The mountain was silent, and two wolves made their way home noiselessly after a successful hunt.
Grouse were no easy game this time of year, having grown sly and uncooperative after learning the more common behavior their predators seemed to exhibit, but there were still those too foolish to know how to avoid trouble. A wolf was a patient hunter; they ate well and sated themselves with every kill, but knew the value of persisting to the point of hunger tickling the gut. It drove their instinct and brought their senses to previously unreachable heights, in which their noses could smell a bolting deer from miles away and their ears heard the gurgling of even the most inconspicuous toads lounging in the nearest bog. It was with these heightened instincts that they were able to catch not one, but two grouse. Now each of the two wolves held their catch between their jaws, the wild birds hanging lifelessly, and were busy huffing rapidly to bring their breathing back into pace following such a wild display of agility. Blood stained their gray fur.
And yet they did not eat, for this meal was to be shared with their master, who awaited them at a log cabin situated neatly on the top of the nearest mountain ridge. This older building overlooked the verdant landscape below like a giant staring down on a sea of tiny subjects — for it was quite massive, and had clearly not been cleaved together with mortal hands. No, it was less of a cabin as you might know it and more of a wooden manor of sorts. It could easily have housed two-dozen people all living their separate lives, but instead it only housed one.
An old man with oh-so-many regrets piling up in the darkest recesses of his mind.
A tea kettle was boiling over on the stove top, underneath which a roaring heat had been set. Chunks of soot were lining the edges of the makeshift oven, wood crackling over deliciously in the sweltering heat. In the twilight, with the sky having recently erupted into brilliant shades of orange and violet, the fire within the expansive kitchen was the only other light source there.
Weathered hands took the kettle from its place and swung it over to an ornate wooden table, which could well have sat a dozen occupants but only had the one chair at the head. The kettle was placed down on the wood, steam blowing from its nozzle, which was shaped akin to a horse’s tail. Inside, black tea bubbled.
On the table there was also a plate. Within, there were roasted carrots and asparagus, boiled potatoes, ripe tomatoes from the garden, and an empty space where the main course would sit.
The old man eased himself into the chair — more of a throne really, though without the splendor of precious metals or jewels, just good oak — and waited for his wolves to return.
He looked outside, out past the open window through which a steady breeze came through, and looked over at the vast expanse of wilderness and adventure. Ah, were he a millenium younger, he would have been out there chasing the mightiest of foes. Now? Now he had little to soldier on for, except perhaps some vain hope for his own sake.
Outside the cabin, there were no other buildings. No outhouse, no sheds, nothing. But there was one piece of furniture: An outdoor table, made of simple wood, which had a chair on either side. That table had sat there for over three hundred years, half as many since the old man had first escaped from the old continent and come here instead to flee his pursuers.
But there the table remained, for he knew that once they found him here, there would be nowhere left to run. And that was just as well — he’d dishonored himself once before, after all, thinking that running in the moment would mean a chance to regroup, rebuild and seek retribution on a better day. He had been wrong, and that had cost them everything. Everything.
The sound of canine whining pulled the old man’s attention away from the window and towards the door, where his wolves were pushing past the heavy frame of the entry slab and bringing their prizes over towards their master.
“Grouse, is it? Freki, Geri… well done. Give one here.”
His wolves, loyal companions since time immemorial, had stayed by his side. They were clever creatures, far more intelligent than any of his foes had accounted for, and survived even through the greatest of conflicts. The old man figured he should be proud of them, but he couldn’t help but feel a tinge of irony in this as well; that his wolves, strong as they may be, were nothing compared to the power wielded by his own kin. And yet, where his people had fallen, the wolves remained.
He had briefly wondered, during dark nights, if his wolves had become stronger still over the centuries because they had been feeding on the essence of the dead. This thought had come again now, yet was quickly dismissed once more. No, that was something they did — not his people, nor his wolves.
