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Raven Heart - Part II




Raven Heart


Part II


Okin remembered having wings. He could recall the feeling of gliding through the purples and greens of the Other as easily as he could breathe, the mist blowing past and through his dark feathers. It was freedom, those wings. He could see the whole of the cosmos if he wanted, faster than any daemon could.


Yet flying was all he could do. Sometimes he wished for arms instead of wings, legs for running instead of for landing. He could observe, but he couldn’t do. It wasn’t really something that bothered him, at least not often. At least not until the Malice arrived.


He witnessed so much destruction, so many lives destroyed, twisted by the Malice or folded and crumpled up by the Other when their realities were all gone. So much pain. And all he could do was flap his wings and fly away, until the destruction would find him again. The whole of the cosmos was going to be destroyed, and there was nothing he could do.


Then he heard the whispers of the Trickster’s madness, and the Morrigan’s battle against him. And so he did the one thing he could do. He flew to her.


Okin squeezed his eyes shut for a few moments, and when he opened them again, his wings were gone. He clenched his fist, feeling the tension of the muscles in his arm. This arm, this hand, they had been his for eighteen years. But now, for some reason, they didn’t feel quite like his at all.


“I… apologize.” Valki looked somewhat concerned. “Under normal circumstances, I would not have retrieved all of your memories at once. But we had no time.”


“It’s fine,” he said, rubbing his temple. “I just keep getting these… flashes. In my head, I mean.”


“Those will get better,” she reassured him, before standing from their fire. “Now, shall we?”


They had stopped there, at the foot of the mountain, to give Okin a chance to catch his breath. His first trip through the Other—at least with human eyes—had been disorienting, especially with a whole extra lifetime of memories bubbling into his head one by one. Humans instinctively feared the Other, feared their own unmaking. Since he’d thought he was human, it made sense that Okin would share this fear.


But he was not human. He didn’t truly believe it until he’d stepped through the edge of his reality, something most mortals couldn’t even perceive properly, and simply floated, not in pain, nor in physical transmutation, just standing. The air, or air-like substance, around him did feel a bit tingly, but that also might have been his nerves.


And now, they were here. The mountain stood alone, covered in snow somehow, despite it having only the thinnest bubble of reality around it, so thin as to almost be transparent. Yet somehow, it was thick enough to keep the cold in. Okin shivered, thankful that he’d gotten his jacket back.


“So why are we here, exactly?” he asked, standing.


“You can’t fight the Trickster unarmed,” Valki explained. “And anomalies can’t be destroyed by just any weapon. The smith who lives on this mountain may be the only being in existence capable of making such a weapon.” She started walking, and Okin followed her.


He frowned. “Who is he?”


“No one knows,” she admitted. “I think he must be a mortal, but if so he is incredibly old.”


“A beginner at his craft, huh?”


“No, he’s a master,” Valki glanced back at him. “Why else would we go to him?”


“That was… a joke I was… I was being facetious.”


“Ah. I’m not very skilled at detecting sarcasm.”


“Duly noted.”


As they walked, the snow-covered terrain around them grew steeper, and the trees were more scraggly, clinging to the cliff-side for dear life. They were following some sort of path that curved around and around the mountain. Valki seemed to know where she was going, and Okin mostly relied on her as it was so covered in snow and other debris that he couldn’t really see it.


After what felt like ages, Okin squinted as he made out smoke in the distance ahead of them. He didn’t tire easily—thinking back now it made much more sense why he could so effortlessly outperform the other farmhands—but even he was feeling a little out of breath as a small cottage tucked under an overhang came into view.


“You know what? Yes, that looks about right,” he nodded.


Valki turned to him, entirely unfazed by the previous trek. “Right? What does?”


“Well, I was going to make a comment about how odd it is for a famous smith to live alone on a mountain, but the more I thought about it the more I realized how fitting it is.”


Her eyes narrowed curiously as she looked him over for a second. “You are more… human than I thought you’d be.”


“And how does that make you feel, exactly?” He had no idea how to glean what that comment meant other than by asking.


“I don’t know yet,” was her only response before she turned to knock on the door.


