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Raven Heart - Part I

Raven Heart

Part I

In an age very different from ours, back when the cosmos was still young, the boundaries between reality and the Other were much less concrete. Every mortal knew of the existence of all that existed beyond their small homes, and of the gods that ruled there.

But these gods were not gods, though they wielded powers of a similar caliber. They were creatures born of the Other itself. Anomalies, each varied and unique. Each had a different vision for the cosmos, and most thought that they should be the one to rule over it.

And so, with their various plots and schemes, counter-plots and counter-schemes, they kept each other in check, as they continue to do to this day. However, in those ancient times, this harmony was slowly being thrown out of balance by one certain Anomaly. For you see, this particular Anomaly had been given a gift by fate, something blasphemous that no sentient soul should possess: the power of creation itself. He could construct whole realities with a mere snap of his fingers.

But his creations were simply no good. They were misshapen, bloated, countless ideas spilling from their bulging seams. Above all else, they were numerous, and posed such a threat to the very identity of the cosmos that even the other Anomalies took notice. It is unknown where these gods first acquired their titles, whether by others or self-appointed. But whenever he was spoken of, one name was whispered in fearful, hushed tones: The Malice.

It was clear that something must be done.

But the Anomalies are fickle beings, more prone to conflict than alliance. So in the end, it was the Morrigan, arbiter of death, who stood alone against this tide of unnatural life which the Malice had created. However, she would not be alone for long.

Though she could not create from nothing as the Malice could, like most Anomalies she had limited powers channeled towards the creation of servants for herself. And so she took the very fabric of realities destroyed in the Malice’s wake, and the souls stored within her very own mausoleum, where all souls must eventually come to dwell, and created the Seraphim. More than any had ever forged before, an entire army raised to combat the Malice.

Despite their number and might, the armies of the Morrigan still had an impossible fight ahead of them. For not only would they have to contend with the Malice’s many twisted creations, but also with his two generals. Unlike the Morrigan, he had persuaded two of his own kind to aid in the creation of his cosmos. Though neither truly believed in it.

The Volk had pledged his allegiance to him purely for his own satisfaction.. Though a deadly combatant, he was lacking in ambition, with no real desires beyond wanton destruction. He could not plan, could not coordinate, a general in name only. So lacking in thought was he that he hadn’t even realized his own true potential.

And then there was the Trickster. In many ways the polar opposite of the Volk. He was near worthless in a fight, yet so clever and quick-thinking was he that when he was around, it rarely came to that. He had ambition plenty, but the benefactor of said will was only ever himself. Of course, this made him next to impossible to understand, as his heart’s desires changed as often as the weather.

It perplexed the Morrigan why he of all the Anomalies had sided with the Malice, why he would add his own power to bring life to someone else’s vision. Yet all was soon revealed to her as one day she saw him alone, black cloak of midnight fluttering in the current of the Other, approaching her domain.

He asked to parlay with her, and explained his true goal. You see, the Malice possessed something that he wanted, and he had no true loyalty to him. In face, the Trickster would be amenable to defecting to the Morrigan’s side instead, in exchange for one, small favor. If she vowed to grant him safe harbor from the Malice’s wrath when he inevitably learned of the Trickster’s theft.

She asked him how she was to know that this wasn’t just another one of his tricks.

He asked her if she really believed he wanted to exist in a cosmos as predictably unpredictable as the one the Malice sought to create.

She agreed to his terms.

Unfortunately, this alliance would never come to fruition. Before the Trickster could flee with his ill-gotten knowledge, the Malice learned of his deception. Filled with a rage unseen in the whole of creation before or since, he turned his might on the Trickster, and cursed him with an incurable, all-consuming madness.

In a crazed fit of anger and ecstasy, the Trickster rampaged across the cosmos, leaving only destruction behind him. Imagining them all his enemies, he annihilated whole realities, conveniently leaving room for the Malice in his wake. He had to be stopped.

