The sky above Delphi was the color of raw jade when the Pythia mounted her tripod seat. The great colonnade of the temple creaked like ships masts in a storm, and the hillside quaked and quivered. The priestess’ face was pale, and her eyes hollow with fear as she looked out over the gathered petitioners. Their fear matched her own, and a murmur ran through them at the sight of her face.
Outside the temple, the winds whipped and horses whinnied in growing unease. The priests spoke quietly among themselves, casting anxious glances at her – and at the vent from which issued the sacred pneuma. She took a breath, and then another, trying to calm her racing heart. She was the Oracle at Delphi, and this place was hers, by the will of the gods. She closed her eyes, and drew in a lungful of blessed smoke.
Almost immediately, she began to cough. The smoke seemed to thrash within her, and her body spasmed in sympathetic agony. She tried to scream, but it came out as a hoarse gasp. In her mind’s eye, an awful immensity swelled. Unnameable and unknowable, it filled her mind, driving out all thought and leaving only a heedless terror.
As she thrashed and groaned on her seat, a great weight pressed down on her lungs, her heart.. her soul. The future, once so clear, was now like shards of shattered glass. As she watched, unable to look away, the shards turned the color of night and winked out, one by one. Until there was no future at all.
At last, the Oracle screamed.
Outside, the wind howled in exultation.
As the echoes of the great reverberation faded, Mulan felt a tremor run through her. The prayers that flowed along the underside of her mind were growing louder – but fewer. As if her followers were growing desperate and falling silent, one by one. She shook her head. She was new to godhood, but that did not seem like a thing that should happen.
But mixed among the familiar voices of her.. worshipers, were other voices. They cried out in unison, chanting a name. At least she thought it a name. It sounded like gibberish to her. The vowels were squirmy and oily in her mind, flicking away even as she tried to make sense of them. These voices were growing louder, drowning out those of her followers. She looked up to find Olorun studying her.
“You hear it as well,” he said, softly.
“We all hear it,” Zeus growled. “It is growing louder. But what is it?” He shook his shaggy head. “It is familiar.. but foreign. Like something from a dream.” He looked at Hera. “Like something from the days of Cronos..”
Hera turned away. “Not him.”
“Then what?” Zeus turned his glare on Persephone. “While I was trapped, I dreamed. We all did. I saw things.. I saw..” He trailed off. Lightning crackled about him, and Mulan wondered if he felt as uneasy she did. He shook his head in frustration. Hera laid a hand on his back, as if to comfort him. He tensed, but only for a moment.
“Madness,” Guan-Yu said. Zeus turned, a quizzical expression on his face. “For months now, I have dreamed of a world gone mad,” Guan-Yu continued. “Skies the color of jade and burning seas.” He turned and gestured about him. “And I see this place. Or some place very much like it.” He paused, and took a deep breath. “This place stinks of the deeps of the sea. But we are far from any ocean.”
Ratatoskr gave a chattering laugh. “You don’t know anything, do you? These waters feed into every ocean in the Nine Realms. This is the headwater of all the seas.”
Heimdallr nodded. “Disrespectful though he may be, the rodent is right. These waters run deep and spill out across the realms.. though I do not know how. It is a mystery even to the Allfather.”
“It is not just the tree that is sick,” Zeus said, as he crouched at the edge of the root they stood on. “The seas are dying as well. Or so Poseidon insists.”
Mulan followed his gaze, and saw that the murky waters below had grown darker still. Where they lapped against the rocky islands, they left an oily residue. Farther out, she could see the pale forms of dead fish – or what she thought must be fish. But she could not bring herself to look too closely. “Perhaps that is why Nidhogg has fled.”
“It would take more than brackish water to put the old serpent to flight,” Ratatoskr said doubtfully. He clutched his tail and began to groom it nervously.
“It is all connected,” Persephone said, suddenly. “When the tree flourishes, so too does life. When it falters..” She fell silent.
“Was this your plan, then?” Hera asked. “Poison the world, and rule the ashes?”
“No,” Persephone said. “I wanted to control the tree – to harness its magics. But I made a mistake. I.. overestimated myself. My power.”
“Then fix it,” Hera said. “Whatever you did, undo it.”
