Albinos – Close relatives of humans, this race have some marked differences. Due to the continuous twilight of their home of Luunus they have developed a pale skin and bleach-white hair due to a lack of melanin. Their eyes are significantly larger than those of humans, at least twice as large, and they are known for their observational skills, often being employed as lie-detectors by town guards, and their sensitivity to light.
The Origin of Species – Morrigan de Bedoine
The plunge into the dark waters hit Darkmoor like a thousand cold daggers, chilling him to the very bones. His blood seeped around him, the salt water stinging his chest and jaw intensely. Gibralt snatched at the captain’s shoulder and dragged him downwards. Darkmoor tried to open his eyes but the water was pitch-black and burnt his eyes. A minute was spent sinking gradually under the sea, the pressure rising gradually. The waters forced their way into his nostrils and he groaned as loud as he could. A sudden jerk upwards forced the air out of his lungs.
He finally broke the surface and gasped for breath. Gibralt had inflated to immense proportions and dragged them both to the end of the ship. Somehow his inflated chest had closed the wound Blackfoot had inflicted and his eye was leaking salt water. Darkmoor clambered onto the rudder with difficulty and dragged the rapidly deflating Gibralt on with him. Darkmoor began chewing frantically on Gibralt’s ropes to free him. The stone attached to the rope dragged the ragged remains to the sea floor and Gibralt began groggily untying the captain.
‘Told you I had a plan,’ Gibralt spluttered.
Darkmoor chuckled quietly. ‘I knew there was a good reason I picked a shifter for first mate.’
The pair of them scrabbled onto the top of the huge rudder and sat down. ‘Hopefully no one should be able to see us due to the overhang of the captain’s quarters, but we’ll have to stay pretty damn quiet,’ Gibralt whispered.
‘How the fuck are we going to survive the fucking journey back!’ Darkmoor hissed. ‘It could be days before we get back!’
‘Unlike you, you weak shite, I was completely conscious the whole time. It’s only a day to Delgatti,’ Gibralt muttered. ‘We can get off there, swim around the dock and go our separate ways after that.’
‘Fuck that, Gibralt,’ Darkmoor rasped. ‘I want you to wait at a big city, I don’t care which one, and keep in contact with the rest of the crew. I’ll probably have need of you all again to get back at that Malquiss cunt.’
‘When’ll that be?’ Gibralt asked.
‘I don’t know yet, years from now, but it’s going to fucking happen, and when it does it’s going to be bloody and brutal.’
Rogan woke up with a start. He was stood at the gates and he began cracking his knuckled impatiently. Everyone else was late. There was only him, the priest, a few sacks and bags at their feet and a number of bemused guards with clockwork limbs.
Their limbs were far cruder than Rogan’s; half of the movements they made were down to guesswork from the gears. Rogan’s was more accurate by far. It had countless triggers set to mimic his muscles that responded to even the tiniest tense of a muscle or nerve signal, just like that of a real hand. That and at a pre-programmed flick of his wrist in an unusual manner a twenty inch rapier blade, the length of his immense forearm, would extend from the knuckle of his middle finger, the finger itself providing something of a hilt to secure it. The fingers were far more resilient and dextrous than that of his real hand and, had it not been for the complete lack of feeling in his clockwork hand, he would hack off the other to get a second replacement.
Malkus was staring at the hand. Rogan couldn’t tell what his reaction to it was under that damned head-dress of his. His entire head and neck were hidden under it and it just looked plain cumbersome; a large stag’s head with immense antlers. It could be considered practical that the antlers were on the forehead and pointed directly backwards, although not as practical as not having any antlers at all.
‘Do you have to wear that bloody head thing all the time?’ Rogan asked.
Malkus’ head moved from the hand to his face. ‘Do you have to wear that hand all the time? Of course not, but it certainly helps matters.’
‘What you mean?’
Malkus sighed and took a step forwards, rolling his arms as he tried to find the words. ‘I’m an albino; my eyes are not used to all this light. If I were to remove my head-dress then I could be potentially blinded, and blind members of my race are outcast as they are a burden on the rest of the tribe. If the inability to see my face in this unsettles you I have a second packed in my bags.’
‘Aye, it is kind of… weird not seeing your face,’ Rogan mumbled. The priest reached into a large sack and pulled out a more intricately carved version of his head-dress. He discarded the one he had been wearing into the sack and kept his eyes firmly closed. The first glimpse of a Luunite priest’s face by a foreigner was underwhelming to Rogan. He certainly had the large eyes of his race but the rest of his features were different to those of other Luunites he had seen. His nose was shorter and wider than most of his brethren and he had a stronger jaw. His bleach white hair had been braided into tight rows on his scalp and a small tuft of hair sprouted from his chin. The skin on his face and neck was somehow paler than that on his arms and torso, revealing them to be tanned a pale grey rather than white. Malkus now placed the head-dress on himself and there was a marked improvement. The lower half of his face was now on display, sans nose however as that was concealed by a snout-shaped protrusion. The eyes could now bee seen behind blue tinted lenses and only the back of the neck and head were concealed by a length of patterned silk. The antlers still remained, however, only in this instance they seemed more like branches covered in thorns.
‘Does this meet with your approval, Captain?’ Malkus smirked. He suddenly sank to his knees and clasped his hands together in front of his chest. ‘Now if you don’t mind, I need to pray and bless our journey.’
Rogan scratched his chin and watched the approach of the two Nimians from the distance. In a noticeable difference to what Rogan had come to know the girl carried fewer bags, only scrolls and books, while the ork was weighed down by a large number of sacks filled with astronomical devices of unfathomable design. ‘Looks like we’re ready to leave, I guess,’ the ork smiled.
‘Calm down, lad, no need to get so eager,’ Rogan grunted. ‘There’s a good wait for us yet. Still got to wait for my two colleagues to arrive and the priest here’s blessing our journey apparently.’
Ludwig scoffed nasally. ‘Blessing our journey? Load of superstitious nonsense if you ask me, no point in doing something so trivial and outdated priest.’
