Trees sang a song of welcome as Persephone passed beneath their gnarled boughs. The forests of Vanaheimr knew her of old, for she had wandered among them in more innocent times. She let her fingers caress their knotted trunks as she passed among them, and their song grew fierce as they sensed her reason for being there. They knew why she had come, and they approved.
“Shoe me the way, my friends,” she murmured. Branched swayed and bent, shedding snow and leaves as they indicated the direction she should take. She smiled. “Thank you.” She glanced over her shoulder at her escort. Dead men, dredged from the bottom of a forgotten ocean. They had carried her here, by the secret rivers known only to the gods of the underworlds. Now they stared at her with hollow sockets, their flesh sloughing from water-logged bones. She felt a flicker of pity for them, even as she led them deeper into the forests. They deserved better. But there was one more service she required of them before she sent them to their rest.
In the distance, Yggdrasil rose into the clouds. It was impossible to perceive the whole tree, vast as it was. But she did not need the whole tree. Just a part of it.
She could feel the great tree’s life-song, pulsing through the air, even from where she stood. It was.. intoxicating. Unlike any plant she had ever communed with. She looked down at her hands, wondering, not for the first time, if she had the strength to do what must be done.
Yggdrasil was not like her plants in the underworld. It was as much a force of nature as she was – the cosmic spoke around which all life turned. To attempt to manipulate the ancient power running through it would have been folly for anyone else. Even for her, it was a risk. But it was a risk worth taking.
She needed only to touch its trunk to enact her grand design. She was not simply the Queen of the Underworld, but also the goddess of green growing things. Everything that sprang from the soil was hers to command. Even a tree as old and as mighty as Yggdrasil. She had but to place her hands upon it to bring it under her control.
Vanaheimr was the best place to do that. Asgard was in upheaval, and dangerous. Niflheim equally so, for different reasons. But Vanaheimr was silent. IT was a place of spirits, who dwelt in mounds and in hills and water. They would not seek to hinder her, even if they had possessed the capacity to do so. She had no doubt that they would sympathize with her quest – the gods of Asgard had often imposed their will on Vanaheimr and its inhabitants.
“But no more,” she said, out loud. The time of the gods was coming to a well – deserved end. The world was going to end.
Where it liked it or not.
Ratatoskr scampered to the edge of the branch and gesticulated excitedly. “There she is! See her?” He turned to the god who followed him. “Down there! There – there – there!”
“Be silent, rodent.”
“She can’t hear me all the way up here,” Ratatoskr chittered defensively.
“No,” Heimdallr said, flatly. “But I can, and your shrill cries pierce my skull to the marrow. Now be silent, or I will toss you off.” He crouched on the branch, easily maintaining his balance in the high winds that whipped through Yggdrasill’s heights. Even from so great a distance, his gaze could easily discern the goddess and her entourage.
When Ratatoskr had come to inform him that a strange goddess had come to Vanaheimr, he had not expected her. Bellona perhaps, or even Hera – but not Persephone. Why was the Queen of the Underworld here, and without announcing herself? That boded ill. Heimdallr was not one to ignore his instincts, and right now they were telling him that something was amiss. That there was danger, not just to Vanaheimr, but to all the nine worlds. Perhaps even to Yggdrasill itself. There was only one way to know for certain.
But even as he readied himself to leap down, Persephone stopped in a shallow clearing. Her followers stopped as well. Dead men, each and every one of them. At her gesture, the corpses reached up and tore their own heads off, dropping them to the ground at her feet. The broken bodies collapsed and lay still. Persephone raised her hands and sang a single note. The ground thrummed and gnarled roots emerged to ensnare the fallen skulls and drag them beneath the soil.
Thanks to his keen senses, Heimdallr heads the sound of bone splintering and roots shifting. The ground began to writhe, as something moved beneath it and an eerie radiance danced across the grass. Persephone stepped back, a satisfied look on her face. A chill ran through him as he realised what he was seeing. She was calling up an army.
His hand found the haft of Gjallarhorn, and he considered sounding it. But he hesitated. Asgard was weak – battered almost beyond endurance by recent events. To call it to battle once more might as well mean its destruction and that he would not – could not – allow.
But Vanaheimr too had seen much war over the centuries. Thousands had died in these forests, their broken bones tangled in the roots of the great trees. If she were to draw them all up, there might be no force capable of standing against her. Unless someone stopped her before she completed whatever dark rite she had begun.
“Who is she?” Ratatoskr chittered, bushy tail twitching.
“Someone who should not be here.” Decision made, Heimdallr stood and leapt, falling towards the forest far below like a meteor of iron and intent. He crashed to the ground in a cascade of broken branches and fluttering leaves. He was up and moving moments later, following the scents of grave-dust and the rattle of bones.