They waited for a long time out in the cold. Finally, there came a series of grunts and choice words from the other side.


“Who goes there?” A voice asked, without opening the door.


“Are you Dvalin the weapons master?” Valki ignored his question.


“That depends on who’s asking,” the voice insisted.


Valki sighed. “We are messengers from the Morrigan herself. In case you hadn’t noticed, the cosmos happens to be on the brink of destruction right outside your door.”


“From the Morrigan?” the door opened just a crack. “Prove it.”


Though her expression changed little, Okin felt waves of pure anger emanating off of Valki. Her eyes began to glow an ominous yellow as she grabbed the door handle and forced it open the rest of the way. “You will open this door for us or I will tear this entire mountain apart.”


The short, bearded man on the other side gulped as she let go of the handle, which was now horribly twisted into an impression of her own fingers. It glowed red very briefly.


“I’d say that’s proof enough,” Dvalin nodded weakly, stepping aside as Valki pushed past him.


Okin followed behind, stepping into the humble cottage. Inside it was homely, but comfortable, with a roaring fire going in the stone hearth. They didn’t stay in that room for long, however, as the smith led them directly to another door in the back and out to his workshop. Open to the elements, the forge was cold. It clearly hadn’t been used in a long time.


“Do you know why we’re here?” Valki asked.


“O’ course,” he frowned. “I knew ye’d come, sooner or later, what with the Malice running amok. You want a weapon, one only I can make.”


“One that can kill an anomaly,” Valki added.


“Nay, even I can’t do that,” Dvalin crossed his arms over his barrel-like chest. “You canae kill an anomaly, only get em to go quiet-like.”


“The terminology doesn’t matter,” she said. “Can you do it?”


Dvalin laughed. “O’ course I can. The question is more of will. As you can see, I haven’t worked the forge in a long time.”


“If you don’t,” Valki was getting agitated again, “you and this entire mountain of yours will eventually be unmade.”


“Tha’ won’t happen for a long time,” the smith grinned, seeming very confident. “And when the Malice comes calling, I have a few tricks up my sleeve. But, I could be persuaded to make your weapon…”


“What do you want?”


“I’ve got just about everything I need right here, except… entertainment. So I’d like to propose something, a little game. A game of riddles. I’ve gotten quite good at them, in my solitude, you see.”


Valki’s lip curled. “Riddles?” she asked. “Do you think we have time for such diversions?”


“Yes, you do. Or you won’t be getting my help.”


“You’d hold the cosmos hostage just for some damn riddles?”


“Aye.”


“Why?”


“Because I think you’re kind of a prick.”


“Umm…” Okin, who had been silent this whole time, suddenly spoke. Up until this point, he’d felt largely out of his depth. But riddles? Riddles were something he could understand. “I’ll take you up on that challenge. I just have to beat you, and you’ll make us the weapon, right?”


Dvalin looked impressed. “Now you, I like the look of you lad. Tha’s right.”


“Are you sure about this?” Valki whispered to him.


“I think so,” Okin nodded. “We used to make up riddles all the time when I was little. None of the other kids could ever beat me.”


She didn’t look confident after that response, but sighed. Now he really had to win, because she might tear down this whole cottage if he lost.


“Please,” Okin stepped forward, straightening a little. “You’re the challenger, so why don’t you begin?”


Placing his chin in his hand, Dvalin thought for a moment. “Alright, lad,” he grinned devilishly. “I’ll start easy: ‘you scrape and you claw for riches and wealth. But you can’t hunger for me, I’m hunger itself. I’m several sins, gluttony, envy, lust, greed. I’m safe as a want, but dangerous as a need.’”


Easy, huh? Alright, now he was a little less confident. But he took a deep breath, and thought. He was trying not to look at Valki, as he was afraid of any expression she might have been wearing. So he closed his eyes and ran through the words one more time. Hunger itself. I’m hunger itself…


He smiled. “Already trying to throw me off with such a broad word.”


Dvalin looked intrigued.


“It’s ‘desire.’ Each one of those sins is a sin of coveting something. And each of those things becomes a sin when your desire for them goes beyond simple want.”


He nodded and clapped his hands together. “Good,” he said. “At least we know you’re not a moron.”


