The Snake and the Mirror

Prologue

 

The sounds of battle grew closer every day. The drumbeat of marching feet, the echoing clatter of steel, and the high chorus of death-shrieks and battle-roars had echoed across the hills and grown louder and louder as fields were turned to churned mud and forests were reduced to ash. The battle had been fought for years as the wounded and the dead rose each night, picked up their weapons, and charged out once more to meet their foes the next morning. But all the courage in the world could not shift back the tide of this war. In a world above the world, the great gods of the North were losing the battle for their home.

Odin, the All-Father, the Deceiver, the God of the Hanged, rose from his throne in the great hall of Valhalla as the sounds of coming battle rang in his ears. The time for thought had come and gone, the time for action had come. In an age past Odin had been granted visions of the future, and he had seen the death of the gods, of his people, of his world, and time had made his visions reality. Odin had watched all the realms consumed by fire, water, and darkness before the great jaws of a wolf consumed him to. Now Odin, all his kin, and all his enemies had been reborn afresh into a new Asgard, with a new Midgard, and a new future.

And it was happening all over again.

Dressed humbly as he was in a long grey cloak, a walking staff in hand and a broad-brimmed hat over his eye, the tired grey god walked through the empty halls to his chambers, hidden away deep beneath the lofty hall of Valhalla. There was no one to stop or to question him, for they were all on the battlefield fighting for their lives and for their future against a sea of foes.

Within his sanctum, upon a table, rested Odin’s last confidant. Stooped in the shoulder and hidden beneath his own shadow, Odin inclined his head to greet the pale and emaciated head of a man, long since severed from its shoulders.

“The day is grim, Mimir” Odin said. “And it is dark”

“And it will grow dimmer and darker still, Father of Hosts” The severed head spoke back to him with a shriveled voice through decaying lips.

“Has it come again already?” Odin asked “Is Ragnarok upon us as it was before?”

The muscles of Mimir’s face twisted into what it could manage of a smile “Many times you have asked me, Odin, and every time I have answered the same: Only the Norns know fully how the cycle will pass, they let you be privy to their plans last time, but Urd contents herself with creating order, Verdandi chooses to weave her spider threads about us in silence, and Skuld keeps her darkest secrets tightly hidden.”

Odin could not help but feel a dark smile creep across his own face “Fate will not be kind to us, it seems.”

“Kindness is rarely the method of fate” Mimir said “But you would resent it if it were.”

“Aye, that I would.” Odin gave a tired sigh as he took a seat beside the table, placing his hat idly on Mimir’s head “Greatness rarely springs from kindness. Only in the heat of fire and under the hammer’s blow can good steel be made.”

“I cannot say what will be, All-Father” Mimir said “But ask me what is and I shall tell all I know.”

“How bleak are the signs?” Odin asked “How much time do we have before the serpent buries this world?”

“Bleak” Mimir said “Loki and Surtr have thrown in their lot with Nidhoggr.”

“As I knew they would.”

“As you knew they would” Mimir made his best approximation of a nod. “Fenrir is still bound, but his gnawing grows more pronounced each day. The Midgard serpent is unbound but seems…slothful. Its allegiance lies nowhere.”

“So my son has told me” Odin said, recalling Thor’s excited and half-drunk telling of his adventures down the river between worlds. “How is Midgard?”

“In no fit state to fight that I have seen.” Mimir said “But it has only felt the beginnings of the Primordial’s assault. Nidhoggr seeks to conquer Asgard before the wretched serpent will set all its power against Man’s Earth.”

“If Asgard falls” Odin said “if the Naglfar reaches the northern seas and Surtr strides across the lands of Midgard, then no amount of human heroism will save them from the end of days.”

“Do you think the humans have no hope?” Mimir asked, and at this the One-Eyed god’s smile grew a little broader. “Do you think they are too weak to fight?”

“On the contrary, Mimir, I think the world of the stupid little apes.”

Odin rose once more to his feet, he had spent enough time worrying and talking to a severed head. As he did, the grubby grey cloak feel away, replaced by a long cloak of dark grey wolf fur with a mantle worn over armor woven from thick gold rings. In his hand was no longer a walking staff, but a tall spear with a wicked edge and a haft blackened by fire and ablaze with shining runes. He drew the hat off of Mimir’s crown, but when he placed it on his brow it had become a great helm of gold that did not disguise his face or missing eye.

