A sorcerer threatens Midgard with knowledge gleaned from beyond the grave, and Kashell learns that there is more to Frei than he once thought. (Warning: Strange.)
High Sorcerer Doragnoss, one of the mightiest necromancers and conjurers of Villnore's Council of Sorcery, stood at his window and watched the building grounds. Peasants and craftsmen swarmed over the grounds like so many ants, hammering on plates of steel. They were crafting another attempt at the invincible war-machines the Council had promised they would give them; soon enough it would be time to test it again. All of the tests up until then had failed, but someday they would succeed.
Yes, all of the other nations would fall soon enough. And he was determined to be the one to brought an end to the stalemate. True, Artolia had all but fallen, thanks to the efforts of Sorcerer Lombert, but Artolia was a backwater; the nations of Crell Monferaigne and Gerabellum were their real enemies. He would not waste his time with backwaters.
He smiled and turned away from the window. There were things that needed his attention. A moment of doubt flickered through his mind - he'd failed at it for a long time, and he was not used to such persistent failures. His master wouldn't be pleased. But... no, he would succeed that time.
He rang a bell, and one of his servants rushed to attend him. All of his servants were black-haired, almond-eyed women, full- or half-blooded Yamato maidens. Or, at least, they had been when he'd procured him. His father had given him the opportunity to indulge himself, so he saw no reason to hold back.
"I'm going to my secret chamber. I'll be down there for some time," he said, sneering as he spoke and feeling a sort of pleasure at the fear in her eyes. All of his servants feared him, of course; they were well acquainted with the pain that he could inflict upon them if he so desired. It was the natural order of things, he thought. The weak fear the strong. "No one is to disturb me. Even if the King himself comes to me, tell him that I am busy with issues vital to the future of Villnore. Do you understand, wench?"
"Yes, Lord Doragnoss," she said, cringing away from him.
"Good." He turned with a flourish, cape billowing out behind him, and opened the stairwell door to his own personal chamber of rituals. She would listen to him, of course. He did not tolerate disobedience, whether in the care of his mansion or in the care of his... personal needs. Some of them had been openly disgusted by him, he thought with open disbelief. Imagine! They should be honored - he was no aged, twisted shell of a man. He commanded respect and admiration; all who saw him kept their distance, obviously in open deference to a superior.
He shook his head. He'd meditate on the problems of ungrateful servants later; it was a thing that had haunted him for years. He'd have to come up with some sort of charm for them.
The secret chamber was dark and musty, and smelled of old ashes and dry rot. Every Sorcerer worth his pay had such a chamber. Doragnoss had converted a torture chamber for his; it even retained some of the old equipment, tucked into the corner. His strength largely lay in Necromancy, after all, and having proof that men had suffered and died in his seat of power helped to keep him focused.
Doragnoss took off his cape, hung it on a spike embedded in the wall near the doorway, and drew a pouch from his belt. He walked over to his altar, a slab of stone covered with candles; a small brazier rested near the front. With a word he ignited them all; thirteen steady orange flames flickered into life in unison, and a flickering red flame erupted in the center of the brazier.
He'd never admit it, but he was nervous. Not for his own welfare - there was no real danger to him in the spell - but he'd be devastated if it should fail yet again, after so many tries. Summoning the shades of the dead was one of the most difficult magical tasks in Midgard; one never knew when the Aesir were watching, or if they might or might not notice an expenditure of energy that displeased them. It would have been impossible without fail, if Hel hadn't often intervened and saved the Sorcerers from detection. But even Hel's powers couldn't compare to the combined might of the Aesir, and woe betide those who fell under their unforgiving gaze.
Necromancy was generally an irritating art to practice, as dependent as it was upon the summoning of lost shades. Doragnoss wondered once again why he hadn't chosen something a bit simpler. If he'd just wanted power, he could've been a Thaumaturgist or something.
He forced the thought out of his mind and stood in front of the candles, waving his arms of them; they didn't even flicker. Then he took a pinch of gray powder from another pouch and tossed it over the brazier. The fire grew hotter and burned higher, glowing with a strange violet light and illuminating the room with strange shadows as he began to speak, slowly and in a strange language. He invoked the rites of summoning and binding, the secret prayers to Hel and her minions that would ensure his own safety.
Doragnoss had done this before, but he'd never tried to find a specific person; he'd only sought anyone who could help him attain the power that was his birthright. This time would be different, and with any luck Doragnoss would soon be speaking to his old master - the man who had found the secret location of the Dragon Orb. He had led men out to retrieve it, never to return; they had found his body later, lying on the shattered steps of the strange palace's throne room, but none of the soldiers that he'd bought with him were anywhere to be found. It was a great mystery - what, or who, could kill a sorcerer as powerful as he? - and one that hadn't yet been solved; he'd heard that he was not the only sorcerer who'd been trying to contact him, and all had failed.
That only made him more determined to succeed. And now the rites were complete; only the invocation remained. "Master Gandar," he whispered, throwing another powder onto the fire - dried blood, this time, to tempt the spirits to come closer. "O, ye separated from this plain by the veil of life and death, come now before me and speak!"
He'd tried this before, every night for the past two weeks, ever since his master's body had been found. Each time, he'd ended up with a cloud of foul-smelling smoke and a splitting headache, but no spirit. A great part of him fully expected that he'd fail again that night, as well; perhaps Gandar's spirit was simply too far beyond the veil to be called out-
The flame flickered, then vanished, as if smothered by an invisible blanket. Doragnoss, busy with his own speculations, had barely noticed it. When he realized what he'd seen, though, his apparatus and the like suddenly had his full attention.
Slowly, slowly, a shadow of a profile appeared out of the smoke, frowning crossly at him, or so it seemed. "Who is it?" it said, the voice hoarse and faint. "Who has the audacity to summon me?"
The younger mage quickly bowed low before his former teacher. "Master Gandar," he acknowledged. "It is I, your humble servant."
He felt the shade's eyes appraising him, searching him. Suddenly he was very self-conscious, in his long robe and rich clothes, the sort that his master had always favored. Yes, he knew that he was the only one who would someday follow him, but perhaps it was a bit ostentatious of him...
"Hmph. I suppose you'll do," the shade finally grunted. "Get up! If you're going to supplant me, at least act like you have some trace of a spine."
"Yes, Master Gandar," Doragnoss answered hurriedly, quickly straightening up and smoothing back his short black hair.
"You've kept me waiting for too damn long, Doragnoss," the shade continued. His eyes were dark and full of the torments of Hel. "If you'd had any real skill at all you would've summoned me the moment you knew of my death."
"My apologies, Master," Doragnoss began before the shade could begin more recriminations. "The black moon... well, the conditions were horrible, and-"
"Bah! Must you bother me with excuses even now?" But Gandar seemed to calm down, and the smoky figure seemed to deepen, grow more solid. "It makes no difference. You have the potential necessary, fool though you are, and it is only by Hel's intervention that I may speak of the forbidden knowledge. I must hope that you will not squander it."
"Y... yes, Master Gandar," Doragnoss managed to stammer. Forbidden knowledge! Was his Master finally going to share the secrets of his power? Or was this something even deeper?
"Listen well, young fool. I am sure that you already know of my fate. How my torn body was found in the Palace of the Dragon, with many others rendered into nothing but a stain upon the palace floor." His voice grew hard, fierce - and in a sense, triumphant. "I was slain, 'tis true, but my spirit was taken by the single-minded goddess that the warriors of Midgard call the Battle-Maiden."
"The Valkyrie?" Doragnoss repeated, shocked. He'd heard the legends, of course. Every man had. But... "What did she want with-"
"Silence, fool! I will not tolerate another interruption!"
"Of - of course, Master. I am truly sorry." He bowed again.
"Hmph. At any rate, I was Claimed by her, although not Chosen to dwell in Valhalla. It was Freya's intervention - apparently such a powerful mage as I was too useful to toss aside." There was a grim note of smugness in his voice, but it quickly soured. "I helped her slay the Lord of the Giants himself - it was my arts that brought him down. And what was my reward? To be tormented as a blasphemer in the pits of Helheim!"