Feiki, the smaller wolf, brought the bird over to the old man. He took it in his hands and deftly transferred the limp creature into the oven. The other food on his plate would grow cold by the time he was done roasting it, but that did not matter. The temperature of the food was not something he perceived very well at all. The texture, however, was important.
The wolves tore the remaining grouse between them, splattering its entrails over the floorboards and subsequently gorging on the fleshy bits that remained. They lapped up the fallen bits of meat, too, in order to keep the floor itself spotless. Well, nearly.
The old man’s fingers tore into the meat on the plate. He ate slowly, carefully, with his eyes never leaving the sight of his hungry wolves feasting upon the remains of their kill. He’d seen them murder haphazardly before, consuming the flesh of both men and beasts, but every time they did the sight of it put him in a battle trance. What mighty hunters they had been — and he, their master. They had been warriors of a sort once, whose names were sung by their worshippers with all the candor that one could hope to muster. And now here they sat, cold and decaying, like relics of a time long since fallen into antiquity.
A sound from the window startled the old man. He hastily wiped the seared fat dribbling down his beard and looked out towards the bench outside, hoping that someone had come, for good or ill, to pull him out of this self-induced isolation.
It was naught but a single raven, perched now on the windowsill, busy cleaning its claws.
“Ah, Muninn, you gave me a fright. Where is your brother?”
The raven turned its beak up in confusion, cocking its small beaded eyes towards the old man as if wondering if there was something else he wished to say. A moment later, the old man gave out a sigh and turned back to his food, squinting at it with his one good eye, the other long-since bandaged over with flayed cloth.
“Ah… yes. Huginn is… yes. I had forgotten, forgive me.”
Meat fell from ancient hands that still shook with remnants of their former power.
Such is how time passed up on the mountain. The old man would go through the same song and dance; he would tend to the garden, his wolves would hunt, and the world would keep turning whether he willed it to or not. The cold, brutal truth that had set in centuries ago was still there, gnawing at his bones, but he still did his best not to let his mind succumb to his present reality.
The world had forgotten him. It had reduced his people to caricatures, poorly thought out and wildly misrepresented in today’s culture, known only through half-remembered mythology from what scraps remained of those that once worshiped his pantheon.
So there he sat, cold and alone with the scraps of the fireplace to keep his wolves from chattering their teeth when the river froze in the dead of winter.
Until, one day, the world decided to remember him.
He thought it was Muninn again, when he heard the sound of wind suddenly brushing up against the window, imaging the raven to have flown in with a flurry behind his dark wings. But when the old man turned from his kitchen table to look out the window, he saw no raven. Instead, some distance away, he saw a man with a wide-brimmed Stetson cowboy hat approaching the cabin on horseback.
At first the old man felt his eyes were deceiving him. He figured that the apparition before his eyes was one wrought of addled confusion. Bad sleep that wakes one into a strange reverie. But no — after having rubbed at his own eyes to dry and wipe the blur of night out from them, he found that the figure was still there, his horse moving at a leisurely trot.
Well then. The old man would have to meet this newcomer that had somehow found his way here, to the log cabin at the end of a god’s life.
The slab acting as the front door swung open, and out came the old man. He had dressed himself up with regalia befitting the region, including a large wool frock thrown over frontier attire. He also grabbed a Stetson similar to that of the rider, albeit more worn and clearly having lost some of its original shape. Cowboy hats like these could be kept for at least half a century without losing one bit of their original form, but this one had seen many ages come and go by now.
In his right hand, the old man held a staff, one he used to help balance his weight and allow for easier walking across uneven terrain. The other held a pistol, a revolver to be more specific, with only two rounds loaded in the chamber. Realistically, he wouldn’t need more than one, especially if this was some vagabond making his way through the absurdity of this modern world. If it was something more, then… well, he’d take his chances.
“Hello there, stranger!” The old man called out towards the rider, who had stopped some distance away from the table. The midday snows had long since ended, leaving the earth a blinding shade of white, but the old man could not make out who the newcomer was due to the rider’s Stetson facing down and obscuring his face. “What brings you to this corner of the world?”