“They are a troublesome and irritating race with a penchant for discord and dishonor” Odin said “Though the same can be said of we Aesir. They are dumber than us, weaker, and more short-lived. They cannot see far past their own eyes, nor travel further than their own feet, but there is more to them than driftwood.”

“In a rare few perhaps”

“In those rare few, but they number many now, and those rare few are like fire. Where they burn, their fire spreads to others.”

Odin began to walk, steady on his feet and shoulders up, back into the hall.

“They are cowards, and they are heroes. They are criminals and they are paragons. Ten thousand contradictions in a single ugly race, but with a little pushing and molding they can be as mighty as the gods.”

“Let us hope then” Mimir gave his parting words “That they can be dragonslayers too.”

Odin walked with calm and steady footsteps back up to the great hall of Valhalla, and once more the echoing sounds of battle rang in his ears. How long could they hold this hall? A month? A week? Days? The Norns taunted him with their silence, and while Odin the Wise knew most things, he did not know it all. He relied on an old trick even more ancient than he was: Always pretend to know more than you do, more often than not people will believe you.

With a thought he called his ravens to him. Huginn and Muninn took their places on his shoulders, the great black-feathered birds looking into his single eye awaiting his instructions.

“I have a message for you two to deliver.” He said, and he whispered so that only they could hear it.

“Now begone! Get it delivered at all the speed your paltry wings can muster.”

With a squawking caw the ravens were away, dark wings carrying his words away from Asgard, leaving Odin alone with a crooked smile on his face. With nothing left to say and no one left to say it to, Odin strode out of the hall to join the din of battle.

It was night in Asgard, as it had been for weeks. After the first few days of darkness the stars and moon had blackened, but now a new aurora was cast across the heavens as great shards of multi-colored light danced and twinkled in their place. The ruined remains of the bifrost had been thrown across the sky after the shattering of the rainbow bridge, and now its ruined remains twinkled overhead.

Ahead of him Odin could see the battle lines, glowing with fire as the giants, the dragons, and the hordes of the honorless dead clashed with his Einherjar. Odin drew in a deep breath, and his nose filled with the scents of blood, filth, and carnage that could only come from battle. The ravens were already circling in their wide arc, keeping their distance until it was safe to come to feast.

He was disrupted from his reverie by the sounds of galloping hooves as a line of mounted warriors came to greet him. All the riders were women, all of them trained, battle-hardened, and beautiful, and as they rode to him many more came down from above, supported on their own great wings. The lead rider had, clutched in her hand, the reins of his own massive steed, the eight-legged Sleipnir, which dwarfed all other horses as he did all other men when he rode into battle.

“All-Father” the lead Valkyrie bowed her head as she handed him the reins “You’ll join the battle today?”

“I figured it was about time.” Odin shrugged as he mounted his horse, and he could feel the excitement brewing among the valkyries as he did. “It can never be said that I run from battle.”

“None would even think it, All-Father.” The lead Valkyrie bowed once more as the line fell in behind him.

Odin turned Sleipnir to face the battle line, even from this distance, his one remaining eye could see the fighting and the carnage as if it was happening at his feet, and soon enough it would be.

Odin, God of the Spear, God of War, and Lord of Lords, would ride to battle this day in command of his many Valkyries and his countless einherjar. As he had before, so it would be again.

 

A world away, on Midgard or as the humans called it Earth, a young girl had hitched a ride on the back of a traveler’s wagon. It wasn’t safe, the kindly man had said, traveling alone form one town to another, not with the world in the state it was. She had agreed, smiled, and let him cart her to the next town on her journey south, and she had let him remain blissfully unaware of just how rightly unafraid she was.

Her name was Torleif, and sitting beside her on the wagon, always within reach of her thick leather gloves, was a mighty hammer gifted by the god of Thunder, Thor.

“How long’s the trip, old man?” She called forward, legs swinging off the back. She had ridden up front with him for a while, but she had a child’s restlessness, and liked to move around.

“Still the better part of the day” he called back, somewhat gruffly as he repeated himself “But we’ll be there before nightfall, no reason to fret.”

Torleif lied back down in the cart, blue eyes staring upwards into the great empty sky. As she stared, a pair of dots appeared high overhead, appearing at first like her distant memories of jet planes, but these grew larger and larger still.

