Kashell had always said that Valhalla was a warrior's dream come true. Where else could he spend all day fighting and training with men who really understood what a warrior's life was like, then spend all evening feasting and drinking late into the night? And then they all woke up the next morning completely healed, ready to do it all over again. It was perfect.
Sometimes, though, he wasn't too sure he really believed that yet.
He was sitting at his place at the High Table, in the dining hall that sat beneath Odin's seat of power, toying with a plate of roast piglet instead of actually eating it. Pretty Aesir girls were walking around in somewhat more revealing versions of Valkyrie garb, pouring wine and serving food, and occasionally he'd smile halfheartedly at one and hope that none of them asked him why he wasn't eating. It was just that he wasn't all that hungry... hell, for a guy who'd gotten everything he'd ever wanted, he was feeling pretty rotten.
It wasn't that he wasn't happy there - it was great, it was what he'd always hoped life after death would be like. If anyone had asked - not that anyone ever had, lucky for him - he'd say that he was still getting used to it; it wasn't an easy life, after all. But that wasn't all there was to it.
He didn't like to think about it, but after a while it just couldn't be helped. He was feeling out of sorts because he'd lost his best friend, and he couldn't get used to not having her around. He wanted Celia to be there with him - hell, maybe she'd even be happy for a change. Not having her around was really cramping his style.
But what was he supposed to do? She was still alive down there and there wasn't a damn thing he could do; he couldn't even tell her that he was sorry. Sure, he could watch her, but even if he went down there to be with her he'd just be a ghost, and she had enough things haunting her already.
They'd left her in one hell of a mess, all alone, everyone she'd ever cared about dead. Even Grey - Kashell had almost killed the old bastard when he'd arrived at Valhalla. It wasn't fair that he was there and Celia wasn't. But even that would've been useless; he'd never forgive him for it, but he couldn't change it by killing him, either.
What it all amounted to was him being in one hell of a foul mood. And as much as he wanted to talk about it... well, Aelia and Lawfer were around, but they were both talking and laughing like everything was great. Which was fine, if they could let go of it easier than he could, but Kashell didn't like the idea of bringing them down. He liked to be the guy who cheered people up, not the kind of person who seemed to thrive on depression like Celia had sometimes -
Dammit. Just stop thinking of her, ok? That'll just make it harder. He took a bite from a large leg of lamb, and drank more of the strong, blood-red wine out of his cup. It was really a hollowed-out skull, the mortal remains of a lost hero - kind of a weird idea, but he'd gotten used to it. And he didn't really care what he was drinking out of, as long as he was drinking; it helped drive some of the depressed thoughts out of his head.
But he could only drink so much - he didn't know if he could get a hangover on Valhalla's wine if he tried, but he wasn't going to take the risk. Not if he was going to work on archery training tomorrow; he didn't want to risk skewering anyone.
No, he'd get some sleep, he decided. He'd probably feel better in the morning. Maybe all the fighting was just tiring him out more than he'd realized. He stood up, nodding to the people beside him and muttering his farewells, and started walking towards his room. He winked at one of the cuter Valkyries, but it was only out of habit; he'd tried flirting with them before. They were always polite, but if you looked at their eyes you could tell that they really didn't give a damn. Just went to show that all barmaids were exactly the same, no matter where they worked.
The quarters of the Einherjar weren't far away, and he walked quickly. His hand was on the door of his tiny room by the time he heard someone running behind him, and just after that he heard someone calling out to him. "Kashell! Hey, Kashell, where are you going?" It was Frei, running after him with a confused look on her face. "Don't you want dessert too? I thought you loved dessert!" "Oh, hi, Frei," Kashell greeted her with a smile. Frei was fun to be around - she was almost always cheery and bursting with energy. The way that his friends had once said he was, as a matter of fact, except maybe more so. "Yeah, I like dessert. But I guess I don't feel much like stayin' up anymore tonight...."
She frowned a little. "Uh-oh. I thought you looked kinda sad... what's wrong?"
"Nothin' new," he answered, shaking his head. "Guess I'm just a little homesick, still. Seems weird, doesn't it? I've got just about everything I've ever wanted here, and I'm still feelin' outta sorts."
"Aw, poor Kashell. If you wanna talk about it, I can listen for a while."
He shrugged. "I dunno what to say, really. I guess I just feel like I had a life there. I had a purpose, something left to do, and then I just died." He stared ahead, eyes growing distant. "And then there's Celia. She was... she was my best friend, and I just left her. Everybody she cared about is dead, most of 'em are up here... it ain't fair. And I don't want to think about her being alone down there when I'm havin' the time of my life."