Doragnoss shook his head slightly, afraid to speak again. His mind reeled - his master chosen by the servant of the gods that he despised? It simply could not be!
"But they underestimated my ability - nay, my very strength of will. They thought that they could control me, summon me at will and put me aside when I was no longer useful. If they had known the secrets I had found while the Valkyrie held me in thrall, I would have been obliterated." Gandar's shade laughed long and hard, and Doragnoss had to fight down the urge to ask more questions. What secrets was his master referring to? What horrible knowledge was he to be entrusted with? "Listen well," he continued after the unholy laughter faded. "When the Valkyrie liberated the Palace of the Dragon, she discovered a certain secret in the labyrinth. She read this secret to gauge its worth, and chose to send it to Odin for him to conceal. But I was awake - she thought that she could shut my eyes, but I saw the writing on the scroll through hers. And I thought on those words, used incantations that she could not feel to engrave them upon my soul, with the hope that I would someday use them to bring the gods themselves low. Do you know what that secret was, Doragnoss?"
"M... master, I couldn't even begin to-"
"Pah!" the shade raged. "Foolish boy. You are not worthy of the secrets of the ancient Golems!"
"Golems!" The young sorcerer stared at his old teacher, hardly even breathing in his shock. The ancient lost war machines of ages past - there were legends of a single Mythril Golem that had leveled an entire castle, slain every man within, and had rendered the land unusable for the rest of its existence. But these were back in the lost times before Odin had ascended, and no one had managed to recreate them... there had always been something missing. But... "You know? You know the secret that we've sought for centuries?"
"I do," the shade answered smugly. "But time grows short, my churlish student. There is no more time for idle talk. Reach out your left hand and touch my forehead, and I will pass the knowledge on to you."
Doragnoss reached out, and although his mind was eager, he found that his hand was shaking far too much. He did not want to admit that he was afraid - him, afraid of power! Ha! - but that was exactly what it was. He was terrified of what would happen. And besides that, he'd never heard of such a transfer of power before...
"Coward!" the shade snarled, flickering. "Do you want the Aesir to see? Hurry, or the knowledge is lost!"
Gritting his teeth, Doragnoss thrust his hand towards the smoky outline of his former master's forehead. He became aware faintly of a dim chanting, then of a sort of tingling sensation whispered within his skull - then a sudden, discordant sound that seemed to come from within him. The full complexity of the knowledge became crystal clear for one brief moment, before he began to convulse. He fell - dimly he felt his arm burning against the hot brazier, but not strongly enough to care - as facts and minutiae rushed into his mind. There was so much of it; surely it would blast his mind to nothing -
He heard his master's voice, one last time. "Ha, it is done! Hear me, goddess of fools! I will not be made a slave again!" But it faded quickly, and Doragnoss lapsed into unconsciousness, stretched out across the floor.
When Doragnoss awoke, there was no indication that any summoning had taken place. The candles and brazier were burning peacefully with steady orange flames. Nothing in the room had been disturbed. In fact he'd been almost convinced that he'd somehow passed out before performing the Ritual of Summoning, that he'd dreamed the whole thing.
But his arm ached, and when he looked at it he saw a long, red burn that was just starting to blister. And his head... he clutched at his temples as the pain struck. It was as though someone had driven massive spikes into his skull... it made the burn on his arm feel like a simple itch.
He staggered out of the room, forgetting his staff as he forced himself up the stairs. A pair of nervous, black-haired servants stared at him as he slammed the stairwell door open. "M'lord Doragnoss," one managed. "What...?"
"Silence!" he snapped testily. "I need... a glass of wine, mixed with a pinch of powdered Hels-bane. Now!" The servants hurriedly scurried away, and Doragnoss barely remembered to call back after them. "/Red/ wine, fools! And bring it to my study, or I will... I'll..." But his head was hurting too much to come up with a creative sort of doom, so he let it be. They were most likely out of earshot by then anyway, if they were good servants.
He made his way to his personal study, a small room decorated in black and silver and red, and managed to collapse into an overstuffed chair. He stayed there, unmoving, even as the servants brought back his glass of wine - he only opened his eyes long enough to see that it was red wine, thankfully. As soon as they left, and he recovered enough to move, he drank the wine in one gulp - it burned his throat, but what was that to him?
After a short time, however, the pain began to fade, although it did not vanish entirely. The feeling of discomfort - of feeling almost bloated with knowledge - lingered, something that Hels-Bane could not diminish. But now, at least, he could try to absorb it in relative comfort.
He concentrated, drawing forth the knowledge that Gandar had given him... and again it rose and engulfed his mind. But he was ready for it, that time. He sat there, oblivious to the stealthy comings and goings of servants, as a thousand small details rushed over him. His mind became an endless rush of fulcrums and steel plating and lodestones, and as soon as he thought about even the most arcane details he knew exactly how they must be used to create the perfect weapon of destruction. He knew how to coat a massive plate of armor steel with a very thin plating of Mythril, to render it proof to weapons and magical energy alike. He knew... he knew so many things.
By the time he opened his eyes, the crowded feeling was gone; the knowledge had taken its proper place in his mind. And he was smiling. The possibilities were endless! Golems that walked like men, or that could swim as well as any fish... and yes, even golems that flew higher than the birds themselves. Devices that could cross Ymir's Spine and strike at the heart of the empire of Crell Monferaigne, invulnerable to all that the fools could bring to bear against them. Perhaps, he pondered, even Freya herself could not destroy these weapons.
A servant walked into the room, glanced in, and tried to flee - but Doragnoss caught her before she could. "You! woman!" he sneered, and smiled as he watched her walk back into the room. She was cringing; she feared him, but she was right to fear him. "What is the hour?"
"M'lord... the night has fallen," she said thickly, stumbling over the simple words. "The moon is high in our sky."
"Blast it," he muttered. He'd spent most of the day pondering over the knowledge... well, no matter, he told himself. "Very well," he said, staring at her. "Send word to my scribe, wench. Have him compose urgent messages to the Chief Engineer of Villnore, First Royal Advisor Heinholt, and the Lord High Sorcerer Mikaztor. Have them come to meet with me tomorrow morning... no, tomorrow afternoon, just after the third bells sound. Tell them that I have urgent business to discuss with them."
The girl had been growing very pale as he spoke. Those names... well, the Chief Engineer was no worry; he was a commoner by birth. But summoning the highest advisor of King Sigfried the Fifth, and the leader of his Counsel of Sorcerers, and to speak as if it were nothing at all... it was no wonder that she was shocked. "Y-yes, M'lord," she stammered.
"Good girl." He smiled cruelly. "And I expect good food, strong drink, and, ah, entertainment to be prepared for them as well. If they are displeased, I will hold you personally responsible, is that clear?"
He barely heard her reply, or the sounds of her awkward stumbling run as soon as she thought he couldn't see him. His mind was busy swimming with the knowledge, with the image of dozens and dozens of golems - under his command, of course, they could be no one else's - stomping over the world, leveling villages, trampling all who stood in its way. Rich or poor, strong or weak, mage or fighter... none would resist. None. He tried his best to laugh, but the best that he managed was a sort of weak cackle, and even that made his headache begin to flare up again. He pressed his hands against his temples again and decided that it was best to save his laughter for a more opportune moment.
It would come soon enough, he told himself. There wasn't a force in any of the nine worlds that could stop him now.
Kashell had always said that Valhalla was a warrior's dream come true. Where else could he spend all day fighting and training with men who really understood what a warrior's life was like, then spend all evening feasting and drinking late into the night? And then they all woke up the next morning completely healed, ready to do it all over again. It was perfect.
At least that was what he always said.