Soon she could see the shape of two large black birds descending in a slow spiral towards their cart. She considered taking hold of her hammer, but she could sense no danger from these birds. The ravens weren’t threatening, and in fact she felt slightly calmed by their presence. So instead she merely sat up in the cart to watch as the ravens perched gently on the sides, watching her through beady black eyes, unbeknownst to the old man who merely continued driving his cart.

One of them opened its mouth, and when it spoke it did so with a man’s voice, a god’s voice.

“Torleif” Came the voice of Odin the All-Father, though she did not know it by sound “Wielder of the Thunder and Champion of Asgard, listen well because this may be the last message you receive.”

Torleif straightened up, listening intently to the words of the raven and paying mind to every word.

“Asgard is fallen for all intents. The Aesir and the Vanir shall hold Valhalla for as long as we can, but when the hall falls and we are forced from Asgard, the Dragon of Yggdrassil shall set its sights upon your world, and by then it may be too late.”

Torleif bit her lip, hands curling into fists as she listened.

“Your only hope is to challenge Nidhoggr on Midgard, to make the dragon face you on human terms. On Midgard, a human can succeed where even the gods have failed, but you cannot do this task alone.”

Torleif had already grabbed her hammer, ready to leap off the cart and run towards Nidhoggr at his word, but now she paused.

“Seek out Freyja, the only one of our kind outside of Asgard who has not returned to fight. Find where she is and what she has been doing. More than that, however, you must seek out more like you. Find the champions and the heroes, the warriors both nearby and foreign-born with fire in their souls. You cannot slay this dragon alone, Torleif, but if you heed these words, find Freyja, and follow my signs, then you can begin to stack the odds in humanity’s favor. Follow the roads, for all roads lead to your destination.”

With that final riddle, the raven closed its beak, and it and its partner, the silent one, both flew back into the air.

Torleif frowned, she didn’t have patience for riddles, particularly when the topic sounded so dire.

“Hey old man!” She called forward again.

“Not polite to call people old, young lady” The man said gruffly “True as it may be.”

“Where do all roads lead?” Torleif asked, ignoring him.

“Well, no one place really…” he trailed off “Though there’s this old saying..”

“What old saying?”

“All roads lead to Rome.”

 

Next Chapter

The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

Where All Roads Lead

Valhalla Burning

While the forces of Nidhoggr and Typhon laid waste to Europe, and other Primordials staked their claim in the world beyond, there were other realms brought back into existence that demanded the attention of the dragons of chaos. Nidhoggr, the Serpent of Yggdrassil, was born of many realms and in the dragon’s envious fury it had set the bulk of its armies of the dead against its most ancient enemy.

On the once-pristine world of Asgard, vaunted home of the Aesir, the armies of Nidhoggr’s enslaved and risen dead clashed against the bulwark of the mightiest army ever built. The Einherjar, the souls of the powerful and valiant dead, claimed by the Valkyries and brought to the great hall of Valhalla. For centuries they had tested themselves against one another and sharpened their skills, now they held the line against Nidhoggr’s numberless hordes of rattling skeletons and monsters.

Giants had taken the field, joining Nidhoggr in an alliance of convenience against the Norse gods, great strides crossing rivers and valleys and clearing a path through the Asgardian ranks with swings of their mighty arms. Jotnar of many realms had come to stake their claim; lesser dragons as well had taken to the skies at Nidhoggr’s commands, burning through the forests and fields as they went.

Little by little, the Aesir and Vanir of Asgard had been pushed back to their stronghold of Valhalla and there they waited and planned, under perpetual siege by the Serpent of Yggdrassil’s nightmarish horde. Today, Odin the Allfather, chief of the Aesir, had gathered all others into his hall to speak, an address many had waited for with bated breath and all who heard the call had come.
There were still, however, a few noticeable absences.

Odin did not need both eyes to notice the significantly empty chairs in his hall. Three, specifically, were left unattended, and these were not the seats for nameless elves or dwarves or lesser of his kind.

Valhalla was an immense and opulent feasting hall. It was built from the hulls of great warships with beams hewn into the shapes of spears, the roof was thatched with the shields of thousands of warriors. The seats of its tables were draped in coats of mail, and the mounted bodies and furs of massive wolves and eagles dotted its borders. At the center of the hall, space was made for the tree, Laeradr, from which a goat casually ate amidst the proceedings.