Without warning Malkus leapt to his feet and swung his leg around, catching Ludwig on the very tip of his nose. A sharp pain made Ludwig gasp but he was too scared to move. ‘Your sinuses were blocked, that was what was causing your irritating voice.’ The priest stepped forwards, coming right up to the ork’s face. ‘It’s extremely rude to mock someone’s beliefs, especially when they can harm or heal you. I’d wipe your nose about now.’ He pulled a handkerchief from Ludwig’s pocket and handed it to him as a small trickle of blood and mucus wormed its way from his nostril.
‘I can see you’ll be handy, Malkus,’ Rogan chuckled as he began rifling through Ludwig’s belongings. ‘You aren’t going to need half of these, lad. They’re just going to weigh you down. All I can see in here that you actually need is that telescope, sextant, star map and… what the hell is this?’ Rogan pulled out a small wooden box.
‘Ah,’ Ludwig began, his voice far less nasal now. ‘That’s called a chronometer, when used with the sextant it can judge the time wherever we are in the world.’
Rogan arched his eyebrow in scepticism. ‘Well you only need these things and your clothes so you might as well leave your other bags here. Ah, they’re finally here.’
Sure enough, the pair from the pub had appeared. Cottontongue was in the exact same state but carrying a rolled up length of fabric with a number of blades poking out. Gibralt, on the other hand, had certainly cleaned himself up. His grey beard and matted hair were gone, replaced with a clean-shaved face and a dark ponytail. His face, which had previously seemed to be swollen and pockmarked, had returned to its usual gaunt appearance and his violet eye shone brightly in the sun. He’d even managed to find his pale green Borani uniform once again.
‘You cleaned up fast, Gibralt,’ Rogan sniggered.
‘It’s pretty bloody easy when you’re a shifter Captain,’ Gibralt grinned. ‘Where are we heading first then?’
‘Well, the ship Ra gave us should be in port at Renoit,’ Morrigan began.
Rogan raised his hand to silence her. ‘And how the hell are we meant to pilot it? It ain’t a bloody yacht or schooner we’ve gotten from him; it’s about the same size as the Fenrir’s Maw so we’re going to need a bigger crew. I say we head for the nearest of our former colleagues, move on to the next bunch after them and then pick up some deckhands from the ports after we get the ship, agreed?’
Everyone nodded in unison and Gibralt clapped his hands eagerly. ‘Right, we’re off to Fenus then.’
The borders of Nimia were rife with bandits, preying on the small villages and camps overlooking Fenus and Boran. The border with Fenus, however, was one of the more dangerous places to travel through. The autumn forest continued for a good number of miles into Fenite territory so it was difficult to find when you had entered it, yet the first sign was always the stench of death and the bloodstains on the forest floor.
Morrigan had heard many stories about what the rogue tribes lurking in the forests would do to travellers they came across. Robbery and assault were standard but the Fenite tribes were particularly brutal. There’d been whispers of one clan that tore a group of merchants apart and used their entrails to decorate the surrounding trees. Another group of bandits lined the path to Fenus with the limbs of their victims and used their skulls for personal decoration. None of that was a worry with her current company, however.
Not including Ludwig, her companions were fearsome men, battle-hardened and prepared for conflict. A warrior priest and three pirates; what could be better company than that? ‘I can think of a few things better,’ Morrigan thought. ‘Like a battalion from the Bedoine barracks.’
Cottontongue rasped suddenly at Gibralt, his hisses sounding like an injured serpent. ‘We should set up camp for the night Cap’n,’ Gibralt grumbled. ‘We’ve been walking for two days; I think some rest is needed. Cottontongue’s weary so that’s got to mean something.’
Rogan spat at the ground, dumped the sacks slung over his shoulder and looked at the sky. The two stationary suns, Sol and Jupiter, were had been sinking gradually from their midday position in Bedoine to a mid-afternoon position as they neared the Fenus border. He hurriedly pulled out a pocket-watch from his jacket and opened it clumsily. It was ten at night. ‘Aye, we’ll set up a camp now. Cottontongue and Malkus you get some firewood so we can cook some fucking food, you Nimians get the tents from my bag and start pitchin’ them up Gibralt and I’ll keep guard.’
Morrigan groaned as she and Ludwig set down their bags and began rifling through Rogan’s bags until they found four canvas tents. The priest and mute walked off into the woods as a pair while the two pirates strode ahead, weapons drawn.
‘This is bullshit,’ Morrigan grumbled as she began hammering in the first few pegs on a tent she’d claimed.
Ludwig gasped and looked up from propping the same tent up. ‘It’s not like you to swear. Have the pirates been a bad influence on you?’
‘No,’ Morrigan hissed. ‘I just think this isn’t right. How come we get the hard work to do?’
‘How come we get the hard work to do?’ Gibralt grunted angrily. ‘If any bandits do come, and I’m not saying they will, what in the seven hells do you think us two are going to be able to do?’
Rogan patted Gibralt on the back and continued pacing around the slowly growing camp. ‘You love the work really Gibralt. Besides we’ve fought under worse odds before. Remember the sack of Amun? It was four of us against four-hundred!’
‘Aye, but then we had iron rain on our side, as well as Blitzfaust and Falcus fighting like bloody lunatics. Now it’s just us Darkmoor,’ Gibralt waved his hands as he became more irritable. ‘And quite frankly we’re not getting any fucking younger.’
Rogan spun around and slammed Gibralt against a nearby willow unexpectedly and raised his fist at the shifter’s face. ‘Don’t call me Darkmoor, Gibralt,’ Rogan roared. ‘There’s too much baggage with that name. It’s Rogan or Captain, not plain Darkmoor, got that?’
Gibralt’s eyes were wide in terror yet he nodded quickly. Rogan released him and dusted the shifter’s back down. ‘Fuck me, Captain; you were never too fussed with the baggage your name carried before, what’s changed?’
