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Ragnarok Summer preview

The first two chapters follow. Or you could save yourself some time and just order it for your kindle right now: http://tinyurl.com/ragnarokkindle

CHAPTER 1

 

Underneath the rocky soil of the Virgrid plain, the dead shuddered like winter’s seed. They fretted, lamenting the theft of that which they had died for.

The plain was an immovable patch of winter, stubborn in the face of the endless summer which had ruled Asgard and the nine worlds for the last hundred  years. A century of sunlight had not been enough to banish the frigid winds that blew over the field. The ice was meltless, this chill undiminished. The cold gripped the very air, a brittle echo of the Fembleveter which had grasped the land before Summer came. Nobody ever visited this place, Asgardian, human, jotun or even the misbegotten trolls. Memory of the wounds inflicted was painful enough to drive away anyone who even remembered this place.

Long blades of wild grass swayed in the wind, rich and fat from feeding upon the fallen. Buried carelessly, without respect for their deeds and honor in death, their sacrifice flourished in cold green spears. Through the churn of stalks, the wind was a chorus of whispers. At times, the whole of Virgrid seemed to stir, struggling to shake off its sleep.

Deep indeed was the slumber, for the snarl of the approaching machine was not enough to wake the dead. The sound became a roar as it rolled to a stop just outside the unmarked boundaries of the plain. Dirty chrome glinted dully in the sunlight, scarred and marked with uncounted hundreds of miles, covered with the dust of nine worlds. It was a man-machine of dwarven craft, with a fiery heart made of burnished metal. Long pipes ran from the engine down along the sides, swept like saplings in the storm, steaming faintly in the cool Virgrid winds. The rider gunned the engine once more, a herald. He waited a moment, snorting his disappointment; his clamor had no audience to note it. He then killed the machine, and let the engine clatter into sleep. As he pushed away, the ground seemed to groan low.

Grease-black leather and faded denim creaked as he walked the perimeter of the field. There was a line he did not cross. He paced it, dared it, snarled at it and even spit its name, but he would not cross. Maybe it was fear that held him back, but at a glance, he belied no weakness. He was shaped as a man, but his stance was a wolf’s. It was a body that had been worn into fitness, comfort and fat scraped away until all that was left was iron muscle and taut. His hair and beard were full, combed only by the wind and the color of rust. Tension raked his face and skin, muscle swimming beneath the surface as he tried to hide his unease. With a feral calm, he drew breath past his teeth.

And stepped onto the green grass then stood a moment, listening to the words that the field spoke to him. The winds yanked at his bristling red hair and kicked up a sharp veil of ice whipped him across the eyes. He was not welcome here. His bitter mirth boomed across the empty expanse.

“I come in laughter. As I will leave,” he spat.

In reply, the blades now stood up straight and sharp as the spears of an army on the march.

“Why should this year be any different?” he asked of nobody in particular, or maybe of the field itself. “Only the earth, and the son of Earth remembers you.”

The wind laid the grass so that it all pointed at him. Nettles and vines clutched at his boots and he snorted in reply. The wind then slackened, and silence rushed in to fill the absence.

“Yes. I would hate us, too.” He plucked a tuft of grass from the black soil and chewed upon it. The taste was blood-salty. “I would hate us for not honoring you. For denying you. For robbing you of your death-right.” He spat the root from his mouth.

Moaning hollow, the cold turned bitter and gnawing. He would not cower. He simply crossed his arms before him and braced against the wind’s force. Ice and dust lodged in his beard, stinging his face and skin, a swarm of needles.

“I will not be moved. My words will not be denied. For I know that they still remember what transpires here. I know that they are all listening to this, though they would wish it away if they could.” He lowered his arms against his sides and addressed the sky.

“A toast!” he shouted with acid. “To my kith and kin. To all of you in Asgard City. To my father, Odin, the sightless master!” He sucked a long breath. “Stupid old man,” he said quietly and without sadness.

He unzipped and urinated on the plain before him. His piss steamed in the frozen air, darkening the ground below. “A toast! All Asgard has done the same to this memory, and Thor shall not be denied his opportunity.”