He stood before his own chair, still dressed in his favored long grey robe above the armor he had donned, looking with his one great eye and empty socket across the gathered masses. For all his power he still looked an old man, with a long grey beard and a wizened face, none of which did anything to conceal his vast cunning and divine power.

“Tell me.” He said, his quieter voice still carrying the echo of a booming shout across the hall.

“Where is Thor? For that matter, where is Loki? Freyja is missing as well.”

There were a number of soft murmurs and a few rolled eyes. If the three of them had gotten involved in some farce again it was not worth looking to deeply into for fear of being pulled in.

Thor, God of Thunder and Odin’s mightiest son, had a habit of doing as he pleased when he pleased and not giving much mind to forethought. Odin’s brother by oath, Loki, was equally liable to go missing when needed, likely up to some mischief that was usually at the expense of mighty Thor or proud Freyja. The Mistress of Folkvangr was usually dutiful about this sort of meeting, and it was regarding her absence that the first voice spoke up to answer Odin.

“Lord of the Host.” It was one-handed Tyr who spoke, rising from his seat to let his voice carry across the vast hall. He was a massive man, broad-shouldered and fully armored, curls of red hair falling past his shoulders, his one good hand resting on his helm placed on the table at his side, his other arm ending at a stump above the wrist.

“I have news of Frejya, though not the other two.”

“Speak then.” Said Odin, gesturing to him.

“Heimdall gave me word,” Tyr continued. “So that I might carry to to you while he keeps the Bifrost safe. He says that Freyja traveled to Midgard to speak with these other pantheons we’ve heard of. It seems she seeks audience upon their mountain called Olympus.”

There was a great clamor as discussion and debate broke out, only to be silenced again, as if by magic, from a single gesture by Odin.

One voice, however, still rose to spoke. That of another of Odin’s sons, Vidall.

“So she abandons us in our time of need?” He asked the crowd. “The mighty Lady of the Slain Freyja flees to foreign realms and foreign arms rather than fight here on Asgardian soil? Now I suppose we see the valor of the Vanir.”

There was an instant uproar as Freyr, Freyja’s brother as beautiful and powerful as his sister, rose to challenge Vidall.

“Watch your words, Son of Odin, my sister is as strong in the arm as you are and twice as strong in heart. She seeks allies and companions in our war, not refuge.”

Tyr, still standing, spoke in turn. “Valhalla needs no allies. We’ve spent thousands of years crafting an army the likes of which no world has ever seen. The Einherjar will hold the gates of the hall against any threat.”

“They will.” Freyr nodded. “While all nine realms fall to ruin around it! Nidhoggr has taken lordship of Niflheimr, Svartalfheimr, and will soon command Alfheimr as well if reinforcements are not sent. Even here, most of Asgard has fallen to dragons and giants!”

Freyr turned his attention from Tyr and Vidall back to Odin.

“Is it so surprising, Father of Hosts, that Freyja has looked for reception elsewhere when you commanded your einherjar to abandon Folkvangr?”

Silence once more fell upon the hall, thick as fog as it rolled across the assembled masses. The burning of Folkvangr had been a controversial decision to say the least. It was the second of Asgard’s mighty strongholds, Freyja’s realms as well as barracks for half the fallen warriors and the Valkyries. It could have held out for many months, and they all knew it would likely still be standing if it had been reinforced, but Odin had made the decision to withdraw his Einherjar and his Valkyries, leaving Freyja to retreat before the armies of Nidhoggr surrounded her on all sides. She escaped with a small host, but a vast number of her troops had been destroyed in the flight to Valhalla.

Odin, as was his nature, had never made any attempt to explain himself or his actions, despite Freyja’s furious public demands for reparation. Odin merely claimed it a cost of war, and had left Freyja to her fury.

“What Freyja does on Midgard is of little immediate concern to us.” Odin said, still quiet, yet still heard by all across the hall. “She will do as she will, and if she will not be present on Asgard then her absence at this meeting is a given. I will have no more discussion on that matter tonight. Still, no one has risen to give me news of Thor or Loki. Freyr, Tyr, Vidall, do any of you carry such news?” His eye fell upon each of them in turn, and each of them took their seats again, unable to respond.