The clearing was already full of skeletal warrior when he reached it. They sprouted like spring flowers, their bones held together by a twine of roots and vines. Ten had become twenty, and twenty had grown into forty. A small army, but an army nonetheless.
Heimdallr took a running leap. He threw his axe as he plummeted into the clearing. It flew from his hand in a whirling, silvery arc and dead men shattered beneath its double-headed bite. It arced back towards his waiting hand as the others swarmed towards him. He plunged to meet them, fighting with calculated ferocity, never slowing, letting his axe carry him across the clearing. Broken bones were ground beneath his feet as he stamped and spun.
He sent his axe whirling into the tide of fleshless warrior and drew his blade. He slammed the longsword through a pair of skeletons and pinned them to a nearby tree. He turned as bony feet scraped against the ground. The dead had continued to sprout, even as he’d destroyed them. A losing battle, unless he could clear the field.
Moments later, the Gjallarhorn was in his hand. As skeletal hands groped for him, he set it to his lips and blew a single, devastating note. A marrow-curdling reverberation gripped the clearing, shaking the trees to their roots and casting back the undead horde. A rain of bone splinters fell across the clearing as the dead men were flung in all directions smashed apart against the trees, the ground and each other.
Heimdallr lowered his horn, panting slightly. Dust streaked the air. Nothing moved.
Then, a laugh. He turned.
“Very impressive, watchman,” Persephone said, as she picked her way gracefully over the remains of her army. “But there are more where they came from. Many more.”
“Then I will destroy them as well.” Heimdallr wrenched his sword free of the tree and extended it towards her. “You will go no farther, Queen of the Underworld. Whatever your purpose, it will remain unfulfilled.. this I promise you.”
“My purpose?” Persephone laughed again. “You could not conceive of my purpose, watchman.” Her eyes strayed past him, and he turned. Yggdrasill rose into the sky, its branches stretching to the limits of the horizon. A sudden realization pierced him.
“Yggdrasill,” he murmured, turning back to her. Her eyes narrowed, and he knew his guess was correct. “Go back, Persephone. The World Tree is under my protection.”
“This is not Asgard, watchman,” Persephone said. “You overstep your authority.”
“If you endanger Yggdrasill, you endanger Asgard.” Heimdallr took a step towards her, sword at the ready. Persephone did not retreat. Heimdallr stopped, his instincts screaming a warning. He leapt back, even as the first skull burst through the loose soil of the forest floor. More of them rose, bobbing on pulpy stems. The air swam with pollen.
Persephone smiled. “And what do you imagine that you can do about it?”
The watchman of Asgard moved like lightning. His blade was arcing towards her head even as she taunted him. She twisted aside, avoiding the deadly strike. The blade split a rising skull-blossom. Heimdallr spun, cleaving apart another of the newly-sprouted plants.
More and more of them rose from the ground as Persephone backed away. They would keep Heimdallr occupied, but not for long. She turned and sprinted towards the distant shape of Yggdrasill. As she ran, she flooded the ground around her with life-giving energies, causing it to rupture and hurl her forward in leaps and bounds. Plants sprouted in her wake, tangling about one another and forming a living barrier between she and Heimdallr.
Yggdresill grew large as she drew near, filling her vision. She was so close. She could feel its power, and knew that it could feel hers in turn. In one hand, she held the last broken remnants of her escorts. She would plant them into the very heart of Yggdrasill. They would sprout and spread within its trunk, bending the great tree to her will, root and branch.
A burst of rainbow light flare before her, nearly blinding her. Heimdallr erupted from within the coruscating shard of Bifrost, sword raised. He roared in fury, and she was forced to retreat before his attack. “Get out of my way,” she snarled, ducking away from a blow that might have split her skull. She slapped her palm against the sword as Heimdallr slashed at her again, knocking it aside. As she drew her hand back, she felt a sting of pain and saw that she was bleeding. She realized the she’d dropped the skull-shards. They were wriggling into the soil all about her.
Heimdallr stalked towards her. “Retreat, Queen of the Underworld. You will not win this day. Stay, and I will send you back to your realm in pieces.”
“A boast fit for a barbarian,” she said, clutching her hand. Motes of jade light sparkled in her wound as it closed. “But you are one, and I am many. The dead Vanaheimr remember the Aesir of old, Heimdallr. And those memories are not fond ones.” She could feel the dead stirring all about them, responding to her presence.
They erupted from the ground all around him, clawing at his arms and legs. He wrestled his sword-arm free and hurled his blade into the air. As it fell, light radiated from the weapon, growing in brilliance until it was all but blinding. Persephone was forced to shield her eyes as the blade plunged into the ground, releasing a shockwave of shimmering energies.