Tucking himself away, he stood up straight and grunted.

He zipped up, making ready to turn and walk away. “Eighty summers later and it still sounds right: Fuck you all. Rot away in your glittering halls for all that I care. I’ll not obey any summons that you issue me. I am Thor. And I shall do as I please.”

The field was breathless in its reproach. For a brief moment, the grass tossed like long manes of hair, making Thor think of the Valkyrie as they harvested the Einerjahr from the fields of the righteous. He throttled the thought instantly, dismissing the vision of their silver locks and shimmering blades. They were not what he missed, what he needed, but they were close enough to it to sting.

Satisfied his message had been received, he showed his back to Virgrid. For eighty years now, the residents of Asgard City had commanded his return to their ranks. For eighty years, Thor had laughed at them, waiting to hear their summons on high Summer, simply so that he could ignore it. This year he didn’t even wait for the message. Perhaps now they’d learn to stop calling his name. If only for a year.

He paused, boot crunching a knot of bone that jutted from the soil. There was a…sound, beneath his feet. At least he thought it to be a sound.

It wasn’t heard so much as felt, a keening, a vibration that shot from the soles of his feet through his guts and to the top of his skull. The sensation sundered Thor’s bravado from within, clutching his heart and wrenching it like a dog would a bone. Even as the sound faded, his body rang with it sure as a bell.

The earth screamed in rage, a shattering sound of stone cracking, clods of dirt and rock being spit from a maw that opened in the plain. Thor turned in shock as the ground ruptured, coughing black dust and bones in a grisly rain. A flock of rusted weapons without an edge, or even a memory of it, hung in the air before arcing back into gravity’s pull. Mail coats, decayed into uselessness, were cast into veils of bloody rust that blocked the winter-summer sun. A cacophony of dented metal helmets and skulls fell before the silence returned. Cloaks and banners unfurled in a terrible colorlessness, bleached by burial.

Chill crept from the base of Thor’s skull down his spine as he watched the fissure. But his skin was wrapped in the sweat of shame, blistering the back of his neck and head as he watched the steam issuing from the ground like sticky wolf breath. Guilt seized and froze him in place.

Hands no more than bone scrabbled against the slope and pulled their way out of the stinking chasm. The wind shifted and brought with it the smell of dead things, as if the rift opened clear to Hel and its fetid air now slithered out of this hole. The stench twisted Thor’s stomach within him and he gagged before he could catch his breath. Corruption was the scent that boiled within, heroic flesh turning gray and soft as it became food for maggots, the weapons of warriors forgotten consumed by rot, the ground itself fouled. Thor’s last meal passed his lips again, burning hot this time as he vomited onto the plain, falling to his knees.

He could hear nothing, but imagined laughter for a few wretched moments. But it was not the laughter of Asgard that he imagined, not the self-satisfied and thoughtless mirth of the privileged. This was as raw and bloody as a knife between ribs, with an edge that chipped bone.

When at last his body permitted him to rise, Thor stood shakily, hollowed. Filth stuck to his lips as he gasped for air, but only drew the smell of open graves. He turned again to regard the plain, gasping heavily and no longer caring what the air smelled of, but only that he was breathing again.

“Thunder god, Son of Earth,” rasped a voice that was ground bone. “Face us.”

Tears streamed hot from Thor’s eyes. In his heart, he told himself that it was the stench, but he knew that was deception, worse a self-lie. He swiped his eye with a leather glove and looked towards the voice, seeing only a grimy blur. “Who does this to me? Who attacks Thor?!” he screamed, full of bluff. Cornered, he made to reach for his hammer.

That is how frightened I am, he told himself.

Mjolnir hung at his hip no longer, that was fact. And that it hadn’t since the last time winter kissed this land.

His vision cleared. Before him stood a jaundiced skeleton dressed in flimsy rags of flesh and armor as if hung by a madman. Gobbets and strips of skin clung to the ridges of its skull, smiling through lips that were no longer there. Worms were its eyeballs. Between its ribs, beneath the tatters that clothed it, still beat a meaningless heart. This was a thing that belonged nowhere but Hel, yet here it was before him. It took a faltering step forward, threatening to come apart, but hung together through unalloyed rage. Links of rotten leather and iron fell from its mail shirt as it lurched, as did small bones and finally a flap of skin covering its cheek.

