side when you need me, Catarina.”
“Thank you…all of you,” Cat said, before turning back to Rosa.
Rosa put a hand on her shoulder before pulling her in close for a tight embrace.
“The second that spell is ready,” Rosa said. “I’ll be with you just…please hold out until then.”
“You too,” Cat said. She wanted to add more, to say something more. But what was between them had already been said, and she could tell as she felt Rosa’s fingers on her back that the feeling between them was the same.
“We will begin when you cross the threshold,” Huldra said.
Cat nodded and began to climb towards the flat peak of the Brocken. She checked her gear as she walked. Her arms, shins, and chest were covered in layers of banded armor made by Evangeline. Under the plates, a number of Megame’s Omamori had been fitted to add additional layers of healing and protection. She lacked a helmet, but her blue hair had been cut to just above shoulder length and pulled back to avoid it getting in her eyes. She’d need all her senses and she doubted a helmet would do much against a dragon. She had a short blue cape that fell from her shoulders to her waist, as she preferred. Capes were heroic after all. Her sword, Ceruleamor, was at her hip, and she drew it as she took the last few steps towards the mountain peak.
As the ground leveled out beneath her feet, she could feel a change in the air. It was as if she had crossed a threshold, no doubt the line of Huldra’s spell. On the mountain peak everything was quiet, there were no sounds of battles or monsters or even the wind, just quiet as she trudged across the snowy ground.
It was almost exactly like her dream those many months ago, the last time she had faced Nidhoggr. A flat-topped mountain without vegetation, just a flat space of grasses and odd rocks covered in a layer of quieting snow. There were some differences that still stood out. The sky above her was the same rolling thunder grey, and nearby were the fallen ruins of the Sender Brocken radio tower were spread, half-tumbled down the mountainside.
Cat’s breath came in long steady breaths as her eyes scanned the mountaintop, her breathing visible as puffs of mist in the cold air. As she looked it began to snow gently across the mountain.
The Daughter of Embla comes again
Fresh-faced and high footed
Thinking rising thoughts of her kin
Who think themselves the masters of Midgard
Cat couldn’t stop the shiver that ran down her spine, sword hand tightening on its grip as she looked for the source. Nidhoggr’s voice was the same as she remembered, made much worse by the horrible vividness of reality. It was a great booming roar, mixed together by the countless screaming dead that lined the dragon’s throat. This wasn’t a dream anymore.
Above her the sky began to rend itself. The clouds bulged downwards, swelling as they were engorged with a great undulating shape that pushed them towards the ground. Before touching the snow-covered grounds the clouds split, disgorging their terrible contents as Nidhoggr ripped through the last barrier into the living world.
It was as massive as she remembered, if not more so, its great coiling lengths spreading across the top of the mountain. It moved and coiled like a python, muscular body covered in diseased scales and open sores that covered its bulk and revealed the scabby musculature and pale bone within. Cat couldn’t say for certain how many legs it had, but two great forearms spread from its chest to maneuver itself, and a pair of enormous wings spread from its back so large they almost seemed to encompass the sky.
Her eyes, however, were drawn to its face. The Nidhoggr had the terrible triangular face of the fiercest dragons, its great brows framed in long spiked horns the color of bone, its entire visage covered in skin stretched so thinly it seemed to tear where the horns broke through. Its eyes like those of all the countless dead it raised burned with cold blue light. The same fierce light burned in its throat, wisps of smoky light trailing through jagged teeth as it moved, and from within the endless void of its throat the screams of the dead still echoed.
Cat raised her sword as she stared into Nidhoggr’s face. The dragon could have taken a bus between its jaws. It seemed bigger now, more terrible than it had ever been in the dream.
Cat was terrified, more scared than she’d ever been. Her entire body shivered as the dragon stared down at her with the same contemptuous apathy she might give an ant. She was nothing to the dragon, a rock hurtled against the whirlwind of eternity. She was a tiny, fleeting thing made of bone and sinew. The dragon was eternal, invincible, a malevolent part of the universe given form.
Cat was afraid, but she did not turn, she did not run. She held her ground and kept her sword raised.
“Nidhoggr!” Her voice broke and shook as she shouted at the dragon. “I…we have come to put an end to this!”
It speaks of the end
It thinks it understands time
The twists and knots that course between
Moment and eternity
Nidhoggr drew forward, and with every great footfall the ground beneath her feet shook. She could see the way its coiling tail moved to surround her, keeping her fenced in.
My return to Midgard
As sure a thing as the rising of the sun
No man nor witch nor god can hope to halt
That is, that was, and that which shall be again
Cat ground her teeth, pointing her sword at Nidhoggr.
“Maybe it will be someday, Nidhoggr,” she shouted. “But not today!”
Nidhoggr drew its head low, and now more than ever Cat could sense that it was staring at her dead in the eyes. She felt her blood run cold, a shiver running through her body and soul. For a second, her mind went blank, overwhelmed by raw terror as this presence, this being beyond even a god’s comprehension, truly looked to see what she was made of.
This lesser thing of smoke and driftwood
Bound together by dreams and threads of fate
Would see itself speak of higher things
What is the name of its fathers
What is the name of its óðr
It took a moment for Cat to realize that the dragon was asking for her name.
“My name is Catarina Aldobrandini!” Cat shouted at the top of her lungs. “And I’ll be sure to make it a name you remember for eternity, snake!”
Then yours shall be the first corpse I feast upon in Midgard
Nidhoggr reared back its head on its great sinewy neck and roared with a sound that seemed to part the sky itself. Cat threw her hands to her ears as the bellowing noise ripped through the sky over the mountain, shadowed by the countless screams unleashed from tis throat. The dragon raised one great clawed hand and brought it smashing down to the earth in a storm of lifted snow, the ground shuddering so greatly Cat was nearly thrown to her feet before recovering herself.
No more stalling; that was a challenge to battle. After one lest deep breath Cat charged forward, sword raised as she ran headlong for Nidhoggr.
The Cities Eternal©2018, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa