Exhausted, Hua Mulan watched the sun rise. She sat on a fallen timber from the village palisade, her spear thrust into the ground beside her, and her sword across her lap. She had kept watch through the night, but the enemy had not returned.
In the aftermath of the conflagration that had nearly claimed the village, it seemed as if the entire world smelled of ashes and death. She knew that smell. It was like an old friend. It reminded her of a past she had thought to put behind her.
“But it seems fate has other plans for me,” she murmured, as she lifted a jug of water and took a long swallow. A small fire burned before her, a shield against the morning chill. The fire was a pretence; she could no longer feel the cold. Her body did not ache as it should have, either from discomfort or exertion. It was as if she were warmed by some spark nestled within her. She looked down at her hand and saw that she was glowing again.
She made a fist, banishing the radiance through sheer force of will. It was becoming easier to control, though not easier to accept. She did not know what it was, this…force that now seemed to permeate her being. But she could feel herself changing. Not just the lack of aches and pains, but her senses were growing stronger. And there was the other thing, as well. Her mind shied away from it, even as she glanced at the nearby villagers. She could feel them, feel their trust, their need…their fear.
Mulan closed her eyes, trying to shut out the murmuring susurrus of their prayers. And not just theirs. She could hear the voices of others, far from here. In every village she had saved, people were praying to her. Asking her to save them.
She heard the rustle of cloth and opened her eyes. A hunched form sat across from her. An old man, white of beard and wearing a ragged cloak. He leaned against a walking stick, clutching it with thin, knotted fingers. She did not ask for his name. She assumed that he was one of the villagers. If so, he was the only one brave enough to approach her. Even her own followers were keeping their distance.
“You look tired,” the stranger said.
“It has been a long night.”
He chuckled and stirred the fire with his walking stick. “So it seems.” He studied the smouldering stick, and then transferred his gaze to her. Something about the look in his eyes made her want to reach for her blade. In the back of her head, she heard something that might have been the thunder of hooves, and the clash of spears. “Do you know who I am, Hua Mulan?”
“No,” she said, but knew it for a lie even as the words left her mouth. She knew him, though she did not know how or why. “Who are you? What do you want?”
“To greet you, sister.”
“I am not your sister.” She licked her lips. Her mouth was dry, and her heart was thudding like a war-drum. But she was not frightened.
“You are, whether you know it or not.” He rose to his feet, throwing off his robes as he did so. The staff in his hands had become a massive guandao, and his beard was no longer white, but as black as night. “Do you know me now, sister?” he asked, in a voice like the drawing of a thousand swords.
She scrambled to her feet, torn between the urge to bow – or to flee. “Guan Yu,” she said. “You are Guan Yu. The Saint of War.” He nodded, as if in satisfaction, and snapped forward, thrusting his weapon at her with inhuman speed. Her sword sprang into her hand and she smashed the blade of the guandao aside before leaping back, out of reach.
They faced one another for several moments, gazes locked. Then, with a soft sigh of what might have been relief, Guan Yu returned to his seat. “A mortal could not have avoided my blow – even an exceptional mortal. You are more than you were.”
Mulan looked down at the sword in her hand, and then at the war-god. “How…?” she began, her voice hoarse. Conflicting emotions surged within her, and she felt feverish. She wanted to sleep, to forget and hope that the world had returned to normalcy when she awoke. Instead, she steeled herself and sat back down, her sword flat across her knees. “Why me?”
Guan Yu threw back his head and gave a roar of laughter. “Better to ask me about the motion of the tides, or the secrets known only to sparrows. I am not a god of wisdom or knowledge, sister. I am a god of clashing swords and thundering hooves. I know about war and justice.” His smile faded. “Just as I know that there is too much of one and not enough of the other these days. But with your help, we might be able to begin to redress that imbalance.”
“Who is we?”
“Your fellow gods.”
Mulan felt a flash of anger. “You want my help?”
Guan Yu nodded. “That is why I have come.”
“Where were you earlier? Where were you when I – when we – needed help? Where were the gods when this village and all the rest were burning?” She gestured about her. “Where were the gods when China needed them?”
Guan Yu was silent for a moment. “China is greater than a single village,” he said, finally. “It is greater than ten villages or a hundred. And the world is greater still.” He gazed about him. “Did you think that this was only happening here?”
Mulan frowned. “Is that why you were not here? Because you were elsewhere?”
“This is a war with many fronts,” Guan Yu said, staring into the fire. “China seethes with cancerous jade. In the lands of the Greeks, oracles go mad and tear out their own eyes. In the icy north, the old magics turn upon themselves like animals in pain. It is as if the weave of the world is coming undone – and we can do nothing to stop it.”
“We? You mean the gods?”
Guan Yu sighed and stirred the fire with the blade of his guandao. Shapes took form in the leaping flames. Mulan saw a woman – no, a goddess – weeping in the shadow of a great tree. The fire rose and a new shape took form, that of a tall god, clad in robes of starlight, sitting wearily upon a throne he did not seem to want.