Frei nodded. "I know. I feel really sorry for people who got left behind like that. She sounds like she meant a whole lot to you."
"Yeah. You can put it that way." Kashell frowned. "I loved her, in a way. We were always together... it took me a long time to get used to not havin' her beside me."
"Yeah. But... well, I guess all you can do is hope things get better. If you believe something like that, it usually happens, you know?"
Kashell smiled, in spite of himself. "I think I said that to her a few times when she was sad. I guess I need to hear it too, huh?"
"I guess so."
There was a slight lull in the conversation. Kashell didn't want to just walk into his room, not after she'd been nice enough to talk to him. He thought for a second and then looked up at her again. "So, um... wanna sit down and talk for a while?"
"Sure, I'm in no hurry." She grinned again as he opened the door for her. "Thanks."
"Oh, don't mention it."
He followed her in. His quarters were small, but they worked for him. Sure, he could've had a bigger one if he'd been willing to share with one of the others, but he'd opted for some privacy for a change. Maybe it was because he'd spent his life on Midgard with his friends, never completely alone; maybe he'd just wanted a change.
There weren't any chairs, or much room for them anyway - there was barely enough room for the bed, tucked in the corner. The walls were mostly bare, except for one of the walls next to the door; a pair of brackets mounted there supported a greatsword, resting in a leather sheath tooled with dozens of ornate runes.
"You can sit on the bed if you want," Kashell said as she looked around. "I can just sit down here." He quickly sat down on the floor, folding his legs in front of him. He didn't want to make Frei sit on the cold stone floor. Sure, she was nice, but she was still one of the Aesir.
"Wow. I wasn't expecting you to be such a gentleman, Kashell!" She sat down, kicking her legs over the side; it was just high enough that her legs dangled off the edge of it.
"Oh, I try." He laughed a little. "Guess I'm not all that great at it, but I do my best."
"Well, that's more than a bunch of folks would do." She crossed her arms over her chest. "So, what else is on your mind?"
"Um, well... not all that much, I guess." Kashell smiled a little. "I just thought I'd, you know... we'd talk for a while. I haven't gotten to talk to anybody much lately. Too much going on, and all."
She stifled a giggle. "But about what?"
"Well... I dunno." This was going great, he told himself. Real smooth. If Bartos could see him now, he'd be laughing his ass off. Kashell hadn't been that clumsy about talking to a girl since he'd been... what, ten or something? "I see you a lot, but I guess I really don't know all that much about you. Maybe you oughta give me something to go on."
Frei thought for a second, tapping her finger against the side of her nose. "Well... I could tell you a secret."
Uh-oh. He didn't really want to know what kinds of secrets the Aesir had, did he? "Oh, wait, it doesn't have to be anything like that-"
"Well, why not? I mean, secrets aren't any fun if you can't tell somebody about them." She shook her finger at him, trying to look serious for the moment but failing. "But you can't tell anybody else about this, ok? Because if Freya knew I was telling you, I'd be in a lot of trouble."
"Um." Kashell stared at her for a moment. "You sure you want to tell me this, Frei? Sounds like a pretty big secret..."
"Of course I'm sure, silly." She giggled at him. "It isn't that big. It's just that my sister and I used to be Vanir. She gets a little weird about people knowing that."
Kashell stared. "Wow... really?" He looked at her, trying to figure out how a petite, cute young woman like Frei could've ever been one of the giant-gods. His mind choked on the image.
Frei nodded. "It was... oh, a really long time ago, I dunno how to say it. It was right after the first time Odin had fought them. The Aesir needed some time to rebuild, and to take care of some problems on Midgard, so they offered the Vanir peace. They said that they'd send them two of their best men, for them to keep as advisors or whatever they wanted. And in return they'd send the Aesir two of their best. They wanted to stop fighting for a while because the Aesir were beating them so badly, so they agreed. I guess that Freya and I were the two best people they had back then."
"But... the Vanir are giants. You're not giants," Kashell said, mentally kicking himself for sounding so damned foolish. Of course they weren't giants, how stupid could he possibly get?
"Oh, that's all because of Lord Odin, you know. He wanted us to fit in, so he made us these new bodies." She stood up, as if showing it off. "I like this a lot better. It suits me, doncha think?
"Yeah, I don't think I can imagine you as a giantess." Kashell said with a grin. At least he could admit it now.