‘I’m trying to get some fucking honour back,’ Rogan hissed. ‘Is that so difficult to stomach?’
‘By Artemis, this is difficult to stomach,’ Malkus coughed. He was slumped on a red leaved oak and was rubbing his eyes. Cottontongue merely stared at him, carrying a large pile of wood and leaves. ‘I’m sure you’re familiar with this sort of sight due to your line of work, my silent friend, but I am not.’
Malkus raised his head once again and stared into the eyes of an Undying. He wore the crimson and gold armour of a Nimian guard and his face was mostly obscured by a tangle of black hair. A clockwork arm lay in pieces on the floor beside him and he was sat against a willow tree. His eyes were cold, lifeless, soulless. His armour was cloven in two down the torso and three long gashes extended from his collar bone to his hips, cutting straight through the ribs and organs. Malkus strode over to him and placed a finger in the wounds.
‘This is still fresh; he must have been killed recently.’ He turned to face Cottontongue and grimaced. ‘We have to hurry back and warn the others.’
A loud, angry rasp escaped the Taur half-breed. He placed his full hand on his bicep and raised his empty arm in an insulting gesture.
‘Yes, I know you must not like the idea of taking orders from me, my friend,’ Malkus sighed, ‘but we must get back, and quickly.’ He picked up the corpse and began running in the direction of the camp, Cottontongue struggling to keep pace behind. ‘I just hope we aren’t too late.’
‘You’re too late,’ Ludwig chuckled. ‘I’ve already finished this tent so I win.’
Morrigan raised an eyebrow in confusion and scepticism. ‘I didn’t realise this was a competition to you, Luddy.’
‘Well when you’re doing something as boring and tedious as this you have to make it enjoyable somehow.’ He straightened up and dumped the small hammer back in Rogan’s bag. Ludwig then grabbed a sextant and sun map from his own bags and pressed the apparatus to his eyes.
‘What are you doing now?’ Morrigan sighed, sitting down on the undergrowth and spreading her legs out.
Ludwig lowered the sextant and ran his finger over the sun map. ‘Just calculating where we are now. Apparently we’re roughly seven miles from the Fenus border.’
A feigned expression of interest from Morrigan had Ludwig continuing his navigation in silence. Morrigan took this opportunity to begin her own studies. She pulled an immense leather-bound tome from her satchel. She’d managed to snatch it from the Restricted Histories section of the Museum of Sundering and this book felt like it was filled with forbidden knowledge. The runed cover had identical script to that tattooed on Ra and along the spine a faded title of ‘The United Kingdom: 1900-2100AD’ glowed a faint silver.
Biting her lip in anticipation she turned the first page. The title page, revealing that it had been written by an immortal named Surtr, was faded and yellowed, revealing its age. Even the way it was written was an ancient form of the common tongue. Carefully, ever so carefully, Morrigan began turning the pages and reading half-way through. ‘If this is to reveal details on the Sundering then it should be near the back,’ she thought.
Page after page of confusing terms and events passed Morrigan’s eyes as she flicked through the book, searching for what Ra had told her to find. What she had gathered so far was that the United Kingdom was the tiny island nation she had been made to write about days earlier and, up until the twentieth century of their calendar, commanded an empire spanning a quarter of the globe. Judging by their naval power Rogan would be interested in these people she read of.
Finally she reached it; under the year 2008 she found the first piece of information regarding that area. According to the information provided, scientists from the Tyne region were able to create embryos that were half-human and half-animal to harvest cells for medical purposes. All that it said of that information, however, was that ‘their studies were far from over at that point, as the blasphemies of later years proved.’
Morrigan continued flicking through the pages and found no more details for hundreds of pages. She sighed and placed a leaf into the page she had just read and another in the page she had flicked to. A loud shout from the forest heralded the return of Malkus.
‘What the hell’s the matter with him?’ Morrigan asked Ludwig.
‘What the fuck’s the matter with him?’ Gibralt asked Rogan.
Malkus was charging towards them, shouting loudly and carrying a body. Cottontongue was following at a slower pace, carrying great armfuls of wood. Rogan and Gibralt ran as fast as they could to reach the campsite when Malkus did. Finally they all stopped beside Morrigan, panting for breath.
‘We’ve got trouble,’ Malkus panted, dumping the body at Rogan’s feet. ‘It’s fresh. Bandits are nearby.’
Rogan stooped down and checked the wounds the guard had sustained. Three long gashes down the chest, severing the ribs, lungs, heart and digestive system. ‘Bear’s Fist,’ Rogan whispered.
‘What’s that?’ Malkus asked.
‘It’s a Fenite form of execution,’ Rogan scratched his nose and straightened up. ‘The Bear’s Fist; three long slashes down the chest. The first two would puncture the lungs and open the stomach and intestines, causing the victim to slowly suffocate and cause intense pain. Just before they died, however, the final incision would slice the heart open and cause them to bleed out. It was only done by the stronger Fenites since it required a strong hand to cut clean through the ribs like that; most of my people would go for the Vomiting Maw by cutting open your belly and pulling your entrails out.’
‘Sounds pleasant,’ Morrigan coughed, putting her book away. Ludwig gagged at the sight of the body and dropped his sextant to the floor. He immediately scrubbed the polished gold instrument and placed it inside his tent.
‘You two get into the tents and stay down,’ Rogan hissed.
‘We have names, Rogan!’ Morrigan stood up and placed her hands on her hips in defiance. ‘Use them; it’s polite!’
Rogan shook his head in disbelief. ‘It doesn’t matter, you and… Ludwig get in the tents, me and the rest here can hold off any bandits.’ The two Nimians clambered into the tents and the others took position on each corner of the camp. Rogan extended his blade-hand, Malkus clasped at his staff, Gibralt drew twin rapiers and Cottontongue wrapped his hands around an immense log. Silence passed. A long silence pierced only by birdsong.
‘You think there’s any chance bandits would actually come here?’ Gibralt whispered.