He was sitting at his place at the High Table, in the dining hall that sat beneath Odin's seat of power, toying with a plate of roast piglet instead of actually eating it. Pretty Aesir girls were walking around in somewhat more revealing versions of Valkyrie garb, pouring wine and serving food, and occasionally he'd smile halfheartedly at one and hope that none of them asked him why he wasn't eating. It was just that he wasn't all that hungry... hell, for a guy who'd gotten everything he'd ever wanted, he was feeling pretty rotten.
It wasn't that he wasn't happy there - it was great, it was what he'd always hoped life after death would be like. If anyone had asked - not that anyone ever had, lucky for him - he'd say that he was still getting used to it; it wasn't an easy life, after all. But that wasn't all there was to it.
He didn't like to think about it, but after a while it just couldn't be helped. He was feeling out of sorts because he'd lost his best friend, and he couldn't get used to not having her around. He wanted Celia to be there with him - hell, maybe she'd even be happy for a change. Not having her around was really cramping his style.
But what was he supposed to do? She was still alive down there and there wasn't a damn thing he could do; he couldn't even tell her that he was sorry. Sure, he could watch her, but even if he went down there to be with her he'd just be a ghost, and she had enough things haunting her already.
They'd left her in one hell of a mess, all alone, everyone she'd ever cared about dead. Even Grey - Kashell had almost killed the old bastard when he'd arrived at Valhalla. It wasn't fair that he was there and Celia wasn't. But even that would've been useless; he'd never forgive him for it, but he couldn't change it by killing him, either.
What it all amounted to was him being in one hell of a foul mood. And as much as he wanted to talk about it... well, Aelia and Lawfer were around, but they were both talking and laughing like everything was great. Which was fine, if they could let go of it easier than he could, but Kashell didn't like the idea of bringing them down. He liked to be the guy who cheered people up, not the kind of person who seemed to thrive on depression like Celia had sometimes -
Dammit. Just stop thinking of her, ok? That'll just make it harder. He took a bite from a large leg of lamb, and drank more of the strong, blood-red wine out of his cup. It was really a hollowed-out skull, the mortal remains of a lost hero - kind of a weird idea, but he'd gotten used to it. And he didn't really care what he was drinking out of, as long as he was drinking; it helped drive some of the depressed thoughts out of his head.
But he could only drink so much - he didn't know if he could get a hangover on Valhalla's wine if he tried, but he wasn't going to take the risk. Not if he was going to work on archery training tomorrow; he didn't want to risk skewering anyone.
No, he'd get some sleep, he decided. He'd probably feel better in the morning. Maybe all the fighting was just tiring him out more than he'd realized. He stood up, nodding to the people beside him and muttering his farewells, and started walking towards his room. He winked at one of the cuter Valkyries, but it was only out of habit; he'd tried flirting with them before. They were always polite, but if you looked at their eyes you could tell that they really didn't give a damn. Just went to show that all barmaids were exactly the same, no matter where they worked.
The quarters of the Einherjar weren't far away, and he walked quickly. His hand was on the door of his tiny room by the time he heard someone running behind him, and just after that he heard someone calling out to him. "Kashell! Hey, Kashell, where are you going?" It was Frei, running after him with a confused look on her face. "Don't you want dessert too? I thought you loved dessert!"
"Oh, hi, Frei," Kashell greeted her with a smile. Frei was fun to be around - she was almost always cheery and bursting with energy. The way that his friends had once said he was, as a matter of fact, except maybe more so. "Yeah, I like dessert. But I guess I don't feel much like stayin' up anymore tonight...."
She frowned a little. "Uh-oh. I thought you looked kinda sad... what's wrong?"
"Nothin' new," he answered, shaking his head. "Guess I'm just a little homesick, still. Seems weird, doesn't it? I've got just about everything I've ever wanted here, and I'm still feelin' outta sorts."
"Aw, poor Kashell. If you wanna talk about it, I can listen for a while."
He shrugged. "I dunno what to say, really. I guess I just feel like I had a life there. I had a purpose, something left to do, and then I just died." He stared ahead, eyes growing distant. "And then there's Celia. She was... she was my best friend, and I just left her. Everybody she cared about is dead, most of 'em are up here... it ain't fair. And I don't want to think about her being alone down there when I'm havin' the time of my life."
Frei nodded. "I know. I feel really sorry for people who got left behind like that. She sounds like she meant a whole lot to you."
"Yeah. You can put it that way." Kashell frowned. "I loved her, in a way. We were always together... it took me a long time to get used to not havin' her beside me."
"Yeah. But... well, I guess all you can do is hope things get better. If you believe something like that, it usually happens, you know?"
Kashell smiled, in spite of himself. "I think I said that to her a few times when she was sad. I guess I need to hear it too, huh?"
"I guess so."
There was a slight lull in the conversation. Kashell didn't want to just walk into his room, not after she'd been nice enough to talk to him. He thought for a second and then looked up at her again. "So, um... wanna sit down and talk for a while?"
"Sure, I'm in no hurry." She grinned again as he opened the door for her. "Thanks."
"Oh, don't mention it."
He followed her in. His quarters were small, but they worked for him. Sure, he could've had a bigger one if he'd been willing to share with one of the others, but he'd opted for some privacy for a change. Maybe it was because he'd spent his life on Midgard with his friends, never completely alone; maybe he'd just wanted a change.
There weren't any chairs, or much room for them anyway - there was barely enough room for the bed, tucked in the corner. The walls were mostly bare, except for one of the walls next to the door; a pair of brackets mounted there supported a greatsword, resting in a leather sheath tooled with dozens of ornate runes.
"You can sit on the bed if you want," Kashell said as she looked around. "I can just sit down here." He quickly sat down on the floor, folding his legs in front of him. He didn't want to make Frei sit on the cold stone floor. Sure, she was nice, but she was still one of the Aesir.
"Wow. I wasn't expecting you to be such a gentleman, Kashell!" She sat down, kicking her legs over the side; it was just high enough that her legs dangled off the edge of it.
"Oh, I try." He laughed a little. "Guess I'm not all that great at it, but I do my best."
"Well, that's more than a bunch of folks would do." She crossed her arms over her chest. "So, what else is on your mind?"
"Um, well... not all that much, I guess." Kashell smiled a little. "I just thought I'd, you know... we'd talk for a while. I haven't gotten to talk to anybody much lately. Too much going on, and all."
She stifled a giggle. "But about what?"
"Well... I dunno." This was going great, he told himself. Real smooth. If Bartos could see him now, he'd be laughing his ass off. Kashell hadn't been that clumsy about talking to a girl since he'd been... what, ten or something? "I see you a lot, but I guess I really don't know all that much about you. Maybe you oughta give me something to go on."
Frei thought for a second, tapping her finger against the side of her nose. "Well... I could tell you a secret."
Uh-oh. He didn't really want to know what kinds of secrets the Aesir had, did he? "Oh, wait, it doesn't have to be anything like that-"
"Well, why not? I mean, secrets aren't any fun if you can't tell somebody about them." She shook her finger at him, trying to look serious for the moment but failing. "But you can't tell anybody else about this, ok? Because if Freya knew I was telling you, I'd be in a lot of trouble."
"Um." Kashell stared at her for a moment. "You sure you want to tell me this, Frei? Sounds like a pretty big secret..."
"Of course I'm sure, silly." She giggled at him. "It isn't that big. It's just that my sister and I used to be Vanir. She gets a little weird about people knowing that."
Kashell stared. "Wow... really?" He looked at her, trying to figure out how a petite, cute young woman like Frei could've ever been one of the giant-gods. His mind reeled at the image.
Frei nodded. "It was... oh, a really long time ago, I dunno how to say it. It was right after the first time Odin had fought them. The Aesir needed some time to rebuild, and to take care of some problems on Midgard, so they offered the Vanir peace. They said that they'd send them two of their best men, for them to keep as advisors or whatever they wanted. And in return they'd send the Aesir two of their best. They wanted to stop fighting for a while because the Aesir were beating them so badly, so they agreed. I guess that Freya and I were the two best people they had back then."