“We will have what is ours,” it whispered with a rasping sibilance. Slowly, it drew a sword from a scabbard encrusted with dried blood and soil. The blade shone so cruelly in the sun, impossibly bright, as if no time had passed since its interring.

Thor backpedaled away from the ghoul. Careless in his haste, he tripped over an outcropping of rock like a child wandering too far from the fire. He watched helplessly as the blade described an arc, the end of which was his heart. The stroke was only half-completed when the corpse stopped, robbed of animation. It continued to move forward, but without motivation, simply falling. The bones came to Thor in embrace, before falling disconnected to the ground. What lay around Thor had no semblance of a man, hardly even a scattering of pieces. All that remained whole was an intact hand, whose index finger still pointed at him.

The stench lingered, though there was no sign of its origin. Thor felt it clinging to him with the strength of a scar. He looked back into the field and saw no rift, no bones, no rusted weapons. Even the body that had pursued him was gone now, no more than a lingering scent.

Thor limped away, like his insides were cast off behind him. He mounted his machine then clamped hard on the throttle, forcing a scream through its metal pipes and power through its frame. A grim chuckle coursed through him, but it was forced and fake. He was leaving in laughter, that much promise he kept.

The sound of Thor’s machine grew faint in the distance, becoming the soft babbling of a stream. Virgrid tumbled once again into its uneasy sleep.

He knew that nothing had changed in the eighty years since he had abandoned the warm comforts of Bilskirnir, his hall, and the mirrored greatness that was the rebuilt Asgard City. The Bifrost Circuit still glittered painfully as it arced across the span from Midgard to Asgard. Jotuns still used their greater strength to cower and destroy humans. Humans still built their cities and fought their wars, asking of the gods when needy, praising them when satisfied, and vilifying them when denied.

Not that the gods had heard or cared. Muspellheim yet burned and Nilfheim was tombed in frosty rime that would never melt, even should the world end. Even after the world ended.

The Fembleveter had bitten into the land for three years without cease, the Jotuns had massed their host, as had the Aesir and Vanir. Two mighty armies joined on the Virgrid and the blood there had flowed in torrents, blood enough to drown an age, as was intended. The plain itself could not absorb it and a new river was born, one that still washed to the shores of all the nine worlds. But that had not been the end of the world. It had not been any kind of an end, not even a pause.

 

CHAPTER 2

 

Hard sunlight gleamed along the surface of the Bifrost Circuit with a hundred distinct shades like the belly of a turning trout. The whole of it was slowly twisting and rolling, a thickly prismatic mead swirled in transparent goblet. Light shimmered and hurled, threatening to break free from the structure of the thing, but never breaking the arc that cleaved the sky. It was the best of bridges, the trembling road which had joined Asgard City to the world of Midgard. That was until it had shattered under the weight of the sons of Muspell, led by blackest Surutur. Shards of the rainbow had fallen to the stony ground of Midgard, where they burned with a cool flame of many colors, much to the wonderment and horror of all who could see. The fragments sublimated, leaving only glimmering memory.

After the giants had been repulsed and the hideous sons of Loki had been once again bound, the gods those called both Aesir and Vanir, licked their wounds clean. They ordered Bifrost rebuilt, re-forging their link to Midgard and the other worlds. The new Bifrost Circuit was built over a skeleton of gold, fine as the wings of dragonflies, intricate as the maze of the trickster Loki’s mind. Over that, the dwarves wove sunlight, split into its component colors and rays, so that the whole was stronger than the original, perhaps stronger even than the ribbon which once fettered the Fenris wolf. The Bifrost Circuit was perhaps the greatest of the Aesir’s new treasures, for it was three things simultaneously: conveyance, convergence, and confinement.

