Ratatoskr scampered down into the dark beneath the world, trying to ignore the biting cold. His paws ached and his fur was damp from the chill mists that swirled through the forests of Yggdrasil’s tangled, frost-blackened roots.
It was a route he had travelled many times before, but it felt different now, as if the great tree he called home had become unfamiliar territory. Something had changed, and not just here, but everywhere. There were strange shadows here, made by nothing he could see. Tricks of the light, perhaps, or his own paranoia.
And then there were the sounds. Not just the interminable creaking of the great tree, but the other sounds – like voices raised in song, but far away and unintelligible. They made him think of the voice he’d heard in Valhalla – that terrible voice, echoing like the crack of doom. Odin was right. Something was coming out of the dark, coming for them all.
The thought put Ratatoskr ill at ease. He wanted to flee to the highest boughs and wait out whatever storm was on its way. But he pressed on, deeper and deeper. The Allfather had commanded and Ratatoskr would obey – though not without some complaint. Odin owed him that much, at least.
He paused as a sudden seismic tremor ran through the roots, nearly tossing him from this perch and into the waters below. The convulsions were becoming more regular. Whatever sickness gripped Yggdrasil was growing worse. He had to hurry.
Odin had commanded that he find the cause of Yggdrasil’s ailment and that meant talking to the one creature that knew more about the tree than anyone – even himself. Ratatoskr’s tail fluffed in agitation. “That lazy snake better be in the mood to talk…”
Yggdrasil’s roots stretched deep into the misty reaches of the Ginnungagap, where the chill of Niflheim met the heat of Muspelheim. At its bottom, below even the emptiness of Hel, a vast lake spread in all directions, as far as the eye could see. Islands of broken stone rose from the mist at irregular intervals and sparks cast down from Muspelheim bounced across the dark surface of the water.
It was here that the great serpent, Nidhogg, made his home. Ratatoskr crept warily down the twisted length of the root towards the water. Sometimes the wily old snake liked to play nasty little games with visitors. He paused for a safe distance above the water. “Nidhogg…come out, come out wherever you are, old serpent!”
Ratatoskr paused, head cocked. Listening. But he heard nothing, save the soft slap of water against stone and the hiss of falling embers. Nidhogg wasn’t the sort to hide. He should have at least made himself known by now. A thrill of unease rippled through him.
Something was wrong. A sound like the tolling of some immense bell shuddered up through the water and rose into the air. Yggdrasil trembled, and Ratatoskr saw the mists below disperse. He craned his neck, trying to get a better glimpse of the dark water. His ears twitched. There was something – Ratatoskr yelped as an iron grip tanked him up off the root.
“Got you,” a familiar voice growled.
“Heimdallr?” Ratatoskr chittered as he got a look at his captor. The watchman of Asgard looked angry. Then, he always looked angry.
“Who else would it be?” Heimdallr said. He turned. “There is no foe here.” He gave his captive a none-too-gentle shake. “Just Ratatoskr.”
Dangling from Heimdallr’s grip. Ratatoskr saw four other were making their way down through the tangled roots by varying methods. Ratatoskr recognized Hera, being helped down from a higher root by her hulking bodyguard, Argus, and Olorun, who had no need to climb, borne aloft by his power as he was. But the fourth –
“Zeus?” Ratatoskr squeaked.
“So. Someone remembers me at least.” The former King of Olympus gave a fierce smile. His muscular form was covered in faint scars, but his eyes blazed with power as he peered at Ratatoskr. “What is this creature doing here?”
“We’ll soon find out.” Heimdallr pulled the squirrel close. “Answer me. And none of your wit or I’ll feed you to Nidhogg myself.”
“O-Odin sent me!”
“Odin?” Heimdallr hesitated, and the squirrel took the opportunity to bite his hand. Heimdallr released his captive and Ratatoskr leapt away, tail fluffed out. He bounded from one root to the next until he was out of reach. Heimdallr started after him, a snarl on his lips.
“Stay your wrath, watchman,” Olorun said. He floated towards Ratatoskr. “Where is Odin? I asked him to meet us here.”