“What is this table doing all the way out here?” Asked the stranger.
“Come again?” Said the old man.
“I don’t see any footprints leading to it. You had to wade your way through grass and snow to get here. What purpose does the table serve?”
“Hmm,” the old man scratched at his beard, “I suppose I haven’t had guests for some time now, is all. Why do you ask?”
“Could I sit at your table?” The stranger inquired. The old man’s unease was heightening by the moment.
“Don’t see why not. So long as you really are just passing by,” said the old man.
“I see.” The stranger did not speak for several moments. Then he said, “Well, I’m afraid that just won’t do.”
“How do you mean?”
“You really don’t recognize me, Allfather?”
At first, the old man was thinking of just shooting the man down on instinct, afraid of any human knowing his identity and being allowed to live. Some zealot that had somehow tracked down the Norse god, perhaps, who had come in search of a deity without any of the bite he once had, was not out of the question — in fact, he had been expecting it.
But as the old man reached for his gun he realized, his good eye squinting over towards the rider, that this was no mere mortal.
“Ah, I see.” The old man’s voice was tired. “It’s one of you then, isn’t it?”
“Indeed,” the rider said, lifting his gaze up and revealing cold eyes of obsidian black underneath the hat. He made no other attempt to come closer or elaborate further. The two simply stared at one another for a while, watching to see who would make the next move. Finally, the old man spoke.
“Would you like to take a seat?”
“Yes, thank you.”
While the rider dismounted, the old man sat on one side of the bench. Its rotting wood creaked under his weight, but it did not crack. This disappointed the old man, who had been hoping for some sort of reaction from the weak structure he’d sat on; in the past, when he was in his prime, his mere presence would make woodland creatures cower in fear and all manner of man-made crafts bend to his will. Now he barely had an effect on a forgotten bench, let alone the world around him.
Across from the old man, the rider sat down. He placed his own Stetson down on the bench next to him out of respect, revealing a wild mop of chestnut hair that fell down just above his neck. He was handsome and young, this god, with a youthful appearance resembling a late-twenties sort with a strong physique. Such glamor was irrelevant for the old man, who once went by Allfather and One-Eye and Grandfather, for he still recognized this particular being that now sat before him.
“What is your name?” The old man said, though he already knew the answer.
“I have many names. Most lost to time, all rather antagonistic in nature,” said the younger man, scratching his stubble. “But nowadays, in Sheolam, the last remaining bastion of divinity, I am known to its denizens as ‘The Heretic,’ firstborn of The Beast, and twin brother to The Harvester”
Yes, the old man recognized him. This was their God of War.
No, that wasn’t quite it. These ‘Lord Shadows’, these dark gods of the only pantheon that still held power today, loved juxtaposition in their domain and duties. This was not a god of war, but of both War and Peace — no, more general than that. Conflict and Harmony, perhaps?
“Now you,” said The Heretic, folding his hands over one another on the table’s surface.
The old man gritted his teeth. Yes, he recognized that insolence well. He never forgot the faces of those that butchered his family.
“You know my name,” the old man spat.
“Oh, of course. But I would like to hear you say it, so I know that I have the right person.”
“The right god, you mean.”
“Sure.” The Heretic gave a closed-lip smile.
It took a moment, but the old man finally spoke.
“I am Odin.”
A flash of lightning lit up the otherwise frigid landscape. The white sky above, shuddering in the presence of its master, blazed back into the land of the living. The trail of the lightning arced through clouds and snowflakes alike, resembling a spider’s web of electric rage, before convulsing and striking the ground.
No, not the ground — the old man, who was once the God of Storms and Battle and Victory and Runes and the Hanged, who his followers knew as ‘Battle Wolf’ and ‘Gallows’ Burden’ and ‘Hooded One’ and ‘Overthrower’ and ‘Father of the Slain’, was now awash with energy, infusing him with power long-since forgotten. For centuries, he had been afraid to reveal his true strength to the world, for fear that those that had destroyed his kin would sense him and come to finish the task. But he had been found out nonetheless, and now there was nowhere left to hide.
