On the whole, Doragnoss was extremely pleased with himself.
It had only been three months since hed learned the secrets of the golems, and already he stood to command a small army of them. It wasnt as large as hed hoped, but that could wait. Once hed proven the juggernauts effective in combat, the King would build more for him. Yes, many more, he thought as he surveyed the monstrous machines. They had lumbered out of Villnore not two days ago, followed by the sounds of cheering commoners. They'd cheered from a same distance, since the construction had caused a great many deaths amongst the craftsmen, but they'd cheered for him all the same. At long last, Villnore had its invincible golems - it would soon conquer the entire world!
Getting to this point hadn't been easy; it had involved a bit of feigned humility. The horrible first meeting with his three esteemed guests was still etched in his memory. The lunch that his servants had prepared had been cold and tasteless, and there hadn't been any real entertainment at all. He'd nearly ordered the servants' execution as a substitute, then and there! No, it was fortunate that his information had been more than sufficient to raise the spirits of his impatient guests. And that beautiful envy on Lord Mikaztor's face as he'd realized what Doragnoss had discovered... that alone had made all of Doragnoss's sufferings worthwhile.
King Sigfried V had agreed almost immediately to build golems to the sorcerer's specifications... but not as many as he'd wanted. He'd doubted at first, had demanded proof. As if the word of a sorcerer of the High Circle was not enough proof! He had been sorely tempted to blast the doddering old monarch to ashes... but after considering that he was still the lord of the realm, he'd decided that his death might have to wait a bit longer.
The King had ordered him to conquer Artolia as a test. They'd started to rebel against the annexation agreement that they'd made with Villnore since the king's death; they posed little threat, but they were still thorns in Villnore's side and needed to be dealt with. But Doragnoss had no intentions of merely conquering Artolia. No, he would destroy it, as a show of their strength - every building crumbled to dust, every man, woman and child left smashed on the stones. The King might not like it, but then again, he wouldn't dare to protest once he'd proven his power.
The young sorcerer, dressed in his blackest, most intimidating robes, was occupied with thoughts of glory and power - everything he could have dreamed of. There would be no more laughs hidden behind the other mages' hands as he stood to speak. They didn't know that he knew, but he did - his masters thought he was a clown, of sorts, a man who'd gotten where he was solely by the graces of his former Master. But that would now change, and once Artolia was destroyed... he would be recognized as the greatest sorcerer that ever lived, perhaps surpassing even his Master.
And even if anyone moved against him, he was the only man who knew the secrets of the Golems. The craftsmen who had worked on the prototypes had been put to death; he couldn't risk anyone else learning even a fraction of what he knew. He intended to be the only man who knew the secrets for a very long time.
As wrapped up as he was in self-congratulations, Doragnoss wasn't paying much attention to the world around him - he didn't even notice that his army had company until he heard a woman's voice shouting across the grassy plain. "Stop it! What are you all doing?"
He looked up sharply, saw the young woman who hovered above him. And at first, he was frightened. Hel preserve me, the Aesir! They've found me! That woman... no, that girl was Frei, the goddess of peace and tranquility. There was no other explanation; Odin had to have discovered his plans.
But fear quickly turned to elation. Ha! I have the darkest secret of the times before Odin's ascension engraved upon my mind - who are they to fear? He sneered at the woman - no, he corrected himself, merely a child. "Ha, goddess, have you come to watch the destruction?" he taunted. "Or have you come to beg me to end my invasion and live my life in peace? For you must surely know that you are unwelcome here!"
There was no fear on her face - only sorrow. "Why are you doing this? You can't destroy Midgard and still live on! You have to stop this, or you'll be destroyed too!"
He laughed. "Ah, but that is where you are wrong! There are other worlds beyond this one, and Hel will grant me shelter in her realm. I will not turn back, and you lack the power to stop me. Begone, foolish goddess!"
Frei bowed her head, and somehow he heard her whisper. "No... I can't do that. We can't allow this blasphemy to continue."
He stared up at her, and his smile did not fade in the slightest. We are in no danger, he thought, mostly to reassure himself. If Lord Odin truly wished to destroy us, he would have come himself with Gungnir to do battle with me. This pathetic girl-goddess is nothing -
But then light suddenly flared around her, so brilliant that even he had to look away. He swore under his breath, shaded his eyes and looked back - and gasped. The light was gathering, seeming to grow almost solid - then suddenly died away. In its place he saw a great sword that hung in midair beside the young goddess. Its massive blade seemed to have been hewn from the bedrock of the world itself, and its hilt was variegated like the heart of a great tree.
Doragnoss tried masterfully to appear unmoved, but he knew the ancient lore. He knew what he was seeing. "So it is true," he said to himself. "The sword really does exist..."
He watched as it moved, readying itself to swing. His last thought, before a burst of energy radiated as it swung and blasted his mortal body into pieces, was that Master Gandar wasn't going to be happy to see him again...
Kashell gaped as the sword appeared, his eyes wide with surprise and fear. He'd arrived on Midgard near Artolia, a considerable distance from Frei and the golems. But the sudden flash of light had guided him to the battlefield, even at that distance.
It can't be, he thought numbly as the sword began to move. Frei wouldn't have anything like that, would she? But he couldn't deny it. That sword was way too much like one of the legends he'd been so fond of. It was the greatest weapon of them all - a sword so powerful that it didn't suffer anyone to touch it.
He was too close to the battlefield - he could sense the energy radiating from the sword. He started to back off, unable to tear his eyes away, even though he knew that if he stayed he'd be in real trouble. He'd bet just about anything that he really, really wasn't supposed to be seeing this...