In the corner, Valki looked a little offended. It seemed she hadn’t figured out the answer before he did.


“Alright,” Okin grinned, feeling just a touch better. He had a perfect follow-up for that one. “If we’re starting conceptual, we may as well continue down that path.”


“But you’ve given me a hint now.”


“Well, you let me off easy for the first round, so I’m simply returning the favor. Now: ‘I am very old, but I am very new. I am fleeting, but can live for ages. I am coveted, but willfully ignored. If you feel you own all of me, chances are you own very little.’”


“Now you’re being cheeky,” the smith didn’t seem at all displeased by this, despite his words. “You said ‘new but old’ to confuse me, but you already told me of its immateriality. But this, while clever, is a basic play. Everyone’s got at least three riddles for ‘knowledge.’”


“But that one is mine.”


Valki looked disappointed. As much as he was having quite a bit of fun going back and forth with this old man, he needed to wrap this up soon.


“Alright, I don’t want any more handouts, so lets make this a bit more tricky,” Dvalin rolled up his sleeves. “‘I speak in many voices, but only you can hear me. Anger won’t help you, that’s my role to play. Out of sight, out of mind, but you can’t wish me away no matter how hard you try.’”


Okay, calmly now. Think this through. There had been something a little awkward in the phrasing there, in the last line. ‘Out of mind,’ and, ‘But you can’t wish me away.’ didn’t seem to fit all that well together. ‘out of mind, out of mind…’ ‘Anger? Many voices…’


Ahh. “Impressive word-play,” Okin admitted. “But you gave the game away with the ‘anger’ line. You stated it right there.”


“Is that so?”


“‘Angry’ is just another word for ‘mad.’ Pair that with ‘out of mind’ and the answer is ‘madness.’”


Dvalin chuckled. “And here I thought that was one of my harder ones.”


“Well, that’s disappointing. And here I was just getting started.”


“Go on then,” Dvalin frowned. “Show me what you’ve got.”


Alright. He wasn’t sure, but he thought that this one might just be the one to fool him. Because Okin might have had one or two little tricks up his sleeve that he hadn’t mentioned to Valki. One reason that he was confident in his win.


“Then here goes,” he breathed, trying to hide the quickening of his heart. “‘I am feared by many, embraced by some, and wasted by others. I am, however, experienced by all. Though many have tried, I cannot be avoided. I am always coming, and when I arrive, it is already too late. I am infinite, though sometimes I can be thought of as cyclical. I mark all ends, even though I myself can never do so.’”


Blinking, Dvalin looked surprised. “That’s it?” he asked. “Well, that one’s easy.”


And Okin had won. He tried to hide his excitement as he asked: “Is it?”


“Of course. ‘When I arrive, it’s already too late,’ ‘experienced by all.’ It’s ‘death,’ innit?”


Okin was finally able to let his smile slip. “Well, then I’m sad to say that you’ve lost.”


“What do you mean?”


“Exactly what I just said. The answer isn’t ‘death.’ ‘I cannot be avoided,’ ‘I am infinite, though sometimes I can be thought of as cyclical.’ It’s ‘time.’”


“‘Time?’ By the whole of the cosmos, that’s some utter horseshite if I’ve ever heard it.”

But in the end, he agreed to make their weapon. However, it wasn’t going to be as easy as they had initially thought…


~~ o ~~


“I don’t think I understand,” Valki blurted as soon as they were out of Dvalin’s earshot. “I thought the answer was ‘death’ as well.”


“That’s the thing,” Okin admitted, a little sheepishly. “It is.”


“So you lied?” her eyes widened.


“No, the answer was ‘time’ as well, but it was also ‘death.’ It’s a bit of a trick question.”


“So unless he answered both, you could just say it was the other one.”


“Exactly.”


“Clever,” Valki admitted. “But where we’re going, I’m not sure cleverness is going to cut it.”


Okin’s heart dropped. “So, lemme get this straight,” he looked away, trying to avoid her gaze. She had just gained a modicum of respect for him, he didn’t want her to see how anxious he was. “The only material in the entire cosmos that can even get close to killing an anomaly—”


“—That we know of…”


“That we know of, are the Volk’s teeth?”