Yet the Morrigan’s armies were already decimated by the Volk’s unending blood lust, and all she herself could do was fend the Trickster off. In this state of revelry and madness, she could not possibly hope to defeat him.

It appeared that all was lost. Yet in her greatest hour of need, a miracle occurred. A single, lone raven alighted on the Morrigan’s shoulder, and in a soft, croaking voice, it entreated her to accept its aid. It explained that it had long been watching her hopeless battle, and that it felt that even if it could really do nothing, small and fragile as it was, that it could no longer stand by and watch.

She almost responded that of course there was nothing it could do, it was just a bird, after all. But as she stared into its beady, black eyes, and saw all that was within: that fiery, golden conviction, and even beyond that, deep within, a small, yet strong compassion in its heart, she knew that there was something it could do.

Perhaps she could make one more. Her powers were stretched so thin, but perhaps she could make one more Seraphim. And so she granted the raven’s wish, and he accepted her gift with gratitude.

The Morrigan then summoned the one Seraphim she trusted enough to carry out this mission, the messenger Valki. She arrived only to spy the Morrigan with a babe in her arms.

Valki listened closely as the Morrigan explained that he was a very special child, a Seraphim, yes, but one closer to human than any other she’d yet created. That it was this child’s destiny to someday destroy the Trickster. She then instructed Valki to take the child somewhere safe, and when he was ready, to aid him on his quest.

Though she was skeptical that the future of the very cosmos was being hung on the shoulders of one so small, she took on this duty as she did everything: gravely, and with all seriousness.

Valki hid the child on the estate of a wealthy farm owner, somewhere in a small, forgotten corner of the cosmos, and there he stayed for eighteen, long years…

~~ o ~~

Okin lived a difficult, if not peaceful childhood. Skarell Helvig, a rough raider from an obscure reality, and his wife Astrid, had been surprised one evening to find a baby wrapped tightly, lied down on their doorstep. But the cosmos had been kind to them, and there was plenty of space and food to share. Okin was raised for a time alongside their own children, until, that is, he was old enough to work to earn his keep alongside the other farmhands. That had stung his pride, of course it did, but all it meant in the end was that he had to work twice as hard as any other man to pay them back for the kindness they had given him. They had been under no obligation to take him in, after all.

It was not an easy life, especially come the end of the short, mild summers when it came time for the harvest. But there were far worse lives to have. He had food, and a warm bed, and work to occupy his body and mind.

Sometimes, however, he would still find himself staring up at that Other place that glowed through the transparent sky at night, wondering just what could be out there. Most lives weren’t exciting, he knew this. People were so insignificant and small that the true hope of all was “comfortable” more than “exciting”. The most he could hope for was that someday Skarell might take him on a raid. Still, that didn’t stop him from dreaming.

Little did he know the destiny that he had already set in stone for himself.

Just when the year’s threshing had begun, a rather unusual occurrence transpired on one calm, clear morning out in the fields. The farmhands were taking a short break for lunch, snacking on bread and dried meat brought to them by one of the serving girls, when they spied a figure hobbling their way through the fields.

As she grew closer, they realized that she was simply an old beggar, and turned back to their chewing.

“Please, young sirs,” she inquired in a shaky, soft voice, “would any of you have some bread to spare? I have traveled far, and have had nary a scrap to eat in days.”

“Does it look like we have anything to spare?” answered Thorfin, a particularly brutish member of their group.

“All we have is what we’ve been given,” one of his mates added.

Okin looked down at his own meager rations: a crust of hard bread and a shriveled piece of salted pork. His stomach growled. But then he looked back at the old woman. Her eyes were unfocused, she tottered on her feet. In her condition, she might not make it off the estate, let alone to the nearest village. If she didn’t have something to eat, she would most likely die.

So gently, he placed his lunch in her hands, and prepared himself to push through the rest of the day until supper.

The old woman bowed gratefully and thanked him repeatedly, even as Thorfin and the others sneered at him. After slowly, carefully biting down on the hard offerings, she curtsied and tottered off in the direction the farmhands pointed her to the nearest town.