A conveyance, as upon it all the armies of the Aesir and Vanir could walk shoulder to shoulder without want for space. Aside from the faltering roots of Yggdrassil, it was the only road to Asgard which men could hope to cross. And even then, the bridge understood who was and was not allowed, stunning trespassers with a dazzling display. From Asgard, the gods could name any place in the worlds that they wished Bifrost to bridge, and then find themselves there. It was a road that could go anywhere so long as that destination led from Asgard City.

A convergence, as within its structure and intricacies was held the echo of all Asgard’s knowledge. All the words spoken within that hall and all the things that would be discovered there were contained within the circuit. The sights upon which Heimdall spied, the sounds upon which he eavesdropped, every scrap of lore that he had stolen, resided here. Any story which had been told around any hearth or gossip whispered into a hungry ear was locked away within Bifrost’s coruscation. Time was frozen, countless instants left there to be referenced and experienced later. It was a library, the best library, as it was the best road, but it was a library without letters, only the ghosts of words and memory.

A confinement, as within its bounds and complexities, was exiled the intelligence and spirit of the Trickster himself. Loki’s keen mind paced the labyrinth halls of Bifrost, never to know the green grass of Asgard, or the fair days that prevailed. He was forever separated from his body, which lay in a black sleep within Asgard’s catacombs. He was doomed to be little more than a servant to the gods, retrieving whatever stories or knowledge they wished to experience once again. Within his rainbow halls, Loki’s anger and disgust with the Aesir grew. Every day that he suffered the ignominy of servitude he hated his masters that much more. Though there were days that even that could only be expressed as a gnawing numbness. He knew, that there was nothing to be done from within the walls of his new home. The shape of Bifrost’s skeleton bent Loki’s will, so that he might wish to resist or trick the gods, but would be unable to. But still he could dream of it.

The Circuit did not end when it reached Asgard City. Instead, it had roots and fingers that extended to within the halls and structures of the city. The dwarves who had constructed Bifrost had done this upon Tyr’s order, so that Loki might serve any and all within Asgard at their merest whim. The Circuit could be accessed anywhere within the city, making the demands upon Loki great indeed. Heimdall himself utilized these extensions of the Circuit so that he could watch Asgard from within, thinking that the greatest threat to the city might lie there.

Asgard City itself was splendor unparalleled, too bright for mortal eyes to conceive of or sight, glowing with the edge of winter stars. Gold and silver shone across every rooftop, making a glare that did not fade, even in the darkest night. Towers which threatened to pierce the dome of Ymir’s skull, the sky itself, riddled the city like so many spears in a corpse. Tallest of all these was the grim-visored Valaskjalf, within which sat blind Odin upon his throne Hildskjalf. From that seat, had one eyes, they could see everything in the nine worlds. Valaskjalf resembled nothing more than a silvered icicle, removed and remote with a terrible sharpness. It was scarcely believable that a century ago, all of Asgard had been reduced to smoldering coals by Surutur’s flames. The whole had been built back, more fantastic and beguiling than before, in time so that the gods would not have to suffer a winter out of doors.

It was here in Asgard that the Aesir and Vanir told their stories and drank mead with the fallen soldiers, who were made wanting by the impervious beauty of the Valkyires clad in steel. They were not for the fallen, nor even for the gods. Their long silken hair was all that was woman about them. Their flesh and soft white skin were sheathed in shining chrome, forever bound to their grim duties, never to touch their lips of steel to another.

This was all that the gods had done since Asgard had been rebuilt: celebrate their century-long victory over the forces of darkness. It was a revel that never ended, powered by mead flowing from bottomless horns, fed by steaming slabs of oxen and boar that never diminished. There were no mornings after, as the night’s festivities had not yet ended. Only Heimdall and Loki were absented; Heimdall by choice and duty, Loki by the will of the gods.

And Thor, too. Though his name was not spoken, it was heard everywhere. His absence cast a shadow that others could not manage with being present.