“That’s what Dvalin seems to think.”


“But that doesn’t make any sense,” Okin frowned. “I’m no expert, but if that’s the case, then why aren’t all the gods already dead?”


“The Volk is violent, yes,” Valki looked very unsure of her words. “But he is also entirely self-obsessed. He’s never been much concerned with the others. I doubt he himself knows he has this power.”


“And I’ve somehow got to pry one of those teeth from his mouth with nothing but a knife.”


“It’s made by a master smith.”


“It’s only ten inches long.”


“You complain, but do you really think any sort of weapon at all would make a difference? Now come, grab my hand. Time is of the essence.”


“Maybe we can talk things out,” Okin muttered as he grasped her hand with his own.


With an almost harmonic shriek, Valki’s metal wings extended, and with a singular flap, they were off, soaring towards the edge of this reality. The second trip through the Other was much easier, at least physically. It was almost peaceful, the way the mist gently coiled around the various ruins, realities, and even itself as they flew by.


“So, do I get to ever have wings?” he asked, his voice echoing slightly through the nothing around them.


“Perhaps,” Valki shrugged. “But I wouldn’t count on it. They’re mostly for show, anyway.”


That seemed kind of ridiculous to him. If it made sense for anyone to have wings it was him. But it was probably due to some cruel sense of irony that he didn’t.


The journey this time was long, and there was only so much Okin could do to distract himself. The prospect of defeating the Trickster with a magical weapon was harrowing enough, let alone even facing another anomaly with nothing at all. What could he even do? How could he wrench a tooth out of the mouth of a god?


“You’re worried,” Valki commented.


“Of course I am.”


“You shouldn’t be,” her gaze was steady. “You will pass this trial.”


“What makes you so sure?”


“It’s your destiny,” There was not even a hint of anything less than utmost sincerity in her tone. “The Morrigan chose you. Just as she chose me to act as your guide. So you will, and you must.”


“That makes me feel so much better.”


Ahead of them lay something strange: a sort of darkness, which only grew larger and deeper as they approached. After a few minutes of silent travel, Okin realized just what it was: the mouth of a cave. A cave bigger than any he’d ever seen. The oddest part was that there was no rock around it, just the cave itself. Okin didn’t even know how he figured it was a cave. It just was.


No bubble of reality surrounded it. It couldn’t, because it wasn’t one. Anomalies couldn’t venture into realities without a vessel. This was where one lived. If nothing else, the aura gave it away. This was the cave in which the Volk slept between slaughters.


“I don’t suppose you might have any sort of plan,” Okin turned to Valki.


“No,” she admitted. “Under normal circumstances, facing the Volk would be suicide.”


“So, it’s all up to me, huh?”


She nodded. “I wouldn’t suggest facing him in fair combat.”


“Very helpful,” he sighed.


As the cave mouth drew nearer, he could not only feel the menace, but smell it as well. And when they landed he heard a rumbling so loud that it shook the rocky ground outside. Okin stared at those rocks, thinking for a moment.


Valki was halfway into the cave before she realized he wasn’t next to her. She turned, and he ran into her. Though she narrowed her eyes in question, Okin didn’t elaborate, just continued walking into the dark.


They didn’t have to go far. Within a minute, the stony walls widened, and the source of the rumbling which had only been growing more violent since they’d entered the cave was revealed. The Volk, true to his name, was a wolf, so large that he almost filled the already enormous cavern. The only reason they could see him at all was because despite its dark color, the Volk’s fur glowed. He was long and matted, almost too thin to be a normal creature, like he’d been stretched out by some invisible hand.


He stared down at the two intruders, amusement apparent in the curl of his lips, and they discovered that the rumbling that even now was still vibrating through their bones was laughter.


“Well, well,” the deepness of his voice didn’t help. “It has been a long time since any dared approach my den, let alone Seraphim. Tell me: do you crave death, little angels?”


Okin wondered if all anomalies were this… dramatic. But he shot right back to attention as the Volk’s tail flicked impatiently. It was as thick as Okin’s entire body.