When the lightning had passed, electricity sparking away into the night, the old man was left changed. Gone was a sickly, cloth-garbed wretch. Instead, here sat the proud king of a lost kingdom, his gray beard matted and complete with dozens of golden beads braiding it into a more presentable form. His winter cloak was gone, instead replaced with warrior’s steel regalia and loose cloth falling down around the waist. He wore a helmet with the horns of a mighty stag. In his right hand, there now sat a jagged spear where the staff had been. In his left, the same gun remained; it was a human weapon, and as such had no place in the divine world. Behind the changed man, two wolves were watching from a distance, their bodies barely visible in the darkness, eyes glinting a hateful red.
Before The Heretic now sat Odin, God of Gods, Lord of the Aesir. In centuries past, his Norse warriors had ravaged the coastlines of England and Wales and similar shores, pillaging all in their wake, before turning to an altogether more peaceful existence. Their people grew and prospered, adapted, changed, and eventually, either died out or converted to one religion or another.
And near the end of this was when the Lord Shadows came.
It is not often spoken of, but pantheons are more often than not aware of their contemporaries. Those proud Pharaohs of Egypt once walked hand in hand with the great Emperors of Rome, and their gods knew of one another as well, conversing as best they could and challenging one another in bouts of brief combat to test their mettle. Gods such as these lived alongside one another for many generations, dancing and laughing even while each likely schemed to overthrow the rest.
But killing gods was easy; there had been hundreds of pantheons since the dawn of humanity, many of whom now belong to long-forgotten religions of cultures that no longer inhabit the earth. A god dies, and the world sighs, because at the end of the day such deific creatures are not one with the soil their followers inhabit. They are not, in many ways, as real as those that sacrifice lamb and life to them.
So they killed each other, but this was no great loss. A balance was maintained; there were always oh-so-many different misfit families of incredible power in the world, worshiped and honored day after day by their followers. One not meant to last.
When a god can kill another god, that is fine. When a god can drain another, taking their essence and what made them whole like a pig gorging on the carcasses of the dead, things tend to change.
“Show me how you appear now,” Odin spat, “So I might look upon the face of my enemy.”
The Heretic shrugged, taking his hat off and placing it on the table.
His transformation was one that fit his ilk: Laced in the powers of the darkness. As soon as the Stetson came off, great horns appeared out of his head. They tore up from his temples and arching back again over his head. His skin turned a shade of cold blue, while his attire changed into what appeared as ragged robes worn over rusted knight’s plate, covered in various sigils and runes itself. He tossed the hat behind him, and it changed into a cloak that rested over his shoulders; when it billowed from a sharp wind coming from the east, it blew back behind him, sending a trail of fire down the side of the mountain. Above him, the sky darkened.
The Heretic, his eyes now an even emptier black that seemed to mock anyone that dared stare into them, took something off of his belt and placed it on the table. It was a knife. Simple, jagged, acid-colored, and pulsing organically with unnatural energy. Odin flinched reactively when he saw it, but the Lord Shadow made no other movement towards violence. Instead, The Heretic sat calmly, his dead hands clasped together, and watched calmly to see what the former Norse God sitting across from him might do.
A breeze fluttered between them. Behind Odin, the twin wolves growled their displeasure out through clenched jaws. Snow glistened on the ground, except where the fire had scorched the earth and left only the dirt below.
“Ask your question. I’m sure you’ve wondered about it for centuries now,” The Heretic finally spoke, his voice now accompanied by low, lacquered whispers just out of sight, out of reach.
“Who was first?” Odin said softly.
“Tyr, of course,” The Heretic said, looking off towards the wolves stalking around him and providing them with a wide grin, before hiding his jagged teeth again. “He was my first target, one my Father bid me to destroy.”
“Was it an honorable duel?” Asked Odin, instinctively.
“Not even remotely. Disappointingly enough, it was over in moments.”
“I do not believe you.”