Okin looked down at the ground, trying to avoid the stares of the other farmhands, most of whom already thought him a conceited golden boy, mostly due to his remaining closeness with the family. This certainly wasn’t going to change that.

When he next looked up, the old beggar was gone. Odd, she should still be visible away through the fields, but none of the others paid it any mind, so he quickly dismissed the thought.

Yet that was only the start of that day’s strangeness.

Later on, the sky abruptly darkened, and as they were hauling the day’s threshing to the barns before they got too wet and rotted, it started to downpour. Okin felt thankful for his leather coat that kept out most of the thick raindrops.

Still, between his stomach and the weather, today’s work wasn’t very pleasant. Okin tried to ignore it as best as he could. He was looking forward to taking a rest in the wagon on the way back.

Just as the horses jolted into the main yard, now more mud than dirt, Okin was nearly thrown from the wagon as a small girl ran out in front of them. She struggled under the weight of a milk pail that was almost as big as she was. The farmhands yelled at her to get out of the way, and she obliged, though the enormous effort was clear on her face.

As the farmhands bickered amongst themselves about how best to position the wagon, Okin continued to watch the girl struggle to make her way across the yard. After a minute he sighed and approached, grabbing the bucket from her. She explained that she was taking it to the kitchens, and she still had several more pails after this one.

He didn’t have the time to help her with all of them, but at the very least he could give her poor arms a short rest. As they walked, he noticed her shivering. Her clothes were so soaked that they clung to her skin, and her carrot-top locks were plastered to her face.

Once they reached the servant’s entrance she insisted that she could take it the rest of the way. But before she could pick up the pail again he stopped her, and threw his coat around her shoulders. It dwarfed her comically, but at least it would help her warm up.

“Are you sure?” she asked him.

“I’m only letting you borrow it,” he smiled a little. “I fully expect you to give it back after the rain’s done.”

She smiled back and nodded promising she would.

“And snatch me one of those sweet buns from the kitchen!” he called after her as she disappeared into the house.

Okin got yelled at by Thorfin for wandering off in the middle of work, but even his bluster could only fade to grumbling when he unloaded half the wagon by himself.

Finally, said wagon was empty, and the dinner bell was rung. Even if it was a simple bowl of gruel, it was warm and filling, and he had been about ready to eat his own hand at this point.

Late into the night, the farmhands sat around a fire, singing and drinking ale. The rain had abated, yet with the sun gone it was cold, and Okin was grateful for the warmth of the fire, especially without his coat.

Just as the caterwauling was reaching an obnoxious level of raucousness, the circle was abruptly silenced as one by one, they heard a rustling behind them in the fields. There, a cloaked figure emerged from the reeds, and approached their fire through the dark.

“Who goes there?” someone asked.

The figure lowered her hood to reveal a beautiful woman underneath. Her green eyes shimmered in the flickering light of the fire, and her hair fell into loose ringlets of a deep red.

“I am but a lone traveler. I was hoping to find lodging for the night. It matters not how humble.”

“Of course we can find room,” they immediately agreed. It was eventually decided that they could make some space in the stable.

As Thorfin and a few others led her away into the darkness, Okin frowned. Most of the men here would have spit on you far before they did anything to help an outsider. He didn’t begrudge them that, kinder people didn’t often live to see thirty in this reality they lived in. He probably wouldn’t either, for that matter. So why, after two callous encounters earlier that very day, were they now so eager to help this stranger?

“Lucky bastards,” someone muttered under their breath. “Maybe when they’re done I can have a go.”

It took him a few seconds longer than it should have to process what that meant. When he finally did, his mind froze. They wouldn’t, would they? Even Thorfin, the most vulgar of the lot, might have been a pig-headed ass, but would he go that far?

Okin racked his brain, put together everything he knew about him, and came to the conclusion that he couldn’t really be sure. He had to be sure. If he stood by and did nothing and that woman was hurt, he would never be able to forgive himself.

Okin was trusting, but certainly not naive.