In the silence, the sound of flapping wings could be heard as a great raven flew in through an open window, beating its black wings as it circled overhead in the rafters before swooping down to perch on Odin’s shoulder. The Allfather leaned in, as if listening to the chattering beak of the raven.
The raven (Huginn, or perhaps Munnin, only Odin could tell them apart) appeared to speak its piece before flying out again through the window.

“Word from Heimdrall.” Odin said casually. “It would appear Freyja is not alone on Midgard. Thor is there as well, though precisely where I cannot say. Heimdall says he saw Thor’s cart pulling away, and if Thor is there then no doubt Loki is somewhere nearby.”

He sighed, the brim of his hat shadowing his brow as he folded his arms, though those seated close to him could swear there was something of his enigmatic smile still on his face.

“Oh my aching…everything” Thor muttered to the much-too-bright sky as he woke up with his back to the earth. He was outside and on the ground like a common drunk, that much he knew. A normal person would think they might have had a little too much mead and passed out, and the resounding pain like rolls of thunder in his head certainly made that a likely story. That, however, was the story for a normal person.

And he was Thor, God of Thunder.

He rose to his feet, vision swimming as the world seemed to spin around him, the hammering pain in his head like blows against his temple as he tried to steady himself. Was this what a hangover was like? If so it was awful, all the pain of fighting with none of the excitement.

He blinked rapidly, trying to clear the light from his eyes as the indistinct blur of the world around him began to take shape. He was in a clearing in a forest, nothing but earth and grass beneath him, and he was very much alone.

Well that’s no fun, he thought to himself as his mood began to sour. There was no one to brawl and no beautiful maidens to bed. What kind of useless god passed out all by himself?

He tried to recall what he had been doing, or where he was for that matter, but nothing came to him. He wasn’t one hundred percent sure he was even still on Asgard. He sniffed the air, and he could smell the scents of fertile soil and full-leafed forests, but nothing else really came to him.

Trying to concentrate, the pain in his head beginning to ebb, he heard the soft rush of a river, and smelled the water on the soil. A river…that would be a start. Rivers meant navigation, meant fishermen and landmarks to guide oneself by. He had no companions, no cart, and no way to tell direction as the sun was almost directly overhead.

Best get walking.

Thor started to move through the forest and almost immediately lost his balance. He swore loudly, trying to gain his feet which felt almost spindly beneath him as he took his balance. It was then he noticed how vast the forest felt. The trees here were positively enormous compared to the ones he was used to. What kind of world was he on?

Well, the only way to answer that was to get moving.

Head still swimming, body still feeling like it was made of gelatin bound together with noodles, Thor stumbled towards the river. At one point, he tripped and almost fell onto his face, catching himself on his hands before he hit the ground. His bright red hair spilled around his face and he noticed a long braid in his hair that he hadn’t noticed there before. Shrugging it off as the amusement of some maiden he’d enamored, he continued to the river.

The forest parted and revealed a large slow-moving river before him. Suddenly overcome by thirst, Thor bent down to drink, wishing the river was made of mead. But when he caught his reflection in the water, he nearly jumped out of his skin.

It wasn’t the reflection he had expected.

Thor had a certain image of himself. Large, muscular, built like one would expect of the God of Thunder, with a beard and a full head of bright red hair.

What was staring back at him was a little girl who couldn’t be more than ten.

She was dressed like Thor, in armor and skins that had been appropriately sized down. Her hair was the same color, though it was more a bright splash of red hair rather than his preferred “Fiery mane”. Her large eyes were the same color, and she moved her spindly arms and legs as he did.

She still wore his massive gauntlets (once more, appropriately size-down to fit on the little fingers of a small girl). And with confusion and fury growing inside him he called down his hammer. A bolt of lightning fell onto the shore of the river, filling his hand as Mjolnir came into existence between his fingers.

He still had in him the strength to lift the hammer at least, he noted as he weighed it in his hand. Though it seemed far larger now.

Still, Thor let his feelings be known to the world as he erupted into a string of curses and vulgarity that echoed through the forests and down the river like the growls of an oncoming thunderstorm. The menace of it was somewhat muted by the high-pitched girlishness of his new voice.

Needless to say, this was an unacceptable turn of events. And when events became unacceptable, there was usually only one likely cause. Tiny heart filled with fury, tiny fist shaking towards the heavens, Thor called out his name in high-pitched rage.

“LOKIIII!!!!”

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The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa
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