"Oh, I just barely remember it. I feel so much lighter now, like I've been freed from some kind of prison. It's amazing." She sobered a bit. "I feel really sorry for poor Mimir, though. The Aesir sent him and his brother to the Vanir... I don't know all of it, but I know that they chopped off his head and sent it back because they didn't like them very much. Or something."
Kashell shook his head. "I can't believe it."
"Why not? It's not that weird, is it?" She pouted just a tiny bit.
"Well... I dunno. Just doesn't seem right."
She shrugged. "Well, it was a really long time ago. I didn't like the Vanir all that much anyway - they all liked to fight so much. I mean, they even made a sword for me. I never used it, though. Gave it away to a friend as a wedding present." She giggled. "They never tried to make me fight after that. I think that maybe they sent me here because I didn't fit in with them."
"Maybe so..." Kashell wasn't sure what he'd been expecting. He sure as hell hadn't been expecting that, though.
"Well, it's your turn to say something now, right?" She shifted her legs onto the bed and turned onto her stomach, so that she was lying on the bed facing him. "So tell me What were you like back on Midgard, ok?"
"Oh," he answered, finally regaining some of his usual glibness, "pretty much like I am now. I mean, I haven't changed all that much."
She giggled. "No, silly, what was your life like? What did you do?"
"I know, I know," he interrupted. "Well, for a lot of it, I was a mercenary. Y'know, someone who fought for money. Only I didn't take jobs that I didn't like, like guarding slavers or murdering defenseless people. Celia an' I could get along without that kind of stuff. We knew how to live in the forest, for one thing."
"So you fought things?"
"Yeah. We were good at it too," he said. This was the kind of talk he liked. "Trained with each other for hours at a time. It made the time pass by faster until we could get going again. And I had a great sword for fighting with. It was a huge sword, so long that one person couldn't carry it unless he was really strong, like me. They called it the Vainslayer." He pointed up to the sword on the wall with a flourish. "See, the old stories said that it once destroyed an evil spirit who'd killed half a company of knights. I dunno if it was true or not, but it was a great sword anyway. It saved my life so many times that I lost track." Kashell was growing quite animated; if there was one thing that he loved to talk about, it was swords. "It was made to fight evil - you know, undead creatures and stuff. I could always count on it."
"Then why didn't you ever use it here?"
Kashell blinked. "Huh?"
She smiled impishly. "You heard me. You were always using one of our swords. Don't try to deny it, I can tell. They look different."
Kashell blinked. "Um, well..."
"So, all I'm asking is, if your sword was so great, why'd you never use it against the Vanir? "
"But... but they were stronger," he answered lamely. Then, feeling that he hadn't quite explained enough, he continued. "There's nothing that I ever fought when I was alive that was as tough as the Vanir. I didn't want to, y'know, ruin the edge or something. I kept it so that it would be safe, and... um...."
Frei laughed. "Kashell, don't you think that's a little ridiculous? Having a strong sword like that, then never using it because it might get broken? Isn't that what weapons are for?"
Kashell turned away. He was blushing, he just knew it. "Yeah, well, what do you know?" He said it good-naturedly, although he had to admit that he was just a little bit irritated by the whole thing. Still, he doubted that Frei had meant it that way. "You don't like to fight, remember? You've never even used a sword!"
Kashell looked back up at her, surprised by the sudden change in her voice. Her smile had vanished; the pained frown that had suddenly appeared seemed incredibly out of place on her cute, shining face.
He nearly panicked. It was not a good idea to insult someone who could probably have him banished to Nifleheim if she felt like it. Not that she ever would, he was sure, but... he had no idea what he'd said that had upset her, and that made him nervous. "Wait... what'd I say? I didn't mean...."
"No..." Frei looked away. "It's nothing. I just... don't want to talk about it."
"Oh... ok. Look, let's just forget it, ok?" He smiled at her again. "I didn't mean anything by it."
"It's okay, Kashell. It's not like you could've... yeah, you're right. Let's forget it happened."
That seemed to be that. Kashell was trying to think of something to say to her that wouldn't offend her... but she paused again, her head cocked as if listening to something far away. Her brow wrinkled in concentration, and her lips were moving silently as she mouthed some words.
"Hey, Frei?" he asked, concerned. "Are you all right?"
"Oh... now? But..." Then she seemed to see him again and smiled, but it was obviously forced. "Yes, yes, I'm ok. Just... um... I kind of forgot something. Something really important, you know?"