"But... the Vanir are giants. You're not giants," Kashell said, mentally kicking himself for sounding so damned foolish. Of course they weren't giants, how stupid could he possibly get?
"Oh, that's all because of Lord Odin, you know. He wanted us to fit in, so he made us these new bodies." She stood up, as if showing it off. "I like this a lot better. It suits me, doncha think?
"Yeah, I don't think I can imagine you as a giantess." Kashell said with a grin. At least he could admit it now.
"Oh, I just barely remember it. I feel so much lighter now, like I've been freed from some kind of prison. It's amazing." She sobered a bit. "I feel really sorry for poor Mimir, though. The Aesir sent him and his brother to the Vanir... I don't know all of it, but I know that they chopped off his head and sent it back because they didn't like them very much. Or something."
Kashell shook his head. "I can't believe it."
"Why not? It's not that weird, is it?" She pouted just a tiny bit.
"Well... I dunno. Just doesn't seem right."
She shrugged. "Well, it was a really long time ago. I didn't like the Vanir all that much anyway - they all liked to fight so much. I mean, they even made a sword for me. I never used it, though. Gave it away to a friend as a wedding present." She giggled. "They never tried to make me fight after that. I think that maybe they sent me here because I didn't fit in with them."
"Maybe so..." Kashell wasn't sure what he'd been expecting. He sure as hell hadn't been expecting that, though.
"Well, it's your turn to say something now, right?" She shifted her legs onto the bed and turned onto her stomach, so that she was lying on the bed facing him. "So tell me What were you like back on Midgard, ok?"
"Oh," he answered, finally regaining some of his usual glibness, "pretty much like I am now. I mean, I haven't changed all that much."
She giggled. "No, silly, what was your life like? What did you do?"
"I know, I know," he interrupted. "Well, for a lot of it, I was a mercenary. Y'know, someone who fought for money. Only I didn't take jobs that I didn't like, like guarding slavers or murdering defenseless people. Celia an' I could get along without that kind of stuff. We knew how to live in the forest, for one thing."
"So you fought things?"
"Yeah. We were good at it too," he said. This was the kind of talk he liked. "Trained with each other for hours at a time. It made the time pass by faster until we could get going again. And I had a great sword for fighting with. It was a huge sword, so long that one person couldn't carry it unless he was really strong, like me. They called it the Vainslayer." He pointed up to the sword on the wall with a flourish. "See, the old stories said that it once destroyed an evil spirit who'd killed half a company of knights. I dunno if it was true or not, but it was a great sword anyway. It saved my life so many times that I lost track." Kashell was growing quite animated; if there was one thing that he loved to talk about, it was swords. "It was made to fight evil - you know, undead creatures and stuff. I could always count on it."
"Then why didn't you ever use it here?"
Kashell blinked. "Huh?"
She smiled impishly. "You heard me. You were always using one of our swords. Don't try to deny it, I can tell. They look different."
Kashell blinked. "Um, well..."
"So, all I'm asking is, if your sword was so great, why'd you never use it against the Vanir? "
"But... but they were stronger," he answered lamely. Then, feeling that he hadn't quite explained enough, he continued. "There's nothing that I ever fought when I was alive that was as tough as the Vanir. I didn't want to, y'know, ruin the edge or something. I kept it so that it would be safe, and... um...."
Frei laughed. "Oh, Kashell, don't you think that's a little ridiculous? Having a strong sword like that, then never using it because it might get broken? Isn't that what weapons are for?"
Kashell turned away. He was blushing, he just knew it. "Yeah, well, what do you know?" He said it good-naturedly, although he had to admit that he was just a little bit irritated by the whole thing. Still, he doubted that Frei had meant it that way. "You don't like to fight, remember? You've probably never even raised a sword!"
Kashell looked back up at her, surprised by the sudden change in her voice. Her smile had vanished; the pained frown that had suddenly appeared seemed incredibly out of place on her cute, shining face.
He nearly panicked. It was not a good idea to insult someone who could probably have him banished to Nifleheim if she felt like it. Not that she ever would, he was sure, but... he had no idea what he'd said that had upset her, and that made him nervous. "Wait... what'd I say? I didn't mean...."
"No..." Frei looked away. "It's nothing. I just... don't want to talk about it."
"Oh... ok. Look, let's just forget it, ok?" He smiled at her again. "I didn't mean anything by it."
"It's okay, Kashell. It's not like you could've... yeah, you're right. Let's forget it happened."
That seemed to be that. Kashell was trying to think of something to say to her that wouldn't offend her... but she paused again, her head cocked as if listening to something far away. Her brow wrinkled in concentration, and her lips were moving silently as she mouthed some words.
"Hey, Frei?" he asked, concerned. "Are you all right?"
"Oh... now? But..." Then she seemed to see him again and smiled, but it was obviously forced. "Yes, yes, I'm ok. Just... um... I kind of forgot something. Something really important, you know?"
"Kind of forgot something?" he repeated, scratching his head again. "I don't think I-"
"Look, Kashell, I'm... really sorry but I gotta go, okay?" She was still smiling, but it looked as though it was about to crack and fall right off of her face any moment.
"Well, I guess, but are you sure-"
"I'll see you later, thanks for inviting me in, bye!" And she turned around and opened the door, and ran as fast as she could down the hall.
"Hey, wait a minute-" Kashell pushed himself to his feet and stared after her. For a second he thought of his nice, warm bed, and how nice it would be to get some sleep, and hadn't that been why he'd come in the first place?
But then he went ahead and forced it out of his mind, and ran after Frei as fast as he could.
Frei hadn't expected to end up sitting in Kashell's room and chatting about weapons and past lives. But she'd expected to be summoned by her sister even less.
She ran as fast as she could down the corridor - she was sorry for leaving Kashell behind like that, she really had wanted to cheer him up. But what could she do? Freya was waiting for her - she could feel her watching in her head - and she couldn't disappoint her. She was too afraid of what might happen; her sister was stronger than her and even had Odin listening to her.
In retrospect, it might've been faster to teleport, but she didn't like teleporting when she didn't have far to go. It was just a waste of energy, and it made her feel so tired. So she just ran. Freya had said she wasn't far off.
Finally she found her sister, standing in the vaulted throne room. The great golden throne of Lord Odin, however, was empty. They did this sometimes; when Odin had other things that he was involved in, he'd let Freya speak for him. "Yes, Freya? What is it?" she said, a little nervously.
Freya looked down at her, her expression carefully kind but otherwise neutral. Freya was like that, she always did her best not to let Frei know that she was unhappy with her, even if she was. Although she didn't know what she had to be unhappy about... "I'm sorry to disturb you, Frei. But there is a situation on Midgard that must be dealt with."
"Midgard?" she repeated. She didn't spend much time on Midgard, she was thinking. Why would they need her? "What's happening, Freya?"
"One of the human nations, a horrid place called Villnore, has rediscovered one of the forbidden secrets, " she replied. "An army of golems has been raised, and its leader is intent on destroying all of Midgard." That stunned Frei too much to speak... she'd never understood how anyone could do that. Wouldn't that leave that person with nowhere else to go? "They are currently marching south of Villnore," Freya continued, "intent on demonstrating their powers."
"When did this happen?" Frei asked. "How? I thought Lord Odin hid the secrets. He said he'd hidden them where nobody else would be able to find them."
"Never for a moment doubt that humanity will find what it must not have," Freya answered grimly, "although it is unfortunate that we had not previously discovered this. There were too many other considerations. We had believed that Midgard would not cause such trouble for the moment..." She shook her head, frowning. "No... never mind that. This must be dealt with immediately."
So she wanted that army destroyed... and Frei had a sick feeling in the pit of her stomach, because she knew what Freya was about to ask her to do. "You want me to go and... take care of it?"
"If that is possible," Freya answered, and for a moment Frei started to hope that it wasn't possible. Please don't let me do this again, she thought, feeling horrible. I don't want to do this...