‘They’d probably heard all of us earlier, the body was only a few yards from us,’ Malkus hissed, his bleach white teeth bared, the same colour as his pale skin. ‘They’ll come here alright.’
Rogan lowered his blade and stared around. No signs of movement. They were either pretty damn stealthy or not there at all. ‘Doesn’t look like…’ A sharp crunch came from Cottontongue as an arrow pierced the log her was carrying. The group raised their weapons once more as a pair of Undying archers and a towering ork rounded a pair of trees. In the opposite direction two immense Taurs and a smaller Undying, no older than eighteen clambered up from the undergrowth.
‘We were wondering when you were going to realise,’ the human sneered. ‘We were prepared to wait all night until you dropped your guards.’
‘What do you want from us?’ Malkus asked, polite even when surrounded.
The human cackled callously. ‘Whatever you have with you, of course. I would hand it over now before my associates and I take it from your corpses.’
It was Rogan’s turn to laugh now. He was actually in hysterics. ‘No fucking chance kid, do you take us for complete idiots? Now, if we’re going to die, as you claim, why don’t you indulge us and tell us your names. Y’know, as a last request or whatever the fuck you’d call it.’
The young Undying scowled. ‘Very well, my name is Sindor de Ragast and my associates are formerly of the Epsilon battalion of the Fenus Army, their names are irrelevant now. Why do you ask?’
‘Because by the time we’re done with you the only way they’ll recognise your corpses are by the names I carve into your fucking torsos. You should’ve known better than to fuck with us, lad.’
As Rogan finished talking he spun in a lightning manoeuvre and sliced a deep gash into one of the Taur’s necks. All hell broke loose instantly as Malkus leapt, swinging his staff for momentum. He flew a good number of feet before cleaving the ork’s skull in two with his blunt stave-head. Cottontongue threw his log with all of his strength at one of the archers, smashing his face into a bloodied pulp and snatched the man’s bow and quiver while his body still twitched and writhed in its death throes. Gibralt let loose an unholy howl as he inflated his muscles and flung himself onto the other Taur, hacking and slashing at his chest with ungodly speed. The last archer shot at Cottontongue, only to have his arrow bounce off his immensely strong horns. Rasping what should have been an incredible battle cry he fired seven arrows in quick succession, the first four killing the archer while the other three pinned the young Undying to an oak by his clothing.
‘Please, don’t kill me,’ the Undying sobbed. His pants were stained with urine and his face had gone pale in fear. ‘It was only business!’
‘Aye lad, but I’ve been in this business far longer than you,’ Rogan drew his blade to the Undying’s face. ‘I think I’ll have to give you an early retirement then.’
‘No!’ Malkus smacked the blade down with his staff. ‘Leave him be, enough blood has been spilt and he’s learnt his lesson.’ He shoved Rogan aside, removed the arrows from the Undying’s arrows and stepped back as he ran away.
‘You have such little faith in me, priest,’ Rogan spat on the ground. ‘I was just going to scare him! Hell, if you had me bearing down on you with this fucking hand of mine you’d retire from robbery.’
‘Needless to say, my point still stands,’ Malkus sighed. ‘Enough blood has been spilled. If you don’t mind…’ Malkus strode to the nearest corpse, sank to his feet and clasped his hands in front of his chest once more. ‘Artemis, god of the moon and the hunt, guide these hunters to the heavens and sharpen their blades that they may join your party.’
‘You’re praying for our enemies now?’ Gibralt scoffed. ‘They were just trying to kill us a minute ago!’
Malkus rose to his feet and dusted his knees off. ‘That they may be, but they were fellow hunters. It is my duty as a priest of Artemis to bless them.’
‘Whatever, priest,’ Rogan yawned. ‘Let’s just get some sleep.’
He’d finally reached Niflheim in Fenus after three more days of running. By this point Vepar had been travelling for ten days non-stop, save for his brief encounter with Belial. His stamina may be superior to that of the common human, however he needed rest and he needed it soon. His clothes were still in good condition yet he was not. His cheeks were noticeably gaunt and his clothes no longer clung tightly to him. He panted as he strode into the freezing city of Niflheim and was finally able to cool down.
The city sat on one side of the gargantuan tree Yggdrasil and, as such, was plunged in permanent shade. Many stories went around about Yggdrasil, about how a tree could reach the height of an entire mountain, yet somehow it was possible. Some said that the gods tended to the tree since it was a sapling, some said that it had sapped the life from Dant and used that to reach its height while others said that the ignition of Jupiter pulled the tree towards the heavens. Regardless of the reason, the evidence was plain to see. An unfortunate result of Yggdrasil, however, was that while Niflheim was completely frozen Muspell on the other side of the tree was an arid waste.
Niflheim was a city that seemed lifeless. The towering wooden houses seemed like upturned ships and icicles hung from every overhanging angle, adding to the image. The cobbled paths were covered in frost and ice and a number of flaming torches hung from the outside of the buildings, lighting the path through the perpetual twilight and smoking as melting ice dripped onto them. The huge populace of the city Vepar could see were clad in furs and vapour wafted from their mouths and noses as they breathed. The only sounds were a small breeze and the gentle coughing of passersby.
Vepar clutched his shirt, wrapping it tightly around his body. He was freezing here. He made a quick run to a nearby tavern and without stopping to see its condition barged inside. The main room was a dreary pub. Save for the crackling of a fire and the occasional slurp from a mug the place was silent. The giant patrons were all hunched at tables, whispering or remaining sombre. They all stared at Vepar as he left the door to slam shut. His footsteps echoed as he paced across the planked floor to the bar and all eyes were still fixed upon him.
‘Water, please,’ Vepar rasped at the tall woman behind the bar, his throat parched from his journey. ‘Do you do food too? I’m famished’
‘Aye, we do,’ the woman replied. ‘I’ll get cook to make you some stew.’ She slammed the mug of water unintentionally and walked through to the back room of the tavern. Vepar picked it up and strode to an empty table. The patrons were still staring at him; huge men wrapped in furs and sporting similar, intricate tattoos across their face and torsos; each swirl in them a tally of their kills in one of the armed forces, the colours varying for the owner’s battalion and rank.