The Lord Shadow shrugged. He moved his knife to the side, pushing tufts of snow away, and instead used one spindly finger to draw a rune on the table’s surface, his nail cutting the uppermost layer of the wood with ease. The rune drawn into the table said ‘Tyr,’ of course. Odin’s heart ached when he saw it.
“Tyr, your God of War, was of noble values and, among all the different Gods of War and of Battle that I’ve consumed over the centuries. Inexhaustibly, that list would also include… hmm, Fangsamong’th’pas in pre-antiquity, Montu from Egypt, Mars and Minerva from the Romans, Kartikeya from the Indian Subcontinent, and various cosmic gods and dragon gods and gods-that-were-men and the like from the East… but Tyr was, perhaps, the most tortured over that which he represented. The idea of war.”
“How so?” Odin said, trying not to let emotion break through in his tone.
“War is a man-made concept,” The Heretic continued, having seemingly not caught the change in the other god’s voice, “Animals do not ‘war’ as we know it. They merely hunt, duel, or otherwise lay claim to territory or possessions through violence. There are no unspoken rules regarding what is fair among animals, but rather primal instincts that they act upon to do what needs to be done in order to survive.”
“I find that difficult to believe,” said Odin. This entire interaction was not going in the direction that he had expected, but it was good that they had not begun fighting yet. He was thinking about how best to die. Oh, Odin had no illusions about what this truly was: An execution. A final meal had already been consumed by the victim, and now an executioner had arrived to toy with him about his failings as a king and a father before taking his life as well. This was his fate, but he would go out on his own terms, not that of the creature sitting before him.
“How so? State your position, please. It’s rare I let anyone disagree with me quite so boldly,” said The Heretic.
Odin grit his teeth, intending a retort, but relented and chose instead to control himself for the time being. Soon, soon.
“Some animals fight one another in packs. The victors claim the mates of those they defeated as their own, and kill the enemy’s offspring.” Odin said.
“Ah, but it is the same every time, and there is logic to all that is being done. War is, by nature, illogical. A lion would never trade two of his enemy’s still-breathing offspring in exchange for his captured mate, now would he? Nor would a lionness that has become ensnared by the murderer of her husband think to kill her new mate in his sleep.”
“What’s the point in all this? What in Hel do you want from me?”
“Talk. Conversation,” said The Heretic, “You’d be surprised how many of the other Lords back in The Shadow are afraid of me. Was your own family equally afraid of your judgment back in Valhalla, Allfather?”
“No,” muttered Odin, “We feasted on roast pork and fermented ales, while you ate other gods like the ravenous beasts you are.”
The Heretic rolled his eyes, as if making a play of taking offense to such words. But, a moment later, he seemed to relent, his dark gaze moving towards the table and resting on the worn wood.
“Such unkind comparisons from the God of the Ulfheðnar, your old ‘Wolf Warriors?’ Ha, well… indeed. I drained your children of everything they were, Hooded One. I consumed what powers they possessed, what hopes they had, and having stripped them of their metaphysical nature and deific powers, hung the best parts of them on hooks in the freezer room. And for this, I am not proud.”
Odin looked up towards the sky. The clouds were coiling with rage. The wolves behind him, silent for some time now, began to salivate again in anticipation of violence.
“It is too late to apologize for killing my family.” Odin said in a low voice.
“To kill is one thing,” The Heretic said, “To war is another, more human notion, one which I think poisoned us and turned us into… well, it’s brought us here. The end of the road.”
The sky was silent.
“Valhalla,” Odin whispered.
“I cannot undo the past. What we did, we did to survive, so an apology would only be half-hearted. Yet as many as we consumed, there were countless other pantheons, those without Gods of War, which died out through no action of our own. Dozens of other, smaller pantheons — all faded away into obscurity, all knowledge of them lost to the four winds. And we thought to ourselves, is it not better to preserve such cultural remnants, in some small way? Is it not coldly logical to consolidate power, and establish a dynasty that could truly last the ages?” The Heretic’s fingers drummed against the table’s surface.
