Two

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This part I piece together only later, dredged up from the fragments of memories and broken bodies left behind. That means some of it is lies. But, maybe, they're entertaining lies.

And what are entertaining lies if not a story?

So. It starts within a cave, dark and foul, stinking of piss and shit and hatred. For one thousand years this cave has heard exactly two sounds and two alone. The first, that of an endless liquid drip, is incessant. A clock that marks the countdown till the end of time itself.

The liquid is not water. It's venom, falling from the ever-open jaws of a snake, hung high up in the cave. Beneath the drips lies the body of a man. He's rotting and wasted, as dead as any living thing can be, chained to three great rocky slabs by the enchanted entrails of his murdered son. When the venom drips, it falls into his face, and the man screams.

That's the second sound, and the mortals say his agony is the cause of earthquakes.

It's lucky, then, that his screaming isn't endless. Most of the time the venom is caught in a bowl, held up by a woman's shaking hands. She isn't much better kept than her near-dead husband, a puppet made from bones and brittle skin, blue eyes faded into dullness and blond hair matted into clumps. Once upon a time, she used to be a goddess. Now she waits.

One day, the dripping stops. And the woman knows her time has come.

She leaves her husband in the cave, freed of his chains and from his exile. According to a story written a thousand years before, today is the day he marches off to war. His wife has other plans, starting with whacking him across the head with the bowl she's holding.

He won't wake up for a while.

His wife leaves him, walking from the cave, step by painful, shaking step. If she stumbles, no one in the dark is there to see it.

At the mouth of the cave, an army waits. A swarming sea of monsters, all vicious teeth and scything claws, and of the dead, with rotting skin and rusting steel. At the front of the horde is a woman. Standing at least a head higher than her army, she's dressed in black robes that hide her eyes and hands, leaving only a lipless rictus grin and feet like the talons of a raven.

The woman has wings, small and flightless, and horns, twisted and huge. Her name is Hel, and once upon a time she was banished from the realm of gods, cursed to watch over the dishonored dead. Thieves and murderers, oath-breakers and cowards.

She is their queen, and she's also the bound god's daughter.

The woman who stumbles from the dark is not Hel's mother, but Hel loves her all the same. She gestures, and hollow-eyed serving girls come forth to clean the woman's skin and peel off her stinking rags. The girls re-dress her in a man's tunic and trousers. Gray-skinned page boys bring forth food, dead warriors produce a chair. Thus does the woman eat her first meal in an aeon. Her first, and her last.

The dead honor her, for today she honors them.

Today, she dies.

There's a ship called Naglfari, made from the nails of the dead. It sets sail carrying Hel's forsaken army, the bound god's wife standing at the helm.

Dressed in heavy armor fit to hide her sunken cheeks, she leads them into battle.

The prophecy says this place is her husband's, that he should ride the dead ship off to war, should clash with gods until he falls. This is the Wyrd his wife would break. At her side, a huge beast not unlike a wolf sits waiting, blood dripping from its eager jaws. It too knows this is the day they die.

The ship lurches and groans, water spraying on the deck. The seas beneath it roil, churning in an endless, white-capped swell. Every now and then something breaks the cold black surface; a fin, a claw, an enormous, staring eye.

The woman sees this, and she smiles.

She goes to war, and she has monsters at her side.

Three armies rise. From the sea, the dead wait upon their ship. From the south, the lands burn black as a roaring fire eats the ground. From the east, ice and snow blanket all in unending, silent cold.

This is the way the world ends. In pestilence, in flame, and in frost. Three great calamities, marching forth to meet the gods.

When they clash, the whole world beneath them bleeds.

Everyone has a fate, even the sun and the moon, devoured by the wolves that chase them.

The gods fall too, as their Wyrd would have it. Kings and warriors, broken and torn, until the ground is frozen mud and the sky is black with the ash of burning corpses. Ravens circle overhead, barely waiting for souls to die before beaks like razors tear out guts and eyes.

This is war, and today the only victors are the birds.

The woman's ax drips red with blood. She howls as she faces another foe. He's one of the chosen dead, a warrior plucked from Hel's domain and trained by gods to fight this futile war. Shields of living meat their masters throw against the hordes in endless waves, hoping to delay their own ends for moments more.

The woman hates them. She hates all of them. For herself and for her husband. For Hel and for the Wolf and for the Serpent. For her own children, and the dead she fights beside.

The gods will burn for what they've done. And the woman?

In death, she will have her victory.

Some things the woman changes. Other things she doesn't. Her husband may not die this day but, to keep her ruse, the woman must fight his final battle for him.

Across the field, she sees her target, standing tall and bright, armor barely dented by the filth and blood around.

The sight of it sends hate burning through her gut and she launches herself toward him. He turns, and, through his armor, the woman sees a smile.

Today, he thinks he slays a foe.

He is wrong, and the knowledge makes the woman grin, hidden behind steel and runes that let no one see she is not who they think.

Fools. Her husband would never wield an ax to war.

Her foe, meanwhile, wields a sword and wields it well, sharp blade slicing even as he brings his buckler up to stop the woman's ax.

They both know how this will go. Yet neither wants to be the first to fall.

The battle is a necessary lie. Perhaps the woman draws first blood, grinning as she smells it on her blade. Perhaps her foe trips her on the bloodied ground, sending her sprawling even as he hefts his sword. She kicks him and he bends double, hands grabbing between his legs as he curses someone who still dreams beneath the Tree.

The woman howls with laughter and with rage, long since taken by the red mist of the berzerk. She scrambles to her feet, raising her ax once more. This time, her foe is not so fast in the raising of his shield, catching the blade against his shoulder. He cries out, stumbling backward, and the woman lunges forward to finish what was started.

She doesn't feel the sword when it slips between her ribs.

She does feel the resistance as her weapon kisses bone. It's not a clean cut, and she raises her arms for a final strike, this time severing sinew and spine alike.

Her foe's body falls, his head bouncing as it hits the ground a moment later.

The woman gives one final laugh before she feels the pain of steel, feels the hot-slick oozing of her blood.

Perhaps she fights on, or tries to. Perhaps not. Either way, like all casualties in this pointless, foretold war, she ends up sinking in the mud, eyes turned toward the sky.

Perhaps the last things she sees are two ravens, landing by her side. They whisper secrets in her ear, and the woman does not die alone.

Perhaps. It's a nice thought, anyway.

Liesmith: Book 1 of the WyrdWhere stories live. Discover now