Not that the others usually paid him much mind anyway, but Okin was extra careful to not be noticed as he slipped away from the fire. The stables were only a short distance away. He could be there in thirty seconds, listen at the door to make sure everything was alright within, and be back before anyone noticed he was gone.

When he got to the door, he heard whimpering on the other side.

He was going to kill those bastards. Without hesitation, he pushed on the wood, only to find that something was holding it in place from the other side. Okin slammed his shoulder into the door once, twice. Finally on the third attempt there was a cracking sound and he stumbled inside as the door gave way.

Inside, Thorfin and the two other farmhands stood over the traveler, who huddled in a corner, her fine cloak covered in hay.

“What are you doing here, runt?” Thorfin turned to him, and sneered.

“I could ask you the same thing.”

The bigger man took several steps closer to him. “We’re just having a little fun, yeah? No problem with that. So here’s what you’re going to do, if you don’t want your shit kicked in. You’re going to turn around, go back through that door, and not breathe a word of this to anyone.”

Okin didn’t even think. He wound his fist back and punched him in the face.

Thorfin reeled, and Okin was surprised to find when he finally pulled his hand away from his face that he nose was bleeding. Had he broken it? Thorfin scowled, the blood dribbling between his teeth. “You little bastard!”

“I really wish you’d stop dragging my height into this.” Okin knew that he was probably going to die now, but the hopelessness of the situation only served to embolden him.

“We’re going to make you wish you’d left well enough alone.” And by “we” he of course meant his two friends. Okin braced for impact, but it never came. Thorfin seemed just as surprised as he was. “Knud?” He turned back. “Age?”

There was no response. This was primarily due to the fact that they were both unconscious, the traveler standing over them. But neither of them were given much time to react to this development, as in a blink she was behind Thorfin. She hit him at a specific point on the back of his neck and he crumpled just like the others.

“Not that I didn’t believe you fully capable of handling him yourself, but I figured it’d be faster this way,” the traveler stated, turning to Okin.

He was so baffled by this turn of events that all he could do was blurt out: “W… who are you?”

“I apologize for toying with you,” she bowed her head a little, and pulled something out from under her cloak. “I believe this is yours?”

It took Okin a second to understand just what it was she was holding out to him. It was his coat, the one he had given to that little girl just earlier today. “I… I don’t understand,” he frowned. “How did you get this?”

“I hope you haven’t forgotten already,” the barest hint of a smile passed over her face. “You made me promise to give it back. I apologize I couldn’t acquire a sweet roll.”

He couldn’t believe his ears. “You were that girl…” his eyes widened. “And that old beggar too, not doubt.”

She nodded.

“But that still doesn’t answer my question.”

“I admit I am not the best at explanations,” she sighed. “So allow me to be straightforward.” The traveler inhaled deeply, lifting her head skyward. As she did so, her entire body began to glow, and Okin watched in awe as her cloak was flung aside to enable a pair of metallic wings to stretch to their full length. “I am Valki,” she stated plainly, “messenger of the Morrigan. Today I came to test you, Okin, to see if a mortal life had altered your spirit. And I see now that it has not.”

Okin’s knees gave out from under him. For quite suddenly, he found himself in the presence of a Seraphim. An angel sent by the goddess of order. And of death.

“You need not sink in supplication for an equal,” her green eyes shined brightly, despite the dimness of the stable.

“You’re… a Seraphim,” he muttered to the floor. “There is absolutely no comparison between us.”

“There is,” she insisted. “For if I am a Seraphim, then you may be something even greater.”

“What?” he finally wrenched his gaze back to her face. “I’m sorry, but you must be mistaking me for someone else.”

She sighed at his stubbornness. “I am not. I have been watching you since the day I delivered you to that doorstep. This new form you’ve taken has caused you to forget. Please, allow me to remind you.”

Valki took a step towards him, her hand outstretched. He allowed her yet closer, and as soon as her finger touched his forehead, he nearly stopped breathing.

For Okin remembered.

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