But in the end, she couldn't disobey her sister, or Odin. She closed her eyes and concentrated... and after a mere fraction of a second, she opened them. Tears were gathering in the corners of her eyes, but she fought them back. Freya would've been unhappy with her if she'd started crying. "It's... possible," she said. "Do you want me to go right now?"
Freya, her face still carefully kind, nodded.
"Okay," she answered, and stared down at the floor. She had to bite her lip to keep it from trembling. "I'll go."
There was a ripple in the air around the two goddesses as they vanished.
Kashell stepped into the room - he'd heard everything. He hadn't thought it was possible - he'd been so sure that he'd be caught and punished for it, but they hadn't even noticed him. But he didn't really have time to wonder about it. He knew that he ought to walk away and pretend that he hadn't heard anything - he shouldn't have been listening in at all, and this was really getting him in too deep! An army of golems... he hadn't even thought that was possible.
And he did try to walk away. He wanted to go straight to bed and never think about it again. But... he was so curious, and too damned stubborn to walk away from it. Frei was going to deal with an army of golems, by herself? It was just too weird... he had to know what was going on. Sleep would just have to wait.
He closed his eyes and concentrated as hard as he could, imagining himself standing near Villnore - it was pretty easy to do. Sure, he wasn't really there - he was like a ghost - but that didn't matter if he just wanted to watch. He kept standing there, thinking as hard as he could, until he felt the room around him start to fade away.
On the whole, Doragnoss was extremely pleased with himself.
It had only been three months since he'd learned the secrets of the golems, and already he stood to command a small army of them. It wasn't as large as he'd hoped, but that could wait. Once he'd proven the juggernauts effective in combat, the King would build more for him. Yes, many more, he thought as he surveyed the monstrous machines. They had lumbered out of Villnore not two days ago, followed by the sounds of cheering commoners. They'd cheered from a same distance, since the construction had caused a great many deaths amongst the craftsmen, but they'd cheered for him all the same. At long last, Villnore had its invincible golems - it would soon conquer the entire world!
Getting to this point hadn't been easy; it had involved a bit of feigned humility. The horrible first meeting with his three esteemed guests was still etched in his memory. The lunch that his servants had prepared had been cold and tasteless, and there hadn't been any real entertainment at all. He'd nearly ordered the servants' execution as a substitute, then and there! No, it was fortunate that his information had been more than sufficient to raise the spirits of his impatient guests. And that beautiful envy on Lord Mikaztor's face as he'd realized what Doragnoss had discovered... that alone had made all of Doragnoss's sufferings worthwhile.
King Sigfried V had agreed almost immediately to build golems to the sorcerer's specifications... but not as many as he'd wanted. He'd doubted at first, had demanded proof. As if the word of a sorcerer of the High Circle was not enough proof! He had been sorely tempted to blast the doddering old monarch to ashes... but after considering that he was still the lord of the realm, he'd decided that his death might have to wait a bit longer.
The King had ordered him to conquer Artolia as a test. They'd started to rebel against the annexation agreement that they'd made with Villnore since the king's death; they posed little threat, but they were still thorns in Villnore's side and needed to be dealt with. But Doragnoss had no intentions of merely conquering Artolia. No, he would destroy it, as a show of their strength - every building crumbled to dust, every man, woman and child left smashed on the stones. The King might not like it, but then again, he wouldn't dare to protest once he'd proven his power.
The young sorcerer, dressed in his blackest, most intimidating robes, was occupied with thoughts of glory and power - everything he could have dreamed of. There would be no more laughs hidden behind the other mages' hands as he stood to speak. They didn't know that he knew, but he did - his masters thought he was a clown, of sorts, a man who'd gotten where he was solely by the graces of his former Master. But that would now change, and once Artolia was destroyed... he would be recognized as the greatest sorcerer that ever lived, perhaps surpassing even his Master.
And even if anyone moved against him, he was the only man who knew the secrets of the Golems. The craftsmen who had worked on the prototypes had been put to death; he couldn't risk anyone else learning even a fraction of what he knew. He intended to be the only man who knew the secrets for a very long time.
As wrapped up as he was in self-congratulations, Doragnoss wasn't paying much attention to the world around him - he didn't even notice that his army had company until he heard a woman's voice shouting across the grassy plain. "Stop it! What are you all doing?"
He looked up sharply, saw the young woman who hovered above him. And at first, he was frightened. Hel preserve me, the Aesir! They've found me! That woman... no, that girl was Frei, the goddess of peace and tranquility. There was no other explanation; Odin had to have discovered his plans.
But fear quickly turned to elation. Ha! I have the darkest secret of the times before Odin's ascension engraved upon my mind - who are they to fear? He sneered at the woman - no, he corrected himself, merely a child. "Ha, goddess, have you come to watch the destruction?" he taunted. "Or have you come to beg me to end my invasion and live my life in peace? For you must surely know that you are unwelcome here!"
There was no fear on her face - only sorrow. "Why are you doing this? You can't destroy Midgard and still live on! You have to stop this, or you'll be destroyed too!"
He laughed. "Ah, but that is where you are wrong! There are other worlds beyond this one, and Hel will grant me shelter in her realm. I will not turn back, and you lack the power to stop me. Begone, foolish goddess!"
Frei bowed her head, and somehow he heard her whisper. "No... I can't do that. We can't allow this blasphemy to continue."
He stared up at her, and his smile did not fade in the slightest. We are in no danger, he thought, mostly to reassure himself. If Lord Odin truly wished to destroy us, he would have come himself with Gungnir to do battle with me. This pathetic girl-goddess is nothing -
But then light suddenly flared around her, so brilliant that even he had to look away. He swore under his breath, shaded his eyes and looked back - and gasped. The light was gathering, seeming to grow almost solid - then suddenly died away. In its place he saw a great sword that hung in midair beside the young goddess. Its massive blade seemed to have been hewn from the bedrock of the world itself, and its hilt was variegated like the heart of a great tree.
Doragnoss tried masterfully to appear unmoved, but he knew the ancient lore. He knew what he was seeing. "So it is true," he said to himself. "The sword really does exist..."
He watched as it moved, readying itself to swing. His last thought, before a burst of energy radiated as it swung and blasted his mortal body into pieces, was that Master Gandar wasn't going to be happy to see him again...
Kashell gaped as the sword appeared, his eyes wide with surprise and fear. He'd arrived on Midgard near Artolia, a considerable distance from Frei and the golems. But the sudden flash of light had guided him to the battlefield, even at that distance.
It can't be, he thought numbly as the sword began to move. Frei wouldn't have anything like that, would she? But he couldn't deny it. That sword was way too much like one of the legends he'd been so fond of. It was the greatest weapon of them all - a sword so powerful that it didn't suffer anyone to touch it.
He was too close to the battlefield - he could sense the energy radiating from the sword. He started to back off, unable to tear his eyes away, even though he knew that if he stayed he'd be in real trouble. He'd bet just about anything that he really, really wasn't supposed to be seeing this...
Then he saw the sword swing across the battlefield. The earth shook and cracked, and men were screaming as the metal giants they were riding fell into pieces. He watched one of the golems explode, flying across the battlefield and striking one of the others with a huge metallic clang. The sounds of the carnage drowned out everything else.
"I'm... I'm sorry," Frei whispered. Kashell turned to look at her... and either his imagination was playing nasty tricks on him, or there were tears running down her face.
He couldn't stand to see any more of this. He had to get away from there. Back to Asgard, he thought furiously. I've gotta get back to Asgard. I've got to-
And then he was there, standing in the fields near Valhalla. He staggered over to the nearest tree and leaned heavily against it, trying hard to collect his thoughts. The place was deserted, thank goodness... he didn't know if he wanted to explain anything just then.