“Valhalla,” Odin said again, his words ringing louder this time. Stelling himself for what was to come.
“‘Better to die storming than fade away’, that was the creed for most gods back then.” The Heretic’s horns seemed to curl out and enlarge as the last rays of the sun began to make their way over the horizon, fel whispers echoing the words he had just spoken. “Or, as humans might say nowadays, ‘go out with a bang.’ Something your very own Vikings believed in as well, did they not? But even so, their families still yearned for revenge — yet another human notion. They sought to die in the most spectacular fashion imaginable, despite the uselessness of such things when compares against the annals of history.”
“Spirits of my kin, grant me strength. Blood of my blood, guide me to Valhalla,” Odin said, the last few words coming out far more clearly than the rest. The Norse god raised his head up, staring directly into The Heretic’s eyes. The Lord Shadow seemed confused, tilting his head, but did not otherwise shift his position.
“What was that?” The Heretic said apologetically, raising a cupped hand to one of his imposing horns. “I’m afraid I couldn’t hear you.”
The sky was churning a deep black. It was a pillar of smoke, choking itself, ready to explode. A raven flew above, agitated, ready for the storm.
“Valhalla!” Odin roared, bringing one fist down on the table and cracking the wood underneath the weight of his gauntlet.
“Fight me! Kill me! Send me to Valhalla!” The words of the Allfather rang out over the surface of the mountain. He raised his spear and slammed it into the ground, causing the many hundreds of runes littering the shaft of the weapon to spring to light. Lightning arced violently across his body, slipping out from his eyes and jumping through his beard, his armor, his hair and back. He was alight with the last of his power, on display in the hopes of provoking his enemy to pick up the knife and go in for the kill.
The Heretic, for his part, did not even flinch.
Odin growled, and the barely-kept chaos above them erupted into a cascade of molten thunder. Lightning lit up the heavens, electric light flooding the sky and bathing both gods in a muted sapphire hue. Around them, trees struck by the Allfather’s wrath erupted into flame, and both Freki and Geri, his wolves, had grown monstrous in size, snarling at the Lord Shadow with a hatred that transcended generations and all concepts of animal intelligence. They awaited their master’s command to charge into the fray.
And yet The Heretic did not move.
Try as he might, the old Norse god knew full well that he stood little chance against this foe. Gone were the generations in which this may have been an even fight; though in truth, and judging by the names of the others this devil had consumed over millennia, perhaps it never would have been. Still, what little time he had left, he had to make his intention — no, his will to die fighting known to this killer of his kin. In some small way, a return to his people, to that once-glittering hall in which warriors would feast and fight in endless serpentine cycles, would be a victory in the face of this second, more personal Ragnarok.
A pistol was raised up from under the table, the head of the barrel pointed at the Lord Shadow that was to be its target. A trigger was pulled, a bullet fired.
The gun had no effect on its target, of course. The bullet passed cleanly through The Heretic’s jaw, before disappearing entirely — whether into some other realm or being absorbed into the shadow god’s body, one could not say. The Heretic did not seem surprised, but rather disappointed by this turn of events.
Odin quickly moved to bring his spear into the fray while the bullet distracted his foe, but found some unearthly power holding it down. Try as he might, it may as well have been Mjolnir in his grasp, for he was utterly incapable of moving it even an inch.
“Why do you not fight?” Odin hissed in his struggle to lift his own weapon. Lightning was sparking out from between his teeth and grounding itself on the chains knotted into his gray beard. “Are you so frightened of a senile sky god, coward?”
The wolves were foaming at the mouth but the Norse god did not signal for them to engage. He knew they would have laid down their lives for him if he willed it, but that would be senseless.
“I did not come here to kill you. I came to make myself known.” The Heretic said slowly, his hand lowering again, a jagged finger tracing the details on the table’s surface. His dark eyes, no longer looking into the Allfather’s face, seemed overcast and heavy with some strange pain. “I will not kill you, and let you die in a blaze of glory. Even if I wished it, I could not grant that to you.”