“He – he sent me instead.” Ratatoskr said, thinking quickly. “As his.. representative. That’s it! I’m his representative!”
Zeus laughed. “You? Things have certainly changed.”
Ratatoskr glared at him. “Why not me? I know everything there is to know about Yggdrasil.” He cocked his head and looked at Olorun. “I can’t think of any other reason you’d be here. The great tree is sick and you’ve come to find out why.”
“Yes.” Olorun smiled at Ratatoskr’s conclusion. The squirrel was a curious thing. Not quite a god, but definitely not mortal. Perhaps Odin’s choice to send the beast as his representative was not so strange as he’d first thought. “You are very clever, Ratatoskr.”
“I am the cleverest!” Ratatoskr puffed out his chest. “Another reason Odin sent me.”
Olorun nodded. He had hoped the Allfather would join them, but it was obvious that Odin had chosen to investigate the recent upheaval in his own fashion. “I am sure. And such a clever creature as yourself would be able to tell us where the serpent known as Nidhogg lairs.”
Ratatoskr hesitated. “Ah. Well. That’s.. a bit of a problem.” He looked down, beady eyes narrowed. “He should be here by now. We’ve made plenty of noise. But he hadn’t so much as poked his snout out of the water.” He looked up at Olorun. “I think – I think Nidhogg is gone.”
“Gone?” Heimdallr interjected. “That is impossible.”
“Of late, much that was once thought impossible has become commonplace,” Zeus said. “The immortal perish and kings are usurped.”
Olorun turned. Zeus met his gaze challengingly. Since his rescue and revival, the former king of Olympus had wasted no time sharing his opinion on the current state of affairs and those he deemed responsible. So loudly and vociferously, in fact, that Olorun feared for the still-fragile peace he and Hera had engineered between the majority of the pantheons. “You wish to say something to me, Zeus?” he asked, softly.
Zeus made to speak, but Hera laid a hand on his arm. “Husband – if you cannot show gratitude, at least show wisdom.” Zeus glowered at her for a moment, and then subsided.
“You know what I wish to say,” he rumbled.
“Yes,” Olorun said. “Is that why you came then? To challenge me – or to provoke me into challenging you? To reclaim your throne?”
Zeus’ expression did not change. “It is mine by right.”
“And now it is mine. The sooner you come to terms with that fact, the better for all of us.” Olorun shook his head. “You were a good king of your time, Zeus. But things have changed. The world has changed, as you yourself just pointed out.”
“And what about the traitress, then?” Zeus demanded. “Why are we standing here looking for a giant snake when we should be looking for her?”
“We are looking for her. The Baron searches for her in the underworlds. Horus and Ra search the heavens and Yemoja searched the waters.”
“And we are here, where she has already been,” Zeus said.
“Yes. We are.” Olorun paused. “Because some things are more important than vengeance.” He gestured to the roots around them. “You can all sense it as well as I – the tree is sick, and that sickness has spread throughout all the world. The air, the waters, the land, even the stars themselves have grown strange in the weeks since Persephone injured Yggdrasil and Nidhogg may know something about it.”
“All the more reason to punish her,” Zeus growled. “I would have justice, Olorun. If you cannot understand that, perhaps you should return to the cold stars and leave these matters to a true king.”
Hera looked at her husband. “A true king knows that his desires and reality are not often one and the same,” she said, with forced mildness. Zeus flushed. Olorun turned his back to the pair as they began to squabble. That Hera loved her husband was plain, but Olorun was coming to wonder if she actually liked him.
The truth was, he had considered doing even as Zeus suggested more than one these past weeks. The longer he stayed here, the more difficult things became. Through once his gaze had stretched past the limits of the heavens, now he could see only what the stars saw. His might was now incalculable, where it had been infinite. A part of him feared that whatever affliction gripped the world was affecting him as well. But he said nothing of this. He had made his choice, and he would see it through.
He turned his attentions back to Ratatoskr. “Where might the serpent have gone?”