Heimdall had sequestered himself within his hall Himinbjorg the moment it had been rebuilt, so eager was he for his duties. There, he watched the nine worlds through borrowed eyes, listened through borrowed ears. His own senses had nearly been destroyed in his battle with Loki on the Virgrid plain. Fueled by a lifetime of mutual simmering resentment, Loki and Heimdall took to one another like thwarted lovers as Ragnarok ate and crumbled the world around them. Heimdall’s horn fell silent as did Loki’s cackling taunts. But in the end, Loki’s fire had burned Heimdall beyond recognition, and only the craft of the dwarves enabled him to serve as the Aesir’s warder still. Long eyes of watery glass had been made for him, as had fragile ears made of metal shaped as nets. These were attached to his seat in Himinbjorg, grafted to his skull so that he could see and hear again. In a way, Heimdall and Loki were brothers, both permanently linked to the Bifrost Circuit, though Heimdall had been the only one to volunteer. From his seat, he culled information, silently committing it to the permanent memory of the Circuit. He waited, secretly hoping for the coming of the Jotuns and their dark allies once again, reading all the signs around him for clues of their advance.

Truth to tell, Heimdall would never join the festivities in Asgard, even if he were able. He could not believe in the victory that all the other gods celebrated. In his heart of hearts, he waited for the day that the Bifrost Circuit would tremble under the monstrous tread of Surutur and his brothers. The thought of it gave him a tremble of excitement, perhaps the only sensation that he allowed himself to feel. At that moment, he would be truly alive again, blowing the horn Gjall that would stir all the gods into action.

Should that day ever come again.

Of course, Heimdall did not share his belief with his kin. He was satisfied to know this for himself, and they could not be concerned with it.

***

Tyr’s metalwork fist slammed onto the oaken table again. It did little to diminish the clamor that surrounded him. He continued pounding the table until a femur-splintering crack cut through the din. Faces turned towards him in astonishment as if he’d grabbed one of the servants and broken their neck in full view of the entire party.

“Might there be some order here?” Tyr asked finally, sitting back down in the great chair at the head of the table. The half of his body which was steel creaked and sighed as he assumed his seat. Plates of steel, bent and curved like muscle, covered the left half of his body. His wounds could never be hidden, too deep were they, but he could armor himself against the hurts of the future. Tyr, even his fleshly half, was cold to the touch, and always would be. Something had been taken from him that day on Virgrid, something that even the magic of the dwarves could not replace. When the jaws of the Fenris wolf snapped down upon Tyr as he pushed Odin All-Father from its slavering maw, more than flesh and bone had come away. Much of Tyr’s soul had tumbled down that wolf’s gullet along with his heart and body.

Now, Tyr was partially man on the outside. But inside him beat a heart of dwarven steel, pumping blood the color of molten iron which was enough to keep him living, but not sufficient to warm him or restore him. He may as well have been a hollow man. His sole motivation was law, nothing beyond that moved him.

“Thank you all,” Tyr said, as everyone assumed their chairs once again. “All that Odin asks is a few moments of the day to discuss matters of importance. Is that too much?”

“Odin asks? More like Tyr asks for Odin!” said an anonymous voice from around the table. “Odin has not spoken for himself in decades!” the voice dared to add.

Tyr knew it well, though the speaker always tried to disguise his voice, as if to put his words in the mouths of others. “Quiet, Freyr,” Tyr scolded. “Better to spare our energies from all this discord.”

Freyr stood, his blond hair radiant and platinum. Beard the color of snow tumbled to his chest, stopping just above his faintly growing belly. He pointed a long finger at Tyr as he spoke. “Perhaps there would be less discord if you did not insist on attempting to impose your will on the Aesir and Vanir,” He suggested.

Tyr tried not to roll his eyes as he responded. “It is Odin’s wishes that I am fulfilling with my duties. Not my own.” Tyr’s voice was that of infinite patience. “All-Father is unfit for his duties, and with Thor gone, I am the next in the progression.”

“Tyr the martyr, giving all of himself that he can hold Asgard together,” snapped another voice, sarcasm-dripping. “Yes, convenient that Thor has never returned from his travels, eh Tyr?” Loki’s voice slid out of the golden face which hung on the wall of the council chambers. “Too bad that he hasn’t come back to take that which is his. Better him up at the head of the table than you with your mouth like the breaking wind.”