Kashell was fanatical about swords and legends; he could relate a dozen of old myths and tales about great legendary weapons. He'd learned most of them from Celia, who had grown up in a noble warrior-family of Artolia... some of them he'd discovered as they had traveled. The stories of that particular sword had been found in an ancient tome, written a hundred years ago, that they'd found in a nobleman's library in Gerabellum. Kashell could just barely read, not well enough to understand the ornate, archaic text, but Celia had read it to him until he'd been certain he knew it by heart.
Its blade was said to have been created at the very beginning, crystallized from living ice and fire as Muspelheim and Nifleheim had collided for the first time; its hilt had been fashioned from a piece of the living heart of Yggdrasil itself. Its creators, forces older than the gods themselves, had imbued it with thought, and a life of its own - and had refused to give it a name, claiming that personifying death itself was folly. It allowed no one to touch it, not even its bearer... and it could not be stolen or claimed. It chose its own bearer, it was said, at the beginning of creation...
Kashell shook his head. Frei was its bearer. It was attached to her, somehow... but why? The whole thing just didn't make any sense.
He stood up and trudged back to the fortress, hoping he didn't meet anyone on the way. He needed to be alone for a while. He wanted to think about the whole mess... although he had the feeling that thinking about it wasn't going to do much good.
Freya appeared over the battlefield long after the sun had set; the moon was high in the skies of Midgard. Frei knew that she was there before she announced her presence, as usual. But for once, she had little desire to acknowledge her.
She had been there for hours after the carnage had ended, staring out over the field. Once it had been an expanse of lush, green grass, but now it was nothing more than a scorched, burnt-out piece of bare earth. Here and there she could see traces that there had been a battle here - a tiny sliver of black cloth from the sorcerer's robe, a severed hand, a bit of the armored plates from those blasphemous golems. But those traces were few and far between.
The Sword had long since vanished, and was resting in whatever place it rested when it wasn't busy destroying something. Frei wished she could do that too; she didn't want to have to see what she'd done. That beautiful meadow... a tear dripped from her eyes as she remembered what it had been before. If only her tears could make it new again! But she was no Lord of Creation; she could do nothing but grieve.
"Frei, why do you grieve so?" Freya's voice was cool and unemotional.
The younger goddess did not answer. She hadn't expected Freya to be sad about what had happened, but that didn't mean that she had to like it.
"What you did was necessary, Frei," Freya continued. "Must you act like a child?"
"You think I act like a child...?" Frei echoed slowly, her voice strained and roughened by sobs. She lifted her head to stare out across the battlefield. "I... I think that if... if acting like an adult means that I ought to enjoy destroying things like this, I... I want to be a child."
She heard Freya sigh. For a second she was jealous of her - why did Freya have to be so strong? Frei wasn't strong, not in any respect. She wasn't like the other Aesir. "Why did I have to do it?" she asked again, staring down at the scorched earth. "Why did this sword have to pick me? It isn't as if I really do anything. Why me?"
"That is not for us to know, Frei." Freya hovered next to her sister. She was smiling, but Frei knew that there was something else in her voice. She was being impatient again. "I do not understand why their deaths upset you so. They are humans. The ones that were truly evil have gone to Nifleheim, where they can receive the punishment that they deserve. And those with some hope of redemption will be reborn, and given a second chance to prove their worth. Why-?"
"That's not it," Frei answered, sounding a bit sulky. "You don't understand, I just... I don't want to be able to do it. I don't like how it feels. I don't want to start liking it when I destroy things!"
Freya shook her head. "Frei... you must return to Valhalla soon. You cannot stay here for long. Others will come here in search of their lost comrades."
"I know." She didn't move. "I want to see the elves again. Can I go visit Alfheim when I get back?"
Freya hesitated, then nodded. "Yes... I suppose that it would be safe enough to visit them now. They were our allies, after all. Do not linger here for long, sister."
Freya vanished. Frei had to admit, she was a little relieved. It was hard being around her sister, sometimes; it just seemed like she didn't care sometimes.
I'm being silly, she chided herself. It's not like it's the first time I've had to do this. This... this isn't like me at all, is it? Still, it was nagging at her. Maybe it had just been too long, or maybe she was just tired.
Or maybe it was just that she hadn't had anyone to talk to about this for so long. Ever since they'd caught Loki trying to tamper with some artifact or another, and had locked him up until they could figure out what to do with him... well, he was one of the only people who she'd been able to talk to about this sort of thing. There were the Einherjar, of course - she got along really well with some of them, like Kashell - but they were mortals. They wouldn't understand something like that.
Well, Freya was right, she couldn't stay there. And it wasn't as if she was going to be able to do any good. She didn't like dwelling on things she couldn't change.
She uncurled herself, standing up in midair, and took one long last look over the blasted plain. Then, she blinked the tears from her eyes - she wasn't going to cry in Valhalla, it wasn't expected of her there - and turned back towards home, leaving Midgard behind as she disappeared.
Kashell just wasn't feeling like himself, he thought as he stared at the target ahead of him. Aside from a couple of crossbow bolts sticking out from near the edges, it was untouched. It figured.
It was late in the evening, and the sun was beginning to set. They'd been training all day as usual, that time in the rudiments of archery; Ull was standing watch over them as they adapted to bows and crossbows.
He'd spent some time trying to decide with weapon he preferred, had lingered over both for a long moment, and then had finally just shook his head and grabbed a medium crossbow - it was fairly light, he could probably learn to use it with one hand, and it looked a lot easier to shoot than the normal bows. And he'd been right - it had been easier to shoot, but if he was any judge it was a hell of a lot harder to aim.
The three Einherjar were firing into the sunset, their targets barely visible... which went a long way towards explaining why only one of the archers was hitting his target. But then, that didn't surprise Kashell in the least. Badrach tended to shoot everywhere and hope that something hit the target, and didn't seem used to taking aim at all; Janus was damn good with a crossbow and the light didn't seem to bother him all that much.
Kashell, on the other hand, was going half-blind just trying to look at his target. Besides, he couldn't really feel what he was doing; he didn't really care. He'd been like that for the past two days, now... ever since he'd made that visit to Midgard.
He loosed another bolt, not bothering to aim. There wasn't anyone out there that he'd end up hurting anyway. He was too preoccupied to -
"Ha!" Badrach shouted triumphantly, right into his ear. "Damn close to a bull's-eye! What do you think of /that?/"
Janus lowered his crossbow and studied the targets. "That isn't one of your bolts," he said quietly.
Kashell looked up. Sure enough, the bolt that had made it within a finger's width of the bull's-eye on Badrach's target was fletched with blue feathers. It was his. He looked away, trying not to meet anyone's eyes. "Heh, sorry, guys. Guess I'm just not in the mood today." He shook his head and walked away, patting Llewelyn on the shoulder as he headed out. "Your turn," he said as he passed, trying his best to sound friendly about it.
No one made a move to stop him, which in a weird way made him feel worse. Lawfer and Aelia should've said something, at least. Maybe they all thought he needed some space... hell, maybe he did. Maybe he was just being a big baby about the whole thing - it wasn't like he had any excuse for not being able to do a damn thing right.
Tyr was waiting for him at the gates of Valhalla. Kashell stood up as straight as he could manage, bracing himself. He'd been expecting this. "Hey, sir," he said, trying to sound casual.
The war god didn't acknowledge his greeting. He was frowning slightly, and there was the slightest trace of concern in his eyes. "You seem to be distracted, Kashell. You've done poorly lately," he said. His voice was deep and hoarse, and almost completely emotionless. "Ull tells me that you've had trouble with archery."
"Yeah, I know," he said miserably. "I'm really sorry about that."
"What is it that is troubling you?"
"Dunno. Just had a bad week, I guess." Kashell shifted his weight from one foot to another. "I'm gonna skip the feasting tonight and get some rest, ok? Maybe that'll get whatever's going on off my back. I mean, I don't wanna disappoint anyone."
"I suppose." Tyr stepped aside. "I expect some improvement from you soon, however. I don't wish to have to speak to you a second time."