“How should I know?” the squirrel chittered.
“He can’t simply have disappeared,” Heimdallr said. “He must have submerged himself in the depths of the lake, but…” He shook his head. “Why would he do something like that?”
“Maybe he was scared.” Rataroskr gesticulated wildly. “Something’s wrong down here, can’t you feel it?”
Olorun paused. He could feel – something. At first he’d thought it simply the aura of Ginnungagap. Or perhaps the result of Persephone’s sorceries. He looked at the others. Heimdallr appeared pensive. Hera met his gaze and gave a slight nod. They had all seen things on the descent, heard things.. snatches of voices, raised in song, the hiss of breath. And the smell – the stink of saltwater and rotting seaweed hung thick on the air in places, as if it were seeping in through some unseen crack.
“And that is why we are here, rodent,” Zeus said. If he felt anything, he was hiding it well beneath a cloak of belligerence. Before he could threaten Ratatoskr however, Heimdallr held up his hand.
Zeus turned to berate the Aesir but Olorun silenced him with a gesture. “What is it, Heimdallr? You see something?”
“I hear it. it is coming this way. And fast.”
Olorun was about to speak when he heard it as well. A crackling, grinding sound. One he’d heard before, in the underworld. “Everyone get back,” he roared. “Quickly, before it – “
The immense seedpod erupted into view, surging thunderously down through the thick roots, pulling itself along by use of thorny protrusions. As the other gods leapt aside, Olorun dropped to a root and flung out his hands. He caught the seedpod as it slammed into him. Celestial light flared as his muscles swelled and bunched. The seedpod gave a great crack as Olorun stole its momentum and forced it to stop its descent.
Dust swirled about him, and he felt the root tremble beneath his feet. As he stepped back, the pod split and unfurled, revealing three newcomers. One was immediately recognizable.
“Persephone,” Olorun said.
Mulan stared at the being of light who confronted she and her companions. He shone like a sun, and when he spoke, his voice was as deep as thunder. She could feel his power beating at her senses like summer heat.
For a moment, the sensation almost drowned out the singing that had been itching at the edges of her perceptions since they had left Baba Yaga’s hut. All too soon, the slow susurrus of incomprehensible voices returned. She shook her head, trying to clear it, but it was like being swarmed by flies.
“Olorun,” Persephone said, after a moment’s hesitation. She shaded her eyes against the pervasive light. “Forgive me. That should be King Olorun, should it not?”
“Titles mean little to me. And to you, I suspect.” Olorun’s radiance dimmed. As the light faded, Mulan saw that he was not alone. She know these others, as she had know Persephone and Guan-Yu. Their names seemed were borne aloft on the whispers of their worshippers. She could see the prayers meant for them swirling about their forms, even as did those meant for her. All save one.
She blinked. “Is that a squirrel?” she asked, before she could stop herself.
“Ratatoskr,” the squirrel screeched. “Ratatoskr the Mighty!”
She looked at Guan-Yu. “Is it a god?”
“It’s annoying,” Heimdallr said, before the other god could reply. “And it will be silent, if it knows what’s good for it.” He raised his axe. “You should not have returned, Persephone. But I am glad you did. It gives me a chance to finish what I began..”
“You are not the only one. And I have claim on her.” Zeus stepped towards her, lightning crackling about his form, “I have long yearned for this moment, daughter of Demeter..” he began, but Olorun interrupted him.
“Why are you here, Persephone?”
She laughed. “You mean why am I not hiding in some cave, waiting for you to bring me to heel like a dog?”
“If you like.” Mulan could hear the tension in the other god’s voice. His companions were only moments away from violence. She had witnessed scenes like this too many times as a soldier not to recognize it – the knife edge between peace and war. One wrong word, and the balance would tip. From the look on his face, Mulan knew Guan-Yu recognized the stakes as well as she did. He cleared his throat.
“She is here for the same reason we are,” he said, his guandao resting against his shoulder. “And the same reason you are, I think.” He bowed respectfully to Olorun. “I thought my fellow gods too foolish to see the pattern of the world’s misery. I am glad to be proven wrong.”