The Fenite word for the humans native here was Jotun, meaning giant. Given the size of these men it was easy to see how they conformed to the preconception of giants. Most scholars believed the Jotnar to be a separate race altogether given their many differences to other humans. The shortest of the men here was seven feet tall, the tallest being ten feet. All of them sported long dreadlocks and beards. Even the women here were huge compared to Vepar. He seemed like a child perched on this chair, his feet barely scraping the floor. He even had to reach up to place his oversized mug on the table. Everything about Fenus was massive, and Vepar was tiny, insignificant, pathetic here. Or at least that’s how he seemed to the patrons.
‘You’re a long way from home, pup,’ a gruff voice to Vepar’s right chuckled. He looked up to see a grinning behemoth towering over him. He must have been eleven feet tall and at least half a ton in weight. He was wearing a grey fur jacket, black vest and patched leather jeans. His boots were capped with steel and his hair and beard were bone-white. He seemed to be the only patron here without the Fenite tally-tattoo and his accent was slightly different, possibly that of a different region of Fenus? He parked himself opposite Vepar and beamed. ‘What brings you all the way to Fenus, lad?’
‘What gave me away?’ Vepar smirked.
‘Well, you’re too short to be a local for starters,’ the Jotun laughed. ‘On top of that your little snout there is a bit of a hint and you forgot to shave, your stubble’s coming in at awful odd places for a human.’
Vepar raised his hands and cocked his head. ‘You got me; I just got here a couple of days ago from Dant.’ He took a mouthful of water and sighed loudly as he swallowed. ‘Came all the way from Dis. Was quite a run I’ll tell you now.’
‘Wow, all the way from Dis? What brings you here to Niflheim then?’
Vepar coughed as he took another mouthful from the huge mug. ‘I’m on a journey to find three others in Nimia. Belial told me to go on an expedition with them or something.’
‘Sounds curious to me,’ the Jotun mused as he stroked his white beard. ‘Who might these people be?’
‘I think it’s a Fenite pirate, a Nimian Undying scholar and a Luunite priest. Why do you ask?’
The Jotun continued stroking his beard as he raised a finger at Vepar. ‘Because I do believe I’ve heard about three people matching that description reaching the borders of Fenus, apparently they’re heading for Muspell via Jotunheim to pick up some more people for this expedition of theirs.’
‘How do you know that?’ Vepar frowned.
‘There’s not much goes by me here in Fenus. What’s you name?’
‘Vepar. It’s Vepar Palemaw.’
The Jotun extended a massive meaty hand at Vepar. ‘Nice to meet you, I don’t have a name per-se but I’m known as the Narrator.’
‘The Narrator?’ Vepar frowned deeper and shook the Jotun’s hand. ‘How did you get a name like that?’
The Jotun shrugged and smiled widely. ‘Like I said, nothing much gets past me. I’m something of a scholar and so I like to educate people. Hence the name Narrator I guess.’
‘Scholars are fairly uncommon among Fenites, I’d associate that sort of thing more with Nimia,’ Vepar smirked.
‘Now, now,’ the Narrator wagged his finger at Vepar. ‘That’s called racism and I really don’t tolerate that sort of thing. There are plenty of Fenite scholars; we merely study different subjects to our Nimian brethren. While Nimians are obsessed with the stars and engines, we prefer studying the earth, geography and history. We get more hands on than Nimians who spend their time in libraries and museums. We dig for historical treasures and traverse the globe to learn more about it. I think you’ll find we’re as clever as Nimian scholars, despite our admittedly brutish appearance.’
Vepar bowed his head. ‘I apologise if I seemed racist there, it was not my intention. I’ve only seen Fenite soldiers so I’m unfamiliar with your culture. I’m no stranger to that myself though.’
‘I see, half-breed Wolvyn in Dant, never goes by without some judgement does it? Even now everyone’s staring,’ the Narrator indicated over his shoulder at the glaring Jotnar and they immediately turned away as he acknowledged them.
The huge woman from the bar returned with a large bowl of stew and a ladle. She placed it on the table and returned to cleaning glasses behind the bar. Vepar peered over the rim of the bowl to see a dark brown liquid filled with chunks of beef and potato. It looked fairly sickly but the sweet aroma was delicious to him; it may have just been his hunger making him think that though. He cautiously pushed the ladle into the viscous liquid, watching it sink slowly, and then raised it to his lips. The stew was surprisingly delicious, although that may have been the hunger talking.
‘So, where you staying, then?’ the Narrator asked.
Vepar shrugged and swallowed a mouthful of stew quickly. ‘I’m not staying long; I’ll need to hurry to Muspell like you said.’
The Narrator laughed heartily. ‘They’re miles away from Muspell, lad. It’ll take them days to get there! Tell you what, I can guide you to Muspell and set you up in a good inn and you can meet up with them there. Sound good?’
‘What’s the catch?’ Vepar frowned. In his experience no one helped anyone out of the goodness of their own heart.
A sharp yet friendly chuckle escaped the Jotun as he answered. ‘No catch, my friend, you merely have to provide conversation as we travel.’
Vepar gulped down a ladle full of stew and spluttered as he began to talk. ‘Alright, but let me finish this first and pay for it.’
As both Vepar and his Jotun guide left the tavern a loud yell pierced the cold night air. They both turned to see a group of seven Jotnar thugs, dressed in black and sporting linen bandages across their head and arms to disguise their identities.
‘What’s this? A mongrel lost in Niflheim?’ The tallest of them sneered, tufts of black hair protruding from the bandages around his chin. ‘What’s the matter pup, you lost or something?’
The Narrator raised his meaty hands in a submissive gesture, still grinning widely. ‘Now now, lads. He’s just passing through.’
‘Shut your fucking mouth old man!’ a smaller, stockier Jotun growled. ‘We don’t take kindly to strangers in our town.’