“I tried.” Persephone shook her head. “It’s as if what I did was just a – a catalyst. I created a weakness and now it’s being exploited.”
“Then there is someone else to blame,” Mulan said. “Someone – or something.”
The old man cast the runes across the tanned hide of a deer. They landed in odd patterns, and Egil could make no sense of them. “Well?” he growled. “What do they say? What does the future hold for us?” Outside the old man’s cave, the wind rose and Egil could hear waves crashing against the rocky shore.
The old man was silent as he stared at the runes. Without replying, he scooped them up and tossed them again, but with more force. Impatient now, and not a little uneasy, Egil’s hand tightened on the hilt of his sword. He glanced towards the mouth of the cave, where his men waited to hear what he’d learned.
The sky beyond their worried faces was an ugly color, like an emerald stained with mud. It had grown darker, as if a storm was brewing somewhere. Lightning flashed among the ragged clouds. He felt a chill and turned back to the old man. “Answer me, old man. The sea grows impatient and so do I.”
The old man cast the runes again. And again. His hands shook with each toss, as if what he read had terrified him. “No,” he said, almost hissing the word. “No.”
“No what?” Egil demanded. “What do you see?”
“Nothing,” the old man said, still bent over the stones.
Snarling in impatience, Egil reached for him. “What do they say, old man? What awaits us? Answer me!”
The old man looked up – and Egil stumbled back, an oath on his lips. The old man’s eyes had gone the color of salt, and he wept blood. On the floor of the cave, the stones rattled without being touched.
“Madness,” the old man said. The word sounded like a plea.
“There is nothing more to be gained here,” Olorun said. He looked out over the waters, his expression grim. “If Nidhogg is gone, we must seek answers elsewhere. Perhaps the Allfather..” he began, turning to Heimdallr.
The watchman of Asgard shook his head. “If Odin knows, he is keeping it to himself.”
Zeus gave a bark of laughter. “Aye, he’s cunning that one. Parcels out his vaunted wisdom in dribs and drabs. He probably sent the squirrel as a spy.”
“He didn’t! He’s as much at a loss as the rest of you,” Ratatoskr chittered angrily.
“And how would you know?” Heimdallr said, rounding on the squirrel.
“He called me to Valhalla. I saw.. well, I heard.. I don’t know what I heard.” Ratatoskr looked around nervously. “It was a voice – but not a voice. Or at least not like any sort of voice I’ve ever heard.”
“What did it say?” Mulan asked. Something told her the answer was important, though she could not say why. But before the squirrel could answer, the sound returned, its fury redoubled. It slammed against the air like an animal against the bars of its cage.
Mulan staggered and clutched at her head as the noise rose to an inescapable crescendo. It felt as if all the devils of all the hells were pounding against the inside of her skull. Through tear-stung eyes, she saw that the others were similarly afflicted. Whatever it was, they could all hear it – and feel it, down to their very marrow.
Olorun was shouting something, but even his voice was drowned out by the cacophonous sound. And with every reverberation, Yggdrasil shook like a sapling caught in a high wind. The roots convulsed, threatening to throw the assembled gods from their perches. Even Ratatoskr could not maintain a steady grip on the tree. Overhead, the great trunk groaned and squealed as it twisted in place – as if the tree were trying to uproot itself and escape whatever it was that approached.
She fought to maintain her balance, but even so, nearly slipped. Guan-Yu caught her forearm in a grip like iron. “Hold on, sister,” he shouted as he pulled her close. But even as he spoke, she could hear the crackle of splintering wood. She saw Persephone, her arms thrust out as if pleading with the great tree to hold itself together. But if Yggdrasil heard her, it gave no sign. Perhaps it could not.
Strips of bark sloughed from the trunk above, falling like a slow avalanche, forcing the gods to dodge this way and that. Zeus snatched Hera aside, saving her from being knocked into the waters. Argus sheltered the pair from the rain of bark. Heimdallr had anchored himself with his axe and Guan-Yu had done the same with his spear, but the roots were withering, curling in on themselves, almost ready to fall away beneath their feet.