Olorun returned the bow. “If what you say is true, we might yet solve this puzzle,” he said, with great care. His gaze strayed to Mulan, and she felt a jolt. “And who is this? I do not know her, though she seems familiar…”
Zeus laughed harshly. “It does not matter.” He gestured, and a crackling bolt of lightning formed in his hand. An instant later, he hurled it towards Persephone. “If she sides with Persephone, she is the enemy!”
Mulan acted on instinct. As soon as she saw Zeus hurl the bolt, her spear darted out to intercept it mere inches from its target. But the moment of impact never came. Instead, the lightning bolt hung suspended in the air. “What…?” she began, as she looked at her companions. Neither had so much as moved a muscle. Olorun’s followers were equally still. Only she and Olorun seemed unaffected.
“Do not fear,” he said. He examined the lightning bolt where it hung suspended in the blue-tingled air and snuffed it within his hand. He turned towards her. “I wanted to speaking without fear of interruption, at least for a moment or two.
“You are doing this,” Mulan said, in a sudden understanding. “How?”
“With great difficulty,” he said, with a strained smile. “You are…Mulan? Is that your name?” He gestured. “I can read it in the prayers that flutter about you like birds. I am Olorun. Do you know me?”
“I – I do.”
“Why have you come here, and in such company?”
Mulan glanced at Guan-Yu. “We seek the source of the land’s sickness. Persephone has sworn to help us. She…feels responsible.”
Olorun frowned, not in anger she thought, but in consideration. “Perhaps there is hope for her. Most gods are quick to deny any fault in their actions.” He paused. “Yggdrasil is sick. And all that is connected to it sickens as well.”
Mulan nodded. “I have seen it for myself. I have fought the monsters it has birthed. Even the stars seem unfamiliar to me. It is as if all that I once knew is changing into something…unfamiliar, and unpleasant.” She paused. “Can you – can you hear them?” She tapped her ear. “Like someone singing, just at the edge of hearing.” She could still hear the voices, even with time stopped.
“Yes,” Olorun said, softly.
“I think…I think that they are praying.”
He nodded. “It appears we are here for the same reason.”
“We face the same enemy,” she said. She extended her hand. Olorun took it warmly.
“We do indeed. The question is, what do we do about it?”
“Baba Yaga told us that we must seek the root of the problem.” His eyebrows rose at the witch’s name, but he did not speak. Mulan continued. “I have never been good at riddles. I assumed she meant the roots of the tree.”
Olorun nodded. “A good assumption, given where we are. Then, Baba Yaga is not known for clarity.” He looked towards the waters below, expression pensive.
“What about them?” Mulan asked, indicating the others.
Olorun snapped his fingers, and time resumed its course. The gods looked around in wary confusion. Olorun faced them. “You heard?” Mulan suddenly realized that they had been aware of everything taking place in the frozen moment.
“We did,” Hera said, silencing Zeus with a look before he could speak. She pointed to Persephone. “But can she truly be trusted?”
“I could ask the same question of you,” Persephone said.
Before the argument could begin anew, Yggdrasil shuddered. A sound, bone-deep and all encompassing, rose up from somewhere. There was an eerie rhythm to it. Not like music, but something else. Akin to the boom of sour thunder. But something about it made Mulan think of great fists, crashing against the gates of the world.
“Is that -?” she began.
“Not Nidhogg,” Ratatoskr squeaked. Heimdallr nodded, his expression grim.
“No. The rodent is right. This is something else.” He paused. “Something worse.”
The sound echoed, and as it did so, the distant murmuring increase in volume and ferocity. As if the unknown singers were reaching a crescendo.
Mulan’s hand fell instinctively to the hilt of her sword. She glanced at Guan-Yu, and he nodded solemnly. He heard it as well. They had both been soldiers, and they both knew that no gate was inviolate – not against a determined enemy.
It was not a matter of if, but when.
The sound swelled. The blows fell, relentless and unyielding.
And somewhere, a gate long shut at last gave way.