‘Yeah, you forgot to pay the toll for entering our town,’ the tall one sneered once more. ‘We’re going to have to add interest to it. Give us everything you own and we might let you go about your way.’
‘Piss of,’ Vepar spat. ‘I may be foreign but I’m not a fucking idiot. All I have are the clothes on my back so if you want them you’ll have to take them from me yourself.’
The Jotnar cackled and drew assorted blades. The tall one placed a crude set of knuckledusters on his hands and cracked his knuckles. ‘Wrong answer, pup.’
‘Just calm down, lads. Let us be on our way and this needn’t turn violent,’ The Narrator paced forwards, placing himself between Vepar and the thugs. ‘If you just…’
He was cut short as the stocky one slashed down his chest twice, attempting to use a Bear’s Fist on him. The Narrator gasped as the air was sucked from his lungs and he sank to his knees slowly. As if in slow motion Vepar saw the steel-capped fist of the tall Jotun slam into his cheek. Vepar stumbled over, landing on his feet yet dribbling blood from his lip. A red haze filled his eyes as he growled angrily; he was going berserk.
Anyone who knew a Wolvyn would know of their berserker rage. It was one of the things they shared with the ancient Fenites before Tyr educated them in the arts of war. When injured they would sink into an uncontrollable rage and attack anything they deemed a threat, only stopping when everything was suitably dead and bleeding. The red haze signalled the start of what was to be a bloody battle.
Almost immediately Vepar’s hair stood to attention and he bared his deadly looking fangs. The skin around his claws retreated slightly making them seem longer and sharper. He snarled angrily as the tall Jotun swung his fist once more at the Wolvyn. The sound of his jaw being torn from his mouth by Vepar was sickening; almost like paper being torn yet pierced by a gurgling scream. He collapsed heavily on the ground and twitched as he bled out slowly.
Vepar bounded at the stocky one, carving his chest open with his vicious claws, ignoring the Jotun’s screams and pathetic attempts to force the Wolvyn off himself. A loud roar sounded behind him as the Narrator’s face twisted in rage. He hurled himself to his feet and picked up the still barely living body of the taller Jotun. The Narrator stumbled slightly as he swung him like a club into the other thugs. Vepar charged into the fray and began carving a bloody swathe through them, tearing at them with his claws and teeth. Another stab to the Narrator ended with a cruel backhand from his fist, sending the bandaged thug flying into the wall of the tavern with a wet crunch. A knife slashed across Vepar’s shoulder blade. He spun and grabbed the throat of the thug, biting into it as hard as possible and tearing great chunks of flesh from his neck. Vepar wasn’t even entirely sure what he was doing, but the violence was liberating.
It was another minute before he regained himself. He was standing atop the body of the leader of the thugs who, by this point, was now dead and lacking his jaw. The Narrator was hunched over, clutching his chest and panting for breath. Vepar ran over to the Jotun and placed his hand on his back.
‘Are you okay? Fuck, I saw you get stabbed! I thought you were dead!’ Vepar hissed.
The Narrator grinned and straightened up. His vest was covered in blood; both his own and that of the thugs. His beard was covered in flecks of red and his eyes were bloodshot. ‘I’m alright lad, I’ve suffered worse.’ The Jotun straightened his vest and clapped a hand on Vepar’s shoulder. ‘Come on, we best be leaving. I’m pretty sure there’s more where they came from.’
The new camp site was far different to what Morrigan was used to. No longer were they surrounded by the golden and crimson leaves of the oaks and willows of Nimia, now they were sat on a grassy plain, covered in mounds and boulders that seemed to have been placed there by some being of immense strength. Off on the horizon the great tree Yggdrasil loomed, scraping the clouds and casting an immense shadow. Across the hills a number of huge tank lizards wandered aimlessly, their heavily armoured shells reflecting the sunlight and their dragon-like heads dipping into the grass to feast. Among them the occasional cockatrice, immense birds that seemed to be more akin to a prehistoric reptile, would leap from the tall grasses to prey upon the younger, smaller or weaker lizards
Morrigan sat in front of the fire reading the Surtr book once more. A couple of hundred pages onwards from her last read she found more clues; more mention of the Tyne region. Around the year 2040 in their calendar it was revealed that the same organisation of scientists that created the hybrid embryos began manipulation of genetics to create what they believed to be a perfected form of humanity. These humans (the only sentient race present on the planet at that time which confirmed Morrigan’s theories) that were subjected to genetic treatments were used as soldiers in what was described as the ‘First Great Eugenics War’. The war led to widespread destruction and conflict on a global scale, finally resulting in the end of the United Kingdom and the formation of something called the U.E. These new humans, referred to as ‘augments’, were all either killed or imprisoned yet the author went on to say that ‘yet another war was to take place in later years, a war to end all others of the Machine Age and end humanity’s dominion’.
She placed a broad blade of grass in the page she had just read. Evidence seemed to be mounting; Ra was correct in his claim that science was at fault in the pre-Sundered Earth and the hunt for the Godmaker seemed to be giving away a location slowly. Whoever this Surtr was, he was a well-educated individual, that much was clear from his writing.
A distant shout heralded the return to Ludwig and Malkus. Ludwig was considerably scruffier than he had seemed previously; short tufts of hair had appeared on his shaven head and he had a noticeable stubble on his chin. He had discarded a few of his more formal items of clothing, the waistcoat for example, and had replaced his delicate spectacles for more functional goggles. Malkus, however, looked far more relaxed yet just as regal as he had prior to his arrival in the wilds.
Ludwig beamed as he raised a small tank lizard corpse in his left hand. ‘Caught us dinner,’ he chuckled. The campfire began churning smoke into one of the tents and a loud hacking cough heralded Gibralt’s return from sleep.
He stood up and rubbed his eyes, looking shocked at his current company. ‘Shit,’ he grumbled. ‘No sign of the Captain or Cottontongue?’
‘Nope, they went to find supper apparently,’ Morrigan yawned.