Then he saw the sword swing across the battlefield. The earth shook and cracked, and men were screaming as the metal giants they were riding fell into pieces. He watched one of the golems explode, flying across the battlefield and striking one of the others with a huge metallic clang. The sounds of the carnage drowned out everything else.
"I'm... I'm sorry," Frei whispered. Kashell turned to look at her... and either his imagination was playing nasty tricks on him, or there were tears running down her face.
He couldn't stand to see any more of this. He had to get away from there. Back to Asgard, he thought furiously. I've gotta get back to Asgard. I've got to-
And then he was there, standing in the fields near Valhalla. He staggered over to the nearest tree and leaned heavily against it, trying hard to collect his thoughts. The place was deserted, thank goodness... he didn't know if he wanted to explain anything just then.
Kashell was fanatical about swords and legends; he could relate a dozen of old myths and tales about great legendary weapons. He'd learned most of them from Celia, who had grown up in a noble warrior-family of Artolia... some of them he'd discovered as they had traveled. The stories of that particular sword had been found in an ancient tome, written a hundred years ago, that they'd found in a nobleman's library in Gerabellum. Kashell could just barely read, not well enough to understand the ornate, archaic text, but Celia had read it to him until he'd been certain he knew it by heart.
Its blade was said to have been created at the very beginning, crystallized from living ice and fire as Muspelheim and Nifleheim had collided for the first time; its hilt had been fashioned from a piece of the living heart of Yggdrasil itself. Its creators, forces older than the gods themselves, had imbued it with thought, and a life of its own - and had refused to give it a name, claiming that personifying death itself was folly. It allowed no one to touch it, not even its bearer... and it could not be stolen or claimed. It chose its own bearer, it was said, at the beginning of creation...
Kashell shook his head. Frei was its bearer. It was attached to her, somehow... but why? The whole thing just didn't make any sense.
He stood up and trudged back to the fortress, hoping he didnt meet anyone on the way. He needed to be alone for a while. He wanted to think about the whole mess... although he had the feeling that thinking about it wasnt going to do much good.
Freya appeared over the battlefield long after the sun had set; the moon was high in the skies of Midgard. Frei knew that she was there before she announced her presence, as usual. But for once, she had little desire to acknowledge her.
She had been there for hours after the carnage had ended, staring out over the field. Once it had been an expanse of lush, green grass, but now it was nothing more than a scorched, burnt-out piece of bare earth. Here and there she could see traces that there had been a battle here - a tiny sliver of black cloth from the sorcerers robe, a severed hand, a bit of the armored plates from those blasphemous golems. But those traces were few and far between.
The Sword had long since vanished, and was resting in whatever place it rested when it wasnt busy destroying something. Frei wished she could do that too; she didnt want to have to see what shed done. That beautiful meadow... a tear dripped from her eyes as she remembered what it had been before. If only her tears could make it new again! But she was no Lord of Creation; she could do nothing but grieve.
"Frei, why do you grieve so?" Freya's voice was cool and unemotional.
The younger goddess did not answer. She hadnt expected Freya to be sad about what had happened, but that didnt mean that she had to like it.
"What you did was necessary, Frei," Freya continued. "Must you act like a child?
"You think I act like a child...?" Frei echoed slowly, her voice strained and roughened by sobs. She lifted her head to stare out across the battlefield. "I... I think that if... if acting like an adult means that I ought to enjoy destroying things like this, I... I want to be a child."
She heard Freya sigh. For a second she was jealous of her - why did Freya have to be so strong? Frei wasnt strong, not in any respect. She wasnt like the other Aesir. "Why did I have to do it?" she asked again, staring down at the scorched earth. "Why did this sword have to pick me? It isn't as if I really do anything. Why me?"
"That is not for us to know, Frei." Freya hovered next to her sister. She was smiling, but Frei knew that there was something else in her voice. She was being impatient again. "I do not understand why their deaths upset you so. They are humans. The ones that were truly evil have gone to Nifleheim, where they can receive the punishment that they deserve. And those with some hope of redemption will be reborn, and given a second chance to prove their worth. Why-?"
"That's not it," Frei answered, sounding a bit sulky. "You don't understand, I just... I don't want to be able to do it. I don't like how it feels. I dont want to start liking it when I destroy things!"
Freya shook her head. "Frei... you must return to Valhalla soon. You cannot stay here for long. Others will come here in search of their lost comrades."
"I know." She didn't move. "I want to see the elves again. Can I go visit Alfheim when I get back?"
Freya hesitated, then nodded. "Yes... I suppose that it would be safe enough to visit them now. They were our allies, after all. Do not linger here for long, sister."
Freya vanished. Frei had to admit, she was a little relieved. It was hard being around her sister, sometimes; it just seemed like she didn't care sometimes.
I'm being silly, she chided herself. It's not like it's the first time I've had to do this. This... this isn't like me at all, is it? Still, it was nagging at her. Maybe it had just been too long, or maybe she was just tired.
Or maybe it was just that she hadn't had anyone to talk to about this for so long. Ever since they'd caught Loki trying to tamper with some artifact or another, and had locked him up until they could figure out what to do with him... well, he was one of the only people who she'd been able to talk to about this sort of thing. There were the Einherjar, of course - she got along really well with some of them, like Kashell - but they were mortals. They wouldn't understand something like that.
Well, Freya was right, she couldn't stay there. And it wasn't as if she was going to be able to do any good. She didn't like dwelling on things she couldn't change.
She uncurled herself, standing up in midair, and took one long last look over the blasted plain. Then, she wiped the tear from her eyes - she wasn't going to cry in Valhalla, it wasn't expected of her there - and turned back towards home, leaving Midgard behind as she disappeared.