"Improvement. Yeah, sure," he answered, forcing a smile. "Sounds like a plan. I guess I'll see ya in the morning, then." He walked into the castle. He really did need to lie down, he thought - he'd said that just to get away from Tyr, but maybe he had something there. He hadn't slept all that much for the past two nights, and it wasn't helping his state of mind.
He wasn't even sure why it would be bothering him so much. Maybe it was just superficial - he'd thought he'd known somebody, and then they turned out to be completely different. Maybe it was just the shock of seeing it.
Maybe it was the tears on her face, or the way that she whispered out her apologies to a dead battlefield. Yeah, he thought, that was probably it. Didn't sound to him like she was too happy about what she'd done. In a weird way that made him feel a little better, at least in a sense; if she wasn't happy about it, it didn't seem so bizarre. But why would the Aesir make her do something like that if she hated it? Didn't seem right...
Kashell turned a corner and looked up, and had to catch his breath. Frei was standing right there, near a pair of Aesir maidens. They were talking, and the maidens were smiling brightly. Frei, however, was just barely smiling. She wasn't looking them in the face, and Kashell could hardly hear her voice at all.
Finally the maidens turned away, walking down the hall. Frei watched as they walked away for a long moment, as they laughed and shook their heads. Then she bowed her head and turned around - and stopped. "Kashell?" she asked dully.
"Hey," he said, smiling. "Haven't seen you in a while."
"Oh, um, I've been kinda busy," she said quickly, trying her best to really smile. It was half-convincing, and never quite reached her eyes. "What about you? What's wrong?"
"What do you mean?" he hedged.
"Well, I heard stuff, you know? Ull's a little disappointed, and Tyr's all worried. Don't tell him I said this, but he thinks really highly of you and that something's gotta be up-"
"Not really." Hell, enough hedging. He was going to tell the truth; it had always worked for him before. "Mostly I've been wondering about you."
The smile flickered away suddenly, and her expression faded to a wan sort of sadness. "Kashell... I don't know what you mean," she answered slowly. "I really don't..."
He glanced around the hall and lowered his voice. "Look," he whispered, "I saw what happened. I was worried about you when you just ran away, and I followed you. I know what... what you did. I don't look down on you," he said quickly as her face fell. "I mean, you're one of the Aesir, maybe you've gotta... do things like that sometimes, right? Just... it's bothering you, I can tell, and I want to help out. Listen, if I can, or-"
"Shh." She pressed a finger to his lips. "I... don't want to talk about it here, ok? We'll go to...'" She paused to think, then brightened just a tiny bit. "We'll go to your room."
"Yeah." He nodded as he spoke - at least she'd agreed to talk to him. Maybe everything would be ok after all. "That'll be fine."
They walked back to the room in relative silence; Kashell didn't try to start any conversations on the way. He was afraid of how she'd react if he tried to press the issue too quickly. When they arrived he opened the door for her, and let her walk in ahead of him. She sat down on the bed again, and stared up at the Vainslayer again. But her face was full of pain, not mere benevolent interest; it seemed as if her heart was about to break.
Kashell didn't sit down that time. He stood up, and leaned against the wall. It was cold against his back, but he forced himself not to notice. He waited patiently as Frei fidgeted around on the bed, trying to make herself more comfortable.
"Ok. So... you said you saw all of what happened," she said, her voice wavering. "So what exactly did you see?"
"I saw you," he said, hesitating only slightly. "You were standing there, just watching as that.. that sword destroyed all of the golems. I've heard of that sword, Frei. It's a legend on Midgard... some people thought it was just a fairy tale. " As soon as he said it, she closed her eyes, and he knew it had been the wrong thing to say. "Sorry," he backpedaled. "I didn't really mean to -"
"It's all right." She looked back up at him, still trying to smile. "The sword's been with me for a long time now. Ever since... well, it's a long story."
"I've got time."
Frei nodded. "You know how I told you about how I got sent over here by the Vanir? Well, it happened shortly after that. I don't know how or anything. The sword just... found me." She shook her head. "I don't even know why it waited so long. I mean, it was in Odin's palace, said it had been waiting there ever since he claimed the throne of Creation, and then when I came in this new body... it said that it had known I was coming. That it had been waiting for me. And ever since then, it's always been... nearby, somewhere, just waiting for me to call it."
"To call? You mean, it doesn't just... appear when it's needed?"
"It can't," she answered. "It said that it has no eyes or ears of its own. It has to rely on mine. And I have to call it to look at a situation when it wants, because it can't do that, either. Its creators said that it would've been too powerful if it had been able to act on its own."
Kashell scratched his head, and his curiosity got the better of him. "Well... what about when the Vanir were fighting you? Why didn't you use it then?" He knew as soon as he said it that it had been the wrong thing to ask.
"I tried. Odin asked me to, so I asked it to help us whenever they attacked. But it said no. It said..." She scrunched up her face, as if trying to remember. "It said that it existed to help preserve the order of existence, and that destroying the Vanir would only make the things that it wanted to destroy worse. I tried to ask it what it meant - I mean, wouldn't having the Lord of Creation killed unbalance all kinds of things? But it wouldn't say. It just told me I wouldn't understand."
Kashell looked at her, his surprise beginning to fade. He thought that maybe he was beginning to understand. "And you wanted to-"
"I just don't like it," Frei interrupted, staring down at her fingers. She didn't seem to have heard him. "I don't like having to tell it what to destroy. If I could get rid of it, make it go away... sometimes I think I'd be a lot happier."
"Maybe it chose you because you don't like telling it what to do." It had come to him without thinking - he'd been strongly reminded of something he'd said to Celia once, when she'd been upset about having to kill a man because he'd refused to surrender to them. Celia hadn't liked to kill when she didn't have to, either...
"What?" Frei looked at him, puzzled. In her mind, that didn't make any sense. All weapons were made to destroy, even weapons like Gungnir that were rarely truly used. That was why Frei hated them all so much.
"Well, look up at that." He pointed to the sword above him, the one that Frei had noticed before. "I know that it's not much up here, but back on Midgard it was a really powerful weapon. More powerful than most people ever saw, even... and I know what some people would do with it. They'd kill everything they could." His face darkened. "But I don't think it was made to be used that way. It wasn't meant to kill everything, just dark magic. Evil things. I guess I'm lucky that I'm the one who found it, so that it didn't fall into the wrong hands."
"Kashell... you don't understand," Frei said automatically. But her voice wavered, and her eyes weren't quite as anguished as they had been.
"Yeah, I know. It's a lot worse for you because it's more powerful, right?" Kashell walked over to the bed and sat down. He wrapped one arm around her shoulders, hoping that he wasn't overstepping any boundaries; it just didn't seem right not to do something like that. "It's not the power that matters, ok? It's how you use it. If you only use it when you have to, or when it helps people... well, you're doing okay. It's people who kill just for the fun of it that scare me."
Frei took off her brown cap and leaned against him, resting her head on his shoulder. "I just hope I never turn into one of those people."
"I don't think that's gonna happen."
"You don't even know me all that well, though."
"I don't have to, do I? My friends always said I was a good judge of character."
She smiled. "Well, I sure hope they're right."
"Oh, of course they are. Trust me," he said, glib as ever. Not to say that he was calm, but things were... well, not completely out of control. Not quite what he'd expected, but in a pretty good way. "It'd be pretty stupid for me to try to lie to you, right?"
"You'd better believe it!" She laughed a little as she said it, sounding more like the person he remembered when he'd talked to her before. Kashell smiled too.
Seems like things are gonna be fine...
Frei had been surprised when Kashell had confronted her. She'd been even more surprised that neither her nor her sister had realized that they'd been overheard before.
But that didn't mean that she wanted to go anywhere, she thought as she leaned against his shoulder. She wrapped one arm around his waist and hugged him as best she could. Kashell might be mortal, but he seemed like a pretty level-headed mortal... and it was really nice to have someone around who knew about the sword and didn't treat her like a time bomb that was just about to go off. Even Loki had been kinda weird about that.