‘Great, I’m stuck with the fucking B team here then,’ Gibralt spluttered as smoke was wafted back into his face. He waved his arms frantically and squawked in frustration. ‘Fucking fire’s going out!’
‘No worries,’ Ludwig smiled. ‘I’ll get some firewood for us.’ He handed the tank lizard’s remains to Malkus and strode triumphantly towards the Nimian forests. Everyone looked shocked.
‘He’s taken to the wilderness awfully well,’ Gibralt stated.
Malkus smiled and sat down, ‘Yes, it seems the fresh air is doing better for him than the cramped, dark observatories of Nimia.’ He pulled out a short serrated knife from his bag and began the long process of removing the tank lizard’s shell so it could be cooked.
‘Speak for yourself,’ Morrigan tutted. ‘He looks a mess.’
Gibralt sat down beside her. ‘Aye lass, the wilderness tends to do that to you. But he looks pretty fucking happy with himself. I mean, hell, we’re all active creatures, regardless of our race; we need to be out and about not cooped up inside reading.’
Malkus raised a hand from the lizard and pointed at Gibralt. ‘Correct, Mister Mikkelson.’
‘Whatever you say,’ Morrigan sighed. ‘You men are all the same; all out for the adventure, for the thrill of it.’
A loud laugh escaped Gibralt. ‘Is it so wrong to find enjoyment in a journey? Right, think about it like this, lass; you love reading, right? Me, personally, I couldn’t stand it. The second I finished my education in Boran I swore I’d never let a book be anywhere near me. But when I was in Nimia I had to read, even though I ended up pretty much penniless, ‘cause I could hardly chat to Cottontongue, could I? I had to do it so I tried finding the joy in it and, sure enough, the years passed by without any bloody problems!’
Ludwig crashed back to the camp site and dumped a load of stick onto the fire. ‘I hope these do,’ he panted. A plume of pale smoke wormed its way across the campsite, leaving everyone coughing loudly.
‘By the seven fucking hells, lad! Were those ones dry?’ Gibralt hacked. A mixture of shock and regret came across Ludwig’s face as he smacked his own forehead.
‘Never mind, Ludwig,’ Malkus began, not raising his eyes from the lizard he was de-shelling. ‘At least you tried and that’s what counts. Besides, the fire will dry them out soon.’
Loud cackling from the distance made everyone leap to their feet. Off in the distance they saw a giant tank lizard slowly moving towards them. It must have been about ten feet tall and three times as long. They were prepared to get worried until the spotted the figures of Rogan and Cottontongue strode atop its back. It charged up to the camp and stopped two metres from Morrigan’s tent.
‘I thought you were getting supper!’ Gibralt stared, mouth gaping while Malkus and Ludwig chuckled. ‘What the fuck is this?’
Rogan leapt off the beast and smiled broadly at Gibralt. ‘This, my good friend, is called a tank lizard. They’re all over the place here in case you never noticed.’
‘I know what it is, Rogan, I meant what the fuck is it doing here? And alive at that,’ Gibralt squawked.
‘This beauty is going to make travelling a hell of a lot easier. It was pretty much tame anyway. We can use this to carry the bags and some of us when we get tired of walking, it can certainly carry the weight.’
‘That’s all well and good,’ Morrigan stood and wiped the dirt from the plains off her arse. ‘But what about our food? Or are we going to have to rely on the tiny one Ludwig caught?’
Rogan looked amazed and walked over to Ludwig. ‘You caught one?’
Malkus raised the now de-shelled tank lizard and smiled. ‘Yes, Artemis blessed him and he did indeed catch us a meal. We can make a hunter out of him yet.’
‘We can make a killer of him yet,’ Rogan beamed, clapping a hand to Ludwig’s shoulder.
‘I asked you a question, Rogan,’ Morrigan sighed. ‘Stop dicking around and just answer me.’
‘Ooh, someone’s developed a foul tongue on her,’ Rogan chuckled. ‘Calm down, lass, we got something to eat too.’ He and Cottontongue dragged a second, slightly smaller tank lizard from behind their new mount. ‘This ought to last us a couple of days, right?’
Morrigan sighed and returned to her book. ‘Typical fucking men,’ she grumbled.
The journey to Muspell was surprisingly fast, Vepar thought as they journeyed in the shadow of Yggdrasil. He was surprised at how quickly the Narrator had recovered from two fatal wounds; there was more to him than met the eye. They left the shade of Yggdrasil on the first day of travelling and by the end of the second they were close to Muspell. The great tree was painful to look at for Vepar, stretching his head upward to see it caused his neck great pain and the sun blinded him. He was not used to so much light. He wondered if he ever would get used to it.
‘Magnificent, isn’t it?’ The Narrator hummed to himself as he walked. Vepar nodded and made an uncommitted noise. ‘Some people reckon the whole of Yggdrasil is one massive tree. It isn’t quite.’
Vepar’s curiosity perked up, his ear twitching slightly. ‘Really? Then what is it?’
‘It is a tree alright, only not the entire way up, lad.’ He thumped at the rocky structure that made up the base of Yggdrasil. ‘A majority of what you see is a mountain; a tall spire of rock that the tree’s seeds happened to be lucky enough to be planted in after the Sundering. It just so happened that the roots of this thing are huge too so it blends into the mountain pretty well. Anyway, while the main tree of Yggdrasil is immense, there are countless saplings sprouting from the thing’s canopy, making that huge sprawl of branches you can see.’
‘You seem to know a lot about this tree,’ Vepar smirked. ‘How do you know you’re right?’
‘I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, young Vepar,’ the Narrator chuckled heartily. ‘Not much goes on in this place without me knowing. So tell me, what are you actually looking for?’
‘Top secret I’m afraid,’ Vepar dusted his hands, tongue in his cheek to make a somewhat smug gesture. ‘Given to me by Belial himself, don’t you know.’
The Narrator tutted and grinned. ‘Come on, tell me lad. It’s not like I’m going to try and stop you or anything; if anything I’m trying to help!’