"Kind of forgot something?" he repeated, scratching his head again. "I don't think I-"
"Look, Kashell, I'm... really sorry but I gotta go, okay?" She was still smiling, but it looked as though it was about to crack and fall right off of her face any moment.
"Well, I guess, but are you sure-"
"I'll see you later, thanks for inviting me in, bye!" And she turned around and opened the door, and ran as fast as she could down the hall.
"Hey, wait a minute-" Kashell pushed himself to his feet and stared after her. For a second he thought of his nice, warm bed, and how nice it would be to get some sleep, and hadn't that been why he'd come in the first place?
But then he went ahead and forced it out of his mind, and ran after Frei as fast as he could.
Frei hadn't expected to end up sitting in Kashell's room and chatting about weapons and past lives. But she'd expected to be summoned by her sister even less.
She ran as fast as she could down the corridor - she was sorry for leaving Kashell behind like that, she really had wanted to cheer him up. But what could she do? Freya was waiting for her - she could feel her watching in her head - and she couldn't disappoint her. She was too afraid of what might happen; her sister was stronger than her and even had Odin listening to her.
In retrospect, it might've been faster to teleport, but she didn't like teleporting when she didn't have far to go. It was just a waste of energy, and it made her feel so tired. So she just ran. Freya had said she wasn't far off.
Finally she found her sister, standing in the vaulted throne room. The great golden throne of Lord Odin, however, was empty. They did this sometimes; when Odin had other things that he was involved in, he'd let Freya speak for him. "Yes, Freya? What is it?" she said, a little nervously.
Freya looked down at her, her expression carefully kind but otherwise neutral. Freya was like that, she always did her best not to let Frei know that she was unhappy with her, even if she was. Although she didn't know what she had to be unhappy about... "I'm sorry to disturb you, Frei. But there is a situation on Midgard that must be dealt with."
"Midgard?" she repeated. She didn't spend much time on Midgard, she was thinking. Why would they need her? "What's happening, Freya?"
"One of the human nations, a horrid place called Villnore, has rediscovered one of the forbidden secrets, " she replied. "An army of golems has been raised, and its leader is intent on destroying all of Midgard." That stunned Frei too much to speak... she'd never understood how anyone could do that. Wouldn't that leave that person with nowhere else to go? "They are currently marching south of Villnore," Freya continued, "intent on demonstrating their powers."
"When did this happen?" Frei asked. "How? I thought Lord Odin hid the secrets. He said he'd hidden them where nobody else would be able to find them."
"Never for a moment doubt that humanity will find what it must not have," Freya answered grimly, "although it is unfortunate that we had not previously discovered this. There were too many other considerations. We had believed that Midgard would not cause such trouble for the moment..." She shook her head, frowning. "No... never mind that. This must be dealt with immediately."
So she wanted that army destroyed... and Frei had a sick feeling in the pit of her stomach, because she knew what Freya was about to ask her to do. "You want me to go and... take care of it?"
"If that is possible," Freya answered, and for a moment Frei started to hope that it wasn't possible. Please don't let me do this again, she thought, feeling horrible. I don't want to do this...
But in the end, she couldn't disobey her sister, or Odin. She closed her eyes and concentrated... and after a mere fraction of a second, she opened them. Tears were gathering in the corners of her eyes, but she fought them back. Freya would've been unhappy with her if she'd started crying. "It's... possible," she said. "Do you want me to go right now?"
Freya, her face still carefully kind, nodded.
"Okay," she answered, and stared down at the floor. She had to bite her lip to keep it from trembling. "I'll go."
There was a ripple in the air around the two goddesses as they vanished.
Kashell stepped into the room - he'd heard everything. He hadn't thought it was possible - he'd been so sure that he'd be caught and punished for it, but they hadn't even noticed him. But he didn't really have time to wonder about it. He knew that he ought to walk away and pretend that he hadn't heard anything - he shouldn't have been listening in at all, and this was really getting him in too deep! An army of golems... he hadn't even thought that was possible.
And he did try to walk away. He wanted to go straight to bed and never think about it again. But... he was so curious, and too damned stubborn to walk away from it. Frei was going to deal with an army of golems, by herself? It was just too weird... he had to know what was going on. Sleep would just have to wait.
He closed his eyes and concentrated as hard as he could, imagining himself standing near Villnore - it was pretty easy to do. Sure, he wasn't really there - he was like a ghost - but that didn't matter if he just wanted to watch. He kept standing there, thinking as hard as he could, until he felt the room around him start to fade away.