Desperately attempting to hide his fear, Okin straightened, and plastered what he hoped was a cocky smile on his face. “Not particularly,” he said.


“That is what you will receive regardless,” the Volk rose from where he was laying, towering even higher. “No one enters my lair and lives to tell of its contents.”


“Then… I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed.” There was no way this was going to work. But it was the one sliver of an idea that he had to grasp at. “You see,” he explained. “I’m immortal.”


“Come again?” the wolf seemed more amused than anything.


“It’s true. The Morrigan created me to be completely indestructible.”


“The Morrigan?” Was that perhaps the tiniest hint of… fear in the Volk’s red eyes? “Did she send you here?”


“No. I came of my own volition,” Okin assured him. “I wanted to test if she was right.”


The booming laughter that emanated from the god’s gullet nearly shook Okin and Valki to their knees.


“What are you doing?” she hissed in his ear.


His eyes briefly met hers. “Just trust me. And be ready.”


Once he recovered from his laughing fit, the Volk turned back to Okin. “So you thought to throw yourself at me, hmm? Poor little fool. Don’t you know that I’ve never encountered something my teeth couldn’t crush?”


“Prove it,” Okin said calmly, though his heart pounded in his throat.


“I have never seen a being beg for oblivion as fervently as you, but if you so insist…”


Okin was only given a moment to prepare before the Volk opened his jaws wide and lunged towards him. Betraying his every instinct, Okin dived forward, sliding past those enormous teeth just before they snapped shut.


He gagged as the smell of rotting meat hit his nose. It was hot and moist in the Volk’s mouth, and his hair blew over his face as the exhalation from his enormous lungs blew past him. All of this was compounded by the fact that the Volk has started laughing again, the jostling on his tongue so great that he couldn’t get to his feet.


“Immortal, hm?” the Volk’s voice was so low that Okin’s bones creaked in response. “I suppose we’ll see how much of a liar you are when you’re dissolving in my stomach.”


“I’d try to crush me first, if I were you,” Okin shouted. “You might choke on me on the way down otherwise.”


The great tongue pushed Okin back towards the very sharp, yellow teeth with a wet slurp, and he struggled to avoid them, slipping on the puddles of spit. With a final thrust, Okin had to pinwheel his arms wildly to keep his balance, and as the teeth big as gravestones crunched downward, the sleeve of his coat got caught.


Panicking, Okin wrenched his arm away, and the entire coat was torn clean off his body. Dammit, he’d liked that coat.


“Looks like you missed,” he hollered. “Better try again.”


The Volk growled, but this time Okin was ready. He yanked out the rock he’d hidden under his tunic and let the tongue pull him towards those yellowed slabs. After sending a prayer to the gods that he didn’t lose a hand in the process, Okin thrust the stone between two of the Volk’s canines and braced himself.


It was the wolf’s howl that told him he’d succeeded before he was able to open his eyes. A large chunk of the top canine was cracked, and Okin was only aided by the Volk’s violent thrashing in his attempt to break it off the rest of the way.


“Valki!” he struggled to be heard over the cacophony as he desperately clutched his slippery prize.


For a moment, he was scared that she hadn’t heard him. But then with a sudden flash of light he saw her as she forcibly wrenched the Volk’s jaw open, metal wings screeching. He scrambled towards her, tackling her around the waist.


They used that momentum to shoot away from the Volk, back through the cave.

“I will remember this, little angel!” his voice echoed behind them. “Someday, I will pay you back for this pain in kind!”


Okin shivered as Valki flew. That was going to keep him awake at night. But within a minute, they had emerged out into the Other. It wasn’t bright by any means, but it was certainly preferable to the sheer darkness of that cave.


“Do you have it?” Valki demanded. Her hand in his was slick with blood, whether hers or the Volk’s he couldn’t tell.


“Yes,” he croaked. “I nearly died, but I’ve got it.”


“How?” she asked incredulously.


“With a rock.”


“A rock? I don’t believe it.”


“Believe it or not, that’s how I did it.”


“I can’t tell whether you’re insane or brilliant.”


“Don’t think about it so hard,” he suggested, still having trouble registering that he’d survived. “If I can’t figure it out, then what chance have you got?”

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