‘Alright, alright, I’ll tell you. We’re being sent into the northern wastes to find and destroy some pre-Sundering artefact.’
‘Really? And Belial told you to do it?’ The Narrator stroked his beard as he spoke. ‘Why on earth would he tell you to do that? Did the artefact have a name, by any chance?’
Vepar scratched at his muzzle. ‘Erm, I think it was called the Godmaker or something.’
The Jotun stopped in his tracks. Vepar looked over his shoulder to see the Narrator had gone ashen white, his eyes wide in terror. He charged towards Vepar, clapped a hand to his cheek and knelt down. ‘You listen to me and you listen well, lad. It is of the utmost importance that you destroy that forsaken machine and raise the whole region it’s in. There’s something trapped with that thing that was never meant to be released and if you let it out then not even the gods could save us. It is imperative that you succeed, you got that?’
‘O-of course,’ Vepar stuttered. ‘I intended to.’
The huge hand of the Narrator patted Vepar’s cheek. Before he knew it Vepar was slung under the Jotun’s arm and the narrator began walking once again. Before he could protest the Narrator raised a hand and began talking.
‘No time to argue, Vepar. We need to get you to Muspell as fast as possible and I can walk a hell of a lot faster than you. Now, when we get there I’m going to drop you off in a tavern called the Demon’s Bargain. Once there I’ll pay for your stay and you’ll need to mention the name Doc Tyrun to the barman and then tell him every detail about your intended journey. He’ll join because he’s one of the people the others are after.’
‘How do you know all this?’ Vepar asked, his voice quivering as the Jotun began jogging, taking immense strides.
‘Never mind that now! It’s just important you get to Muspell!’
It was dawn on the third day when they reached Muspell. The Narrator had finally put Vepar down and they began the journey through the town.
The contrast between Niflheim and Muspell was astounding. Had it not been for Yggdrasil in the way they would only have been half a day’s walk away and they wouldn’t have been so drastically different. While Niflheim was freezing, covered in ice and dark, Muspell was the very antithesis. The light was intense here; Vepar felt he was being blinded wherever he looked. The heat was scorching and the air was dry, it was like being stuck in a desert. The buildings and streets were of an identical style to those in Niflheim yet the differences in temperature had a massive impact on them; they seemed shrunken somewhat and the wood of the houses seemed cracked in places from the heat. Even the locals were different. They were still immense Jotnar dressed in furs, yet the furs were looser and less thick. They all sported dark goggles to protect their eyes from the sun and their feet were bare. An immense fountain in the centre of the street provided a pathetic trickle of water, which the locals gathered around, trying to collect with varying degrees of success.
Vepar stopped in his tracks as he spotted something posted to a lamp-post. He strode over to see a parched piece of paper nailed to it. He tore it off and read it carefully. It was a wanted poster and both his and the Narrator’s picture were on it.
‘Hey, Narrator, what the hell is this? Why are we wanted?’ The Jotun peered at the sheet of paper and frowned.
‘“Wanted alive for the assault and manslaughter of seven Fenrirs”? Well, I think I know who’s behind this. Loki’s playing tricks once again.’
‘Who’s Loki?’ Vepar asked as they resumed walking.
‘Loki is one of the Fenite gods, she’s a trickster god. The Fenrirs are her personal police force, but often she’ll hire common criminals in place of her Fenrirs just to spice things up. This seems to be one of those incidents,’ the Narrator quickened his pace as he strode to an inn opposite the fountain; an inn identical to the one in Niflheim save for the decorum and the name; the Demon’s Bargain. ‘Quickly now, we’ll need to hurry indoors to avoid unwanted attention.’
They both barged inside to find a jovial pub, filled with smiling and chatting patrons. No one paid them any heed as they strode to the bar. The large bearded barman nodded to them in greeting and the Narrator slammed a sack full of coins onto the counter.
‘I want to pay for accommodation for my associate here for a few days, I think this should cover his food and drinks during that time,’ The Jotun smiled.
The barman took the sack and weighed it on his hand before nodding. ‘Aye, that ought to do it,’ he responded in a gravelly tone. ‘You not stopping too, Nate?’
The Narrator shook his head, looked down at Vepar and smiled. ‘I’m off to see Odin now; I’ll be back before you all set off.’ He bolted towards the door and slammed it shut. The barman shook his head and put the sack down behind the bar, picking up an empty tankard as he did.
Vepar examined the barman closely. He had a mop of untidy grey hair, a tidy grey beard and a dark tan. He was dressed entirely in white; his shirt, tunic, apron and breeches were all bleach-white. He was slightly overweight but seemed jolly enough. Closer inspection revealed the hair was a high-quality wig covering two small lumps on his forehead; two snapped horns. The entirety of his eyes were a deep red and his fingernails were jet black. Even his tan was painted on, revealing tiny patches of indigo underneath. There was no doubt this was a demon, and one that was good at disguise. Good, but not good enough.
‘You’re a long way from Dant, demon,’ Vepar smirked.
‘So are you, Wolvyn,’ the demon responded. ‘Rum good for you?’
‘Yeah,’ Vepar answered as the demon took out another tankard and began pouring a keg of run into each. ‘I take it you’re Doc Tyrun then.’
The demon straightened slightly and coughed. ‘Not been called by that name in a long time, where’d you hear that one?’
‘My associate told me, he also told me there’s some people looking for you; want to take you and me on some expedition to the northern wastes.’
Doc Tyrun placed a tankard in front of Vepar and raised an eyebrow in curiosity. ‘Oh? And who might these people be?’
‘Well, one of them is a certain Captain Rogan Darkmoor and there’s two of his old crew among them.’
A long silence passed between the two, Doc Tyrun looking astounded the entire time. He suddenly exploded into a friendly laugh and stretched his arms out at Vepar. ‘That’s all you needed to say, lad! Now, tell me more about this expedition, I’ve been waiting for word from the Captain for years!’ He chugged down the rum and guided Vepar to a back room.