She would've been very happy to doze off there, maybe lie down and go to sleep; the bed was still lumpy and hard, but she was feeling pretty warm and cozy there. But she was really hungry, and Freya was going to be looking for her in the Great Hall. She couldn't just blow her sister off, or else she might come looking for her, and that might be a little awkward.
"I've got to go," she said sleepily.
"Oh... ok." Kashell sounded a bit disappointed, but he let her go without any protest. She stood up and stretched her arms over her head, yawning. "I guess I'll see you later then."
"Yeah," she said. Then a thought occurred to her, something that she was pretty sure that her sister wouldn't approve of. But it was such a good idea that she didn't really care. "Hey, Kashell, I've got an idea. You've heard of Alfheim. right?"
"Hm? That's... oh, yeah, the world of the light elves, right?" Kashell had shifted his weight around, and had picked up her cap. He reached out and held it up for her.
"Yeah - oh, thank you," she said, taking the cap and placing it back on her head. "Well, I... I'm gonna visit it in a couple of days. You wanna come with me?"
Kashell blinked. "Wow... really? You think it would be ok? I mean, Tyr wouldn't be upset or anything?"
"Not if I said it was ok! Trust me, it would be just fine. And I think you'd really like the place."
"Please, Kashell?" she interrupted. "It'll be a lot more fun if you come with me!"
"Sure, ok. As long as it's ok with everyone else." He grinned. "You talked me into it."
She laughed. "Okay! Just let me get everything ready, okay? It'll take a couple of days."
"Hey, I'm not goin' anywhere."
"Yeah, um, don't tell anybody about this yet, ok? Just leave it to me. I'll see you soon!" Frei grinned - then, impulsively she leaned down and kissed him on the cheek. Then she rushed out of the room, shutting the door quickly behind her.
Getting everything ready shouldn't be too hard, she mused. It wasn't like she'd be breaking any real rules, as long as she stayed with him the whole time. Still... she'd just done something that she knew that Freya was not going to be happy about.
And she didn't really care. She felt really good, if a little bit nervous. It had been a really sudden idea, deciding to take him with her like that, and she was really glad that it had turned out the way she'd hoped it would.
She kind of liked Kashell, although she didn't know him well enough to say much more beyond that. He kind of reminded her of Loki, in a way, which was strange because the two of them were nothing alike. Well, except maybe in the way they walked, that weird sort of swagger they both had. That was it, though - and she didn't know how to explain it, except maybe that she felt happy when she was around them. Most of the time, anyway. It was nicer with Kashell, if she thought about it hard enough, since he didn't say things that her sister would've disapproved of.
Her sister. Yeah, she was going to have to be really careful around Freya for a little while... she'd never approve of her being friends or anything with a mortal. But she'd be forgiven once she'd shown her that she'd made up her mind. She always was. Besides, she was really feeling too happy to worry about anything like that anymore; the bad mood she'd been in for the past few days was all but gone. Yes, it was really, really nice to have someone to talk to again....
She hummed a happy song to herself all the way back to her room.
Two days later...
"Ha!" Kashell cheered triumphantly. "Another bull's-eye!"
Badrach threw down his own bow and stared at the row of targets. Kashell's blue-fletched bolt was plainly visible in the center of a target, while Badrach's yellow bolt was nowhere to be seen. "Dammit, I missed again! What's goin' on here?"
"Well," Kashell answered lightly, "I'm winning, for one thing." He was grinning like an idiot; he'd been doing really well the past few days. Seemed like it was just easier to concentrate on everything, like he was really relaxed.
"Oh, cmon! Badrach groused. "A couple days ago you couldn't hit a damn thing!" He walked up to Kashell and grabbed the crossbow he'd been using. "Lemme see that!"
"Sure, knock yourself out. I've got nothing to hide." Kashell said, letting go of the bow as Badrach tried to pull it away. He couldn't help but smile as the old codger stumbled backwards, swearing just under his breath as he tried to regain his balance. There was a smattering of laughter around them as he stared at the bow, prodding at the firing mechanism and muttering to himself.
"Good job," Ull said approvingly, grinning at the exchange. "You certainly have improved; I'm impressed. Looks like Tyr was right about you after all."
"Thanks," he answered, smiling back. "Good to know you won't have to worry too much about me, huh?"
The young-looking man laughed. "Yes, that's true. I think I can see who I'm going to have to watch out for."
"Wha - wait a second!" Badrach looked up at the two. "What do you mean by-"
"But I think that we've had enough training for the day," Ull continued, apparently ignoring the crusty old man. "I'm sure Tyr will be waiting for you." And with that he vanished - like most of the Aesir, he didn't even bother to say goodbye. Kashell didn't really mind; he'd gotten used to it.
He didn't even notice Aelia approaching him until she was right next to him. "All right, lover boy," she said as soon as he looked over at him. She was grinning, her heart-shaped face roguishly innocent. "Spill it. What's going on?"
"Yeah, good morning to you too. Now what are you talkin' about?" he answered glibly, shaking his head and throwing in a laugh for good measure.
"Oh, come on, stop playing dumb. It's obvious what's happening here. I can see it in your face. There's somebody you've got your eye on!" She laughed. Aelia was way too eager to tease him - he was just about the only man around that she would joke with like that.
"Why are you sayin' that? What tipped you off?"
"It's obvious, Kashell. You spend a couple of days moping around, then the next day you're all smiles again? What else could it be?" She elbowed him lightly and winked. "So what are you going to do now, hm? Head off with your sweetheart and leave the rest of us all alone?"
"Well-" He looked around, rubbing the back of his head and trying to think of some way to get out of the conversation. Luck was with him, fortunately - he turned his head and saw Frei standing at the top of the hill, smiling at him. She started waving her arms madly as soon as she saw him.
He grinned slowly. "Now that you mention it, I think that's a pretty good idea."
She looked up at the hill, then back at Kashell. Her jaw dropped as she put two and two together. "Kashell! You mean... you and...?"
"Well, who'd you think it was? Sorry, Aelia, but I told you before. You're not my type," he joked - then dodged a playful punch. One thing about Aelia, she was really hard to shock completely. "I can't keep a goddess waiting, can I?"
"Kashell, you come back here-!" But she was laughing, and Kashell was laughing too as he waved good-bye.
Frei waited until Kashell was halfway up the hill, then turned and ran. Kashell pushed himself harder; he'd chased enough girls in his lifetime to know what she was expecting him to do. They were well away from the practice range when he finally caught up with her, and he was thankful for his now godlike stamina by then.
"Hey, Frei, what's the big idea?" he asked her playfully. "Talk about all this secret stuff, and then come up and drag me away in front of everybody-"
"Oh, shush," she said, putting a finger on his lips. "I know what I'm doing!"
He reached up and grabbed her hand, pulled it away from his mouth. "Yeah, well, I'm glad somebody does." He squeezed her hand without thinking before he let go. "So you said you'd show me Alfheim, right? How are we gonna get there?"
"Oh, I'll take you. It's easy. You just have to hold on."
"Hold on? What-" He realized what she was talking about rather belatedly, just a split second before she stepped up to him and wrapped her arms around him. He was caught pretty off-guard, but he had to hand it to himself - he caught on pretty fast. He was ready for her when she kissed him, though, and kissed her back - not much of a kiss, really, a little bit more than a peck. Still, it had been a while, and he really didn't give a damn who was around to see it.
She giggled. "You've done that before, huh?"
"Yeah, well... a couple of times, I guess," he answered.
"You're blushing, silly." She tossed her head. "We can't stay here all day, can we? Hang on tight!"
The two vanished in a shimmer of distorted light.
A/N: Yay. It's done.
Inspired by a cursory reading of Norse Mythology a while ago; I've since read more, enough to know that I've taken quite a few liberties with the myths for the purpose of the fic. But then again, so did the game itself, so I'm not too worried.
This story is not to be taken the slightest bit seriously. I can only blame crack for it. Still, it was a fun story to write and I hope someone will enjoy reading it too.