More images followed these, coming so quickly that she barely had time to perceive them before they were snatched away. They were like shadows cast on a cave wall, neither one thing or another but all things at once. Gods at war, gods in mourning, gods seeking enlightenment, and gods seeking power – even though it might cost the world.
“There is discontent in heaven,” Guan Yu said. “Many would rather waste time repaying old grudges than seek answers. And even those who are not so foolish squabble about the best way to fix things – if they can be fixed at all.”
“I don’t see how I can help,” Mulan said softly.
Guan Yu paused. “I believe that the answer lies with that which the men of the far north call Yggdrasil…” he began.
Something about the word, unfamiliar as it was, struck a chord in her. “The World Tree,” she said, without knowing why. An image sprang unbidden into her mind – a great tree, taller than any mountain, with roots as deep as night.
“Yes. The answer is there, for good or ill.”
“Then why are you here?”
“Is it not obvious, sister?” Guan Yu smiled. “I need help. And who better to aid me than another hero of China?”
Meanwhile in Valhalla, Ratatoskr crept through the Hall of the Slain, nose and tail twitching.
He had been invited by the Allfather, but it was in his nature to scurry. Divine though he was, he was still a squirrel at heart, after all. He could feel the ancient magics of Valhalla pulsing beneath his sensitive paws as he moved. Of course, it was as nothing next to the weighty magics which hummed within his own home, Yggdrasil.
The World Tree was a wellspring of power unlike any other in existence, something that Ratatoskr took no small amount of pride in. That it wasn’t due to any particular effort on his part had been pointed out to him on a number of occasions, but he put such comments down to envy. The Aesir could be quite petty about such things.
And none more so than the Allfather.
“I can hear you chittering to yourself, rodent. Get in here.”
Ratatoskr froze as the voice echoed through the corridor like a roll of thunder. Eyes narrowed, he quickened his pace until he reached the main hall. No lamps were lit, and no hearth-fires burned. The golden shields that thatched the ceiling were dull, and the long tables that lined the hall were empty. Only one seat in Valhalla was occupied.
Odin sat slumped in his great throne, his single eye glittering. “Tell me of the tree, rodent,” the Allfather rumbled. “How fares Yggdrasil?”
Ratatoskr smoothed his whiskers in an attempt to hide the sudden trepidation he felt. “It’s fine,” he said. But the truth was more complicated. It had all started when the goddess Persephone had attempted to reach Yggdrasil for reasons that still escaped Ratatoskr. Heimdallr had stopped her, but even so she had done something – worked some strange magic – and now there was something wrong with the World Tree, but what that might be he could not say. It was just a vague feeling – like an itch he could not scratch, or a nagging ache. “Everything is fine,” he added.
Ratatoskr bared his teeth and fluffed his tail. “What would you know about it?” he chittered in equal parts anger and fear. Odin leaned forward abruptly, eye blazing. Ratatoskr retreated hastily.
“I know more than you think, rodent.” The Allfather rose ponderously to his feet. “Or did you think Heimdallr did not tell me of his encounter with Persephone? Now still your yammering tongue and watch.” He raised his hand and the squirrel flinched back as motes of cold fire danced on the god’s palm. The motes expanded into shimmering runes. Ratatoskr had seen the rune-magic of the Aesir before, and was about to say as much when he felt the air tremble strangely – as if in anticipation of a storm.
Moments later, the floating runes began to twist and bulge in a way that made Ratatoskr uneasy at first – and then frightened. It was as if the magics were writhing in agony. Odin made a sound low in his throat, and staggered back against his throne as the runes tore themselves from his grasp. The light they gave off began to burn with a feverish heat, and Ratatoskr heard a sound – no, a voice. But a voice unlike any he had ever heard, and in a language he did not recognize.
It resounded dolorously through the hall, and the golden shields above rattled as if in fear. Odin’s eye widened, and he made to speak. But before a single word could leave his lips, the runes twisted in upon themselves and violently combusted, lashing the walls and pillars with tongues of dark flame.
Ratatoskr scrambled for cover beneath a nearby table as the inferno raged through the hall. Odin forced himself to his feet, enduring the firestorm with stoic resolve. Only when the magics had at last burned themselves out did the Allfather slump back into his throne, his head bowed and his armor smoldering. Ratatoskr slunk out from beneath his shelter. “What happened?” he asked. “What was that?”
“Something is wrong,” Odin said. Ratatoskr could hear the weariness in the Allfather’s voice. “The realms are fraying. That magic that binds them together unravels even as we speak. Can you not feel it?”
Ratatoskr shook his head. “I – no.” But he could. A cold feeling now ran along his spine, from nose to tail. He could still hear the echoes of that strange voice. It shuddered on the air like sour thunder. “Yes,” he said, in a small voice. He bowed his head. “Yggdrasil is…unwell. Something is making it sick. Something Persephone did. But I don’t know what’s wrong. And I don’t know how to fix it.”
Odin fixed his eye on Ratatoskr. “Then we must find out. Before the World Tree succumbs, and all the nine realms with it.”