“Why, damn you? Release me! Send me home!”
“Because I am tired of war. You will not know this, seeing as you’ve kept yourself far away from anything resembling civilization for years now, but we’ve entered prosperous times in both Mortalis — that is, the mortal plane, where we currently stand — and The Shadow. It is grander than Valhalla ever was, advancing in lockstep with the rest of the world. Well, with some delay in technological improvements due to security concerns, admittedly. Have you ever had proper plumbing, Allfather? The ability to call others from halfway across the world, without having to see them in person?”
“What need would I have of such things? Sounds like you’ve made your people soft,” Odin said, hand still twitching for violence.
“Soft? No. Comfortable, perhaps. But we never did any of these things; humanity built such marvels themselves, and we simply watched,” The Heretic said.
“Why are you telling me this?” Odin said.
“You’ve been away from the world. It is better that you be in it, in my opinion, rather than left as a relic here slowly fading into silence. Perhaps you could teach them a thing or two.”
Lightning struck a nearby tree. It crumbled under its own weight when the upper branches fell from one end, causing it to tip over and fall on the snowbank with a muffled crash. Odin’s wolves yelped in surprise, balking away and narrowly avoiding the falling branches.
“Let me die in darkness,” Odin said, “Away from you and your ilk. If you won’t just finish me here, then you can damn well leave me alone.”
“An American god I’d recently met said that democracy dies in darkness. How curious,” The Heretic said, shrugging his shoulders, “And here I thought you might have changed, but perhaps you haven’t had as much war and battle as I have. Frankly, Allfather, I’ve had my fill.”
The Heretic leaned forward, his horns extending towards the sides, eyes seemingly glinting under the thunderstorm.
“You likely marked me as a God of War, did you not? Or perhaps, if you know us better than I’d originally anticipated, perhaps of War and Peace. But neither is quite accurate; we’re not as easy to nail down as the old pantheons. In truth, I see myself more as… a God of Melancholy. And all that entails.”
The Heretic picked up his knife. Odin briefly considered attempting once more to raise his spear, or again try his luck with the pistol he’d been given so long ago, but instead chose to simply stay still.
The knife grip flipped in the Lord Shadow’s hand. The Heretic now held it by the blade, extending the handle out towards the Norse god sitting in front of him.
“I do not dispense justice, as that is The Executioner’s role. Instead, I give this: a fragment small enough that I won’t truly notice its absence, but greater than the sum of its parts. A relic, if you will, from when I was young and the world was savage.”
The Heretic flipped the blade in his hand, then grabbed it by the handle again, driving it down blade-first into the surface of the table. It embedded itself deep, small tendrils of darkness seeping into the wood’s surface and infecting it with an umbral power.
Satisfied with his handiwork, The Heretic leaned back and pressed his hands on the table’s surface. He did not stand; instead, his body reformed further away from the table, shadows drifting in time with what rays of the moon still penetrated the storm clouds. His horse, which had been waiting patiently away from the table, whinnied with joy at the approach of its rider.
“You know what to do with it, should that be of interest to you. It will guide you to us, to my realm, and there will be a place for you there. I swear it.”
Odin frowned. His rage had slowed, becoming a simmering heat bubbling under the surface of a dark cloud.
“This dagger has your power in it, you say?”
“It will not kill me, if that is what you — ” The Heretic started, then paused, realizing the true intent of the other god’s words. “Ah. Yes, well, if that is what you desire, then I suppose you now have the means of doing it. But I do not recommend such things, especially if Valhalla is truly the goal. Despite your desire to be as cold in the dirt as the rest of your family, I still believe that you can start again.”
“Why?” Odin said.
“Because you would not be the first. And because revenge is a human notion, and not one that us gods should partake in for the sake of our own good health.”
It was this statement that made the Allfather laugh boisterously, startling the shadow god for the first time since their interaction had begun. The Heretic frowned, crossing his rugged arms over his chest as he waited for the Norse god to explain himself.