When the light cleared, Heimdallr’s attackers were dust, and he was reaching for the hilt of his blade. Persephone darted forward and caught up the sword before he could touch it. She slashed at him, driving him back. He gestured, and his axe shimmered into view. He met her, axe to sword, and they circled one another, trading blows.
If he was surprised that she knew how to use a blade, he didn’t show it. Instead, he redoubled his efforts, matching her speed, and then surpassing it. His axe spun like quicksilver in his grip, almost too fast for her to follow. Moments later, the sword was sent spinning from her grip to embed itself in a tree.
As she backed away, she saw that her skull-seedlings were beginning to sprout. Heimdallr hadn’t noticed them yet, but he would. There was still a chance, however. She thrust her hands forwards, calling up the roots of the trees that surrounded them. They rose from the broken ground like serpent and shot towards Heimdallr from all sides. He chopped the first few apart, but there were too many of them. He was dragged to one knee, bellowing in fury. They slithered about his arms, neck and chest, pinning him in place.
Persephone braced herself, matching her strength against his. The more he struggled, the more roots and vines she wrapped about him, binding him, holding him trapped. Holding his attentions on her, as her newly sprouted seedlings crept towards Yggdrasill. “Struggle all you like, watchman,” she said, through gritted teeth. “The more you fight, the more tightly you are bound.”
Heimdallr glared at her. He was gathering himself, straining against her bindings. Soon enough, he would break free. She called up more roots, all but entombing him in plant-life. She could feel her seedlings drawing closer to Yggdrasill, its power acting as a beacon to them. A few more moments, and it would be done. Just a few more moments..
There was a sound like splintering wood. Heimdallr burst free of the entangling roots, just for an instant, a look of determination on his face. He lunged, axe low. Time seemed to grind to a halt as he swung it towards her. She could see the coruscating energies building within the ancient weapon as it drew closer. The light within it became a blazing crescendo. She felt hot and cold all at once, and the world crumbled about her as the blow connected with a thunderous boom and she propelled from one realm into the next, a scream of frustration on her lips.
Heimdallr staggered as the roots loosened their hold and collapsed, one by one. The glare of Bifrost’s light faded, as Persephone was hurled from Vanaheimr. He could not say where she would end up. Muspelheim, or perhaps Niflheim, if she was unlucky. He didn’t care so long as it was far away. He retrieved his sword and turned, hunting for the seedlings he’d noticed earlier, despite Persephone’s attempt to distract him. The last he’d seen of them they’d be heaving for Yggdrasill.
He spotted them easily. Persephone’s plants were dangerous, but not subtle. They blundered towards Yggdrasill with all the stealth of a drunken jotun. He raced after them, moving as swiftly as his aching limbs would allow. It had taken almost all of his remaining strength to tear himself loose of Persephone’s roots, and fatigue clawed at the edges of his perceptions. Had luck been on her side, she might have had him. But he was free now and he could not allow the seedlings to reach the World Tree, even if he didn’t know why. If he failed to stop them all, there was no telling what catastrophe might result.
The first two fell easily. The third put up more of a fight, and he was panting by the time it ceased thrashing. The fourth one he pursued to the very trunk of Yggdrasill itself, leaping upon it and impaling it with his blade, even as it rounded on him. It squirmed under him, skeletal jaws snapping in mindless fury, before he crushed its skull beneath his boot.
The fifth was even more clever. It had used his distraction with its fellows to reach Yggdrasill. Thorny, scabrous roots dug into the bark of the great ash tree, releasing gouts of steaming sap as the seedling began to burrow in.
Heimdallr cursed and slashed at the predatory plant with his sword. It shrieked and writhed, attempting to avoid his blade. It spat toxic pollen, nearly blinding him. Through a veil of tears, he saw the seedling tear at the bark, forcing more of itself into the tree. Roaring in fury, he drove his sword into its skull, silencing its shrieks. Then, using his hands, he began to tear at the squirming remnants, wrenching them from Yggdrasill. It took every ounce of his remaining strength to do so. Even injured, the seedling fought with all the strength of the damned.
Finally, he stepped back, blood and sap staining his limbs, and the remnants of the last seedling twitching in his hands. He squeezed the fragments to pulp and let them fall to the ground as he studied the cracked, weeping wound they had made in the bark. He could only hope that he had gotten every bit of the seedling.
Yggdrasill had been injured. But it had been injured before, and had recovered. It would do so this time as well. He pressed a bloody hand against the trunk of the ancient tree, feeling the pulse of its life – the heartbeat of the world. If it ever faltered, even for a moment..
Heimdallr let his hand fall and turned away.
There were some dooms too awful to contemplate..