Tyr knew better than to rise to the bait, even if his metal heart would let him. “Silence, Trickster. Or I shall arrange to have you silenced. It is only through Odin’s wishes that you have this much contact with us. It is a privilege.”

The mask was expressionless as Tyr’s own face. “Odin’s wishes? A privilege? You can deceive these poor fools, but not me.” Tyr was a challenge to Loki, nothing more. One day, he’d find a way to rouse anger from even impassive Tyr’s heart. Loki would win yet, and thoughts like that cheered him even in his binding.

Tyr bent away from his seat and stared at the hammered gold face. He imagined there being a mirthful smirk across its lips, but knew that was impossible.

“I myself will disconnect you, and you will not be missed.”

The voice leveled off at the threat.

“Of course, noble Tyr.” The mask froze, save for a multicolored light behind its eyes. Loki watched without comment and Tyr showed no joy at having brought the meeting to order.

“Now. There are matters that we must discuss. The Jotuns…”

“Jotuns have sharp teeth with which they like to crunch!” spat a harsh voice from the entranceway. The figure arched, gaunt and brittle so much so that his height was exaggerated to grotesque. Bent with age, skin white as bleached ash wood, he leaned suddenly against the doorway, faltering. Robes of a regal blue draped over his form. They had been meant to conceal his frailty but only emphasized it, loose and lumpen. He hung on a tall staff that mimicked his own gnarled stature. From beneath a wide-brimmed hat, long hanks of yellow-white hair streamed, obscuring his face and features. He might have been pathetic, had his decline not been so frightening to the gods. They all knew that the infirmity that gripped him waited even for them.

This was Odin, All-Father, one of the three creators of the world. He was the Grim One, the fear of evil Jotuns and treacherous men. He was the mightiest of the gods, crafty as Loki, stronger than Thor, as unyielding as Tyr. On his best days, he was hard-pressed to conjure even the memory of that greatness, even in his own children.

“Father,” Tyr said quickly, and not without a small snatch of astonishment. “What a surprise it is to see you here. But you shouldn’t have come. There are no matters which we cannot deal with without your involvement.”

The raven perched upon Odin’s shoulder shifted from one foot to the other then cocked its head and regarded Tyr with eyes like cut rubies. They had the clarity and color of arterial blood. It then whispered into Odin’s ear, poking its ebony beak through the masses of bony locks.

Odin put his hand over the eyes of the bird. “Yes, Muninn memory-bird. I didn’t need you to remind me of that. Yesterday was high summer, and I was not there.” He turned his head towards the sound of Tyr’s voice. “Why did you not call me, Tyr Justice-Giver? Why did you not wish me present at Thor’s summons?”

All eyes at the table were upon Tyr. Muninn watched with faceted jewels, Loki watched from behind the mask with laughing eyes, Heimdall absently listened as he followed a thousand other conversations happening simultaneously.

Were Tyr able to show fear, he might have at that moment.

“Because, Father, it has been eighty years since Thor has parted company with us. I have faced the fact that Thor does not want to be in our fold, or he would have answered the call during one of the other high summers. He knows how to find us, and Heimdall has heard nothing of his death. The only conclusion is that he wishes to remain alone, and we cannot change that.” The delivery was perfect, even and without a trace of hesitation.

Odin stiffened, pulling his shoulders over his hips, adding nearly a head to his height. His hand tightened into a tight, petrified knot an he shook it at Tyr. “You will send the summons tomorrow, and I will be present as I have been in the past.” That was all he had to say. There was no confusion or hesitation in his voice, ringing solidly through the meeting hall like the cracking of an avalanche.

He turned slowly and melted from the doorway, the bottom of his staff scraping as he shuffled away. All at the table were silent, their disagreements shoved aside for the moment. Odin’s appearances were few and his words fewer. Tyr shifted in his chair as if burr-bitten, but such inconveniences would never be allowed in the perfection that was Asgard.

This should get you the feel for the story, though I’ll just say that it probably doesn’t turn out the way you’d expect to given its beginning.

If you want to read the rest for just three bucks, here’s where you go: http://tinyurl.com/ragnarokkindle.