“Oh? Is it not funny to you as well?” Odin asked, tears in his eyes.
“That the conqueror has had a change of heart, and wants to be seen as a reformer instead,” Odin said.
The Heretic was quiet.
“Yes, some great clemency you’re giving me. You’ve destroyed what I once was, and now you seek to provide your former victim with some slight respite from a self-imposed exile while prattling on about the illogical nature of ‘revenge.’”
“That was centuries ago,” muttered The Heretic, “Times change, and you are being stubborn with little cause. Let go of your grief and move on. To commit suicide, after all this time, would be… senseless.”
“Easy for you to say,” said Odin. All traces of rage had gone from his face, leaving only cold malice. “Your family is still with you. Mine was butchered by yours.”
For several moments, The Heretic stood next to his horse, fiddling with the reins. The sky had cleared somewhat, lightning no longer striking the ground below, though it still swirled with hateful energy. Then, with a sigh, the Heretic once more gave up corporeal form and reappeared upon his mount.
“Fine. Do what you will. I’ve accomplished what I had intended to do in the first place. I suppose there is little else I can hope for now but for you to come to your senses,” The Heretic said bitterly. “And perhaps I did come here for selfish reasons — regret, mainly, or perhaps to make amends for past deeds, no matter how difficult doing so might be. But even with all of that, I figured you might appreciate a second chance. Few gods receive it.”
“Few gods deserve it. Your ilk only did as was in your nature, like you said before,” Odin countered.
“Perhaps,” The Heretic said, “And I suppose I was wrong in thinking the centuries may have tempered you. Well, the decision is your own then. I’ll leave you to make your choice: death or rebirth, the void or The Shadow. Have a good night.”
The rider kicked his heels into the horse’s body and sent the beast galloping down the mountain, back the way he’d originally come from.
Odin stared down at the dagger. The infection that had poisoned the picnic table had grown, now creeping over the edges and traveling into the metal rods underneath that were maintaining its shape. He thought he heard the blade whispering to him, urging him to conquer nations and to make amends with those he’d wronged. A strange thing, indeed, to be the master of two entirely opposite things.
Odin contemplated the two paths ahead of him. It was funny, in its own way, how neither would send him to Valhalla. Damn their own rules of honor and the laws of the universe. Two options left, both equally unsavory.
It took a while, hours even, before he made his choice. His wolves howled out into the night, their cries echoing out into the wider forest. And Odin did what he felt, after so many centuries up in the mountain, was the right decision.
Many miles away, gently trotting along on his horse, was a rider with a Stetson hat. After hours of silence, thunder boomed out across the heavens. The rider turned his head, staring up at a terrible storm that had befallen the mountaintop behind him, and a great fire that had clearly been caused by many bolts of lightning destroying the treeline. Against that dark backdrop, a raven was flying away its mouth, heading south to where the sky was still clear.
The rider could only guess what it all meant.
Would the dagger of the Lord Shadow be enough to do it, without The Heretic himself feeling directly responsible for yet another dead god? Would the dagger of the enemy fulfill the technicality that Odin believed would get him into Valhalla, or did the final blow need to be struck by a willing opponent? Did he even die, or choose another life, in another place, as unnerving and painful as this new path might prove to be? The rider would only know once he returned home.
He hoped for one. He expected another.
“Valhalla,” the rider murmured, musing for a moment on what it truly meant to be a god that had outstayed his welcome, yet remained bound by the very same customs that had been their strength once. And what it meant to take the aid of someone you hated to fulfill personal ambitions, as grave as they might be.
By the time the sun had come up again, the fires had dwindled down into stray embers fighting feebly against the cold, while large swaths of the forest had become reduced to ash and splinters, as if a thousand lumberjacks had rushed haphazardly through the woods with murderous intent. Slowly, surely, all would heal over and start anew again some day, but this morning there were only the remnants of the prior night’s chaos littered over white snow.
And the mountain was silent again.