Below, the waters of the lake were suddenly surging back and forth as if stirred by some great wind. Around and around they went, and the stony islands that dotted the lake’s surface began to sink as if something were dragging them under. An ugly jade light shimmered beneath the churning surface, growing brighter with every passing moment – until it became almost blinding.
And beneath it.. a shadow.
A shadow, rising.
The waters surged and twisted, as if the sea itself were in pain. Everywhere, schools of fish darted for the surface, leaping into the air with panicked determination. Great sharks rose from the depths, arrowing away from the canyons and trenches that were their usual hunts. Whales beached themselves in a desperate frenzy of self-destruction.
Poseidon watched it all in growing horror. He had scoured the depths for days, seeking some answer to the madness that now gripped his domains. But wherever the god of the sea went, he found nothing save death and insanity. It was as if the oceans themselves had been driven mad. Great reefs of sickly coral pierced the ocean floor, rising like newborn mountains. Wherever it spread fell, lunacy followed. On the surface, the inhabitants of coastal towns and fishing villages walked unheeding into the sea, following the siren call of some malign presence.
Poseidon could feel it himself. Had been feeling it for days. It ate away at his composure like a slow acid, filling him with rage – and not a little fear. He had not felt the latter since the day his own father had devoured him; indeed, he had thought it burnt out of him. But the farther he traveled, the more he felt it.
Far below him, the ocean floor trembled. Geysers of murk spewed upwards as the bedrock shifted. He paused, spotting something amid the drifting shadows.
A city was rising from the deep.
Mulan raised her hand, trying to protect her eyes from the burning radiance. In her head, the chanting grew louder. She could hear it properly now, as if the chanters were close by. The words stabbed into her, as painfully as any blade.
Iä! Iä! Cthulhu fhtagn!
It was a prayer of some sort. She felt it in her marrow. But a prayer to what – to who?
Iä! Iä! Cthulhu fhtagn!
The words had an ugly weight to them. As if they were somehow more solid than the world around them. They fell like lightning, and she felt sick – hurt. Nor was she alone in that. Olorun staggered as the tumult increased, clutching at his head. “The stars..” he groaned, and strange echoes jolted through the air. “The stars are screaming.” He sank to one knee, and his eyes burned with a familiar jade light.
Hera was at his side an instant later. “Zeus – help me,” she shouted.
“Leave him,” Zeus roared. “Our enemy reveals himself.” He flexed his arms, and moments later, they were sheathed in lightning. “Look – something comes.”
Mulan turned. At first, she thought a mountain had risen from the misty waters while they’d been distracted. But when its wings unfurled, she realized that it was no mountain at all. It was something far worse.
IÄ! IÄ! CTHULHU FHTAGN.
This time, it was not a chant. It was a statement of intent. A challenge. She felt her thoughts twist and fray as she gazed at the horror. It was impossibly vast. It was humanoid, but only in the vaguest possible sense. Two great wings stretched out from its back, darkening the sky. Its head was the worst – a blubbery, squid-like mass, with eyes that shone like dead moons.
It paused for a moment, like a sleeper newly awakened from a dream. Then, it spread its long arms and took a single, crashing step towards Yggdrasil. The tree shivered, as if in fear. Another step, and water surged, swallowing islands.
Mulan tore her eyes from the beast and saw that the others were as transfixed as she. Heimdallr and Guan-Yu had taken up positions to either side of Zeus, but their weapons hung slack in their hands. Hera joined her husband, leaving Argus to loom protectively over Olorun. Ratatoskr clung to Argus’ shoulders, chittering in fear. Persephone stood a little apart from the others, staring in horror at the approaching monster.
With every step it took, the waters of the lake roiled and thrashed. In its wake, the stony islands crumbled – no. Changed. As if they were reshaping themselves. But into what, she could not say. Again, it spoke. Again, the air pulsed and her head throbbed with the awful weight of its voice.
PH’NGLUI MGLW’NAFH CTHULHU R’LYEH WGAH-NAGL FHTAGN.
Zeus roared in challenge, even as the echo of its words faded. Of them all, only the former king of Olympus seemed unawed by the approaching monster. Lightning arced about him as he hurled himself towards it, leaping from Yggdrasil like a comet. It made no move to defend itself, gave no sign that it even noticed the approaching god. It kept moving, inexorable, unstoppable.
IÄ! IÄ! CTHULHU FHTAGN
Zeus struck. A maelstrom erupted, and Mulan fell back as jagged lightning lashed Yggdrasil, struck the waters and seared the mists. Bolt after bolt slammed home into the towering abomination, but it did not stop. Did not cease speaking. Not in words now, but in images – pictures burned into the surface of her mind.
She saw ancient jungles and cold stars. Saw great islands rise from the first ocean, and break apart into the primeval lands from which all others came. Saw men and women, making obeisance to awful idols in swamps and polar wastes. And through it all, the creature had been there. Sleeping in the depths. It had ruled before man, and would rule after him.
It was so close now, she could feel the chill clinging to its rubbery hide. She could smell the reek of the ocean depths. It studied them the way a man might study an insect, but there was nothing remotely human – or divine – in that pitiless gaze. Just a cold, malign curiosity. Its eyes seemed to swallow her up.
She saw stars, and a black void spinning into entropy. She heard the death-screams of worlds without number, and the thunder of titanic wings. And above it all, those burning eyes – examining her, breaking her down, taking stock and finally, dismissing her entirely.
It was not a god. She knew that as surely as she knew that it had existed long before the gods. Pantheons had risen and fallen while it slept. And that it would exist long after the last of them had withered to nothing.
It was gone.
Persephone moaned suddenly, causing Mulan to jerk towards her. The goddess was on her knees, sobbing. “The tree,” Heimdallr said, before Mulan could speak. She looked up.
Yggdrasil had changed. The roots beneath their feet had become black and withered. The power she’d felt radiating from it before was growing fainter by the moment. Persephone’s sobs had quieted. “My fault,” she moaned. “My doing..” All the arrogance, all the strength, seemed to have drained from her. “I did this,” she said, in a voice like dust.
No one replied. What was there to say? At a loss, Mulan dropped down beside her and wrapped an arm about the sobbing goddess’ shoulders.
“Where is it?” Zeus roared, crashing down onto the root a moment later. Lightning still swirled about him as he glared wildly. “Where did it go?”
“It was never here,” Olorun said, his voice hoarse. Hera helped him to his feet. “It was just a shadow – a sending. An echo.”
“An echo of what? What was that thing?” Hera asked. “It was no titan or monster.”
“No. It was worse,” Mulan croaked. She strained, but could no longer hear the voices of her followers. A sudden fear gripped her and she knew the others felt it as well. The world above had gone silent, all at once.
“And now it is free.”
Baba Yaga felt her chicken-legged house shudder in a sudden paroxysm of fear. The skulls on her shelves rolled and clattered, as if trying to flee. She closed her eyes and sighed. “Too late. He’s awake. And only themselves to blame.”
She went to the door and looked out. The sky was the color of gangrene and the rain tasted of salt water. The clouds above roiled, contorting themselves into vague, ugly shapes. A tremor ran through the forest, and birds rose into the sky in a shrieking mass. As the old witch watched, the trees caught fire – burning with a pallid light. She flinched back, shielding her eyes. This was a magic older even than hers. A deep wisdom, and foul.
Abruptly, she turned away and slammed the door behind her. But there was yet a chance, though a slim one. She stamped on the floor. “Come, we must go. North. Into the far wastes. We must find a place to hide and wait out the storm.”
Her house lurched into motion, its talons gouging the earth as it hurtled north. As it ran, she began to hurl ingredients into her mortar. She had many spells to weave before the end. She bared her teeth at the window, and the oily streaks of rain that ran down it. She would not go quietly, whatever happened.
The world had slumbered for millennia, and dreamed itself a more pleasant reality. But now it was waking up, and the dream was fading. Its oldest and truest master had awakened at last. The seas would boil and the ground would crack. Mankind would turn from the gods of their fathers, and learn new ways to revel and kill.
The sky had grown dark now, and she could feel his stirring in her bones. The gods would be as nothing before him, struggle though they might. He was older than the oldest of the gods – and his power was beyond their understanding.
Cthulhu had risen.
And madness followed in his wake.