Grim Omens was an event in SMITE made for the introduction of Baba Yaga and Cthulhu. It begins right after the conclusion of Jade Corruption's story, it began on March 24, 2020 and ended on August 11, 2020.
Welcome to the Grim Omens Event!
There will be 4 chapters in this event spanning over 4 updates. Each chapter has a chest containing 5 Skins and a Cosmetic Bundle.
On release of a new chapter, there will be an initial discount. Once the next chapter releases, the discount will no longer be available.
You can either roll the chapter chest or directly purchase the skin you desire in the store.
Purchasing ANY item from a chapter will unlock that chapter's quests which reward Gems.
Unlimited Chapter Rewards
In order to obtain the unlimited chapter reward, you will have to unlock every item in that chapter.
Unlimited Collection Reward
Unlock all items from ALL 4 chapter chest to receive the Unlimited Totem Caller Hou Yi Skin!
Grim Omens Cosmetic Items
These are the items that are available during the event. Items are bound to Chapter themed chests. Upon rolling the chest, the player will randomly recieve one of the 5 items. The chests start with only 3 items, with more being gradually added per update up to 5 items per chest.
These are the chests currently available:
|God Skin||March 24, 2020||An exclusive skin for Medusa. It has custom animations and ability effects, and custom voicelines.|
|God Skin||March 24, 2020||An exclusive skin for Merlin. It has custom animations and ability effects, and custom voicelines.|
|God Skin||March 24, 2020||An exclusive skin for Nemesis. It has custom animations and ability effects, and custom voicelines.|
|Murder Of Crows|
|God Skin||April 7, 2020||An exclusive skin for Sobek. It has custom animations and ability effects, and custom voicelines.|
|God Skin||April 7, 2020||An exclusive skin for Cernunnos. It has custom animations and ability effects, and custom voicelines.|
|Pedestal||April 7, 2020||An exclusive pedestal that is themed after Baba Yaga's cauldron.|
|Title||April 7, 2020||An exclusive Title.|
|God Skin||April 21, 2020||An exclusive skin for Mulan. It has custom animations and ability effects, and custom voicelines.|
|God Skin||April 21, 2020||An exclusive skin for He Bo. It has custom animations and ability effects, and custom voicelines.|
|God Skin||April 21, 2020||An exclusive skin for Da Ji. It has custom animations and ability effects, and custom voicelines.|
|God Skin||May 5, 2020||An exclusive skin for Chiron. It has custom animations and ability effects, and custom voicelines.|
|God Skin||May 5, 2020||An exclusive skin for Khepri. It has custom animations and ability effects, and custom voicelines.|
|Loading Frame||May 5, 2020||An exclusive Loading Frame.|
|Global Emote||May 5, 2020||An exclusive Global Emote.|
|God Skin||May 19, 2020||An exclusive skin for Hercules. It has custom animations and ability effects, and custom voicelines.|
|God Skin||May 19, 2020||An exclusive skin for Jormungandr. It has custom animations and ability effects, and custom voicelines.|
|God Skin||May 19, 2020||An exclusive skin for Chang'e. It has custom animations and ability effects, and custom voicelines.|
|God Skin||June 2, 2020||An exclusive skin for Nu Wa. It has custom animations and ability effects, and custom voicelines.|
|God Skin||June 2, 2020||An exclusive skin for Camazotz. It has custom animations and ability effects, and custom voicelines.|
|Jump Stamp||June 2, 2020||An exclusive Jump Stamp.|
|Loading Screen||June 2, 2020||An exclusive Loading Screen.|
|Sin of Greed|
|God Skin||June 16, 2020||An exclusive skin for Fafnir. It has custom animations and ability effects, and custom voicelines.|
|God Skin||June 16, 2020||An exclusive skin for Hachiman. It has custom animations and ability effects, and custom voicelines.|
|God Skin||June 16, 2020||An exclusive skin for Bellona. It has custom animations and ability effects, and custom voicelines.|
|God Skin||June 30, 2020||An exclusive skin for Tyr. It has custom animations and ability effects, and custom voicelines.|
|God Skin||June 30, 2020||An exclusive skin for Nox. It has custom animations and ability effects, and custom voicelines.|
|Music Theme||June 30, 2020||An Exclusive Music Theme.|
|Avatar||June 30, 2020||An Exclusive Avatar.|
|God Skin||April 7, 2020||An Unlimited skin for Aphrodite. It has custom animations and ability effects, and custom voicelines.|
|God Skin||April 21, 2020||An Unlimited skin for Artemis. It has custom animations and ability effects, and custom voicelines.|
|God Skin||May 19, 2020||An Unlimited skin for Scylla. It has custom animations and ability effects, and custom voicelines.|
|God Skin||March 24, 2020||An Unlimited skin for Hou Yi. It has custom animations and ability effects, and custom voicelines. Also comes with a Jump Stamp and a Recall Skin.|
List of quests
At least one item from a chapter has to be purchased to unlock that chapters quests. The player is able to earn 100 Gems per chapter by completing both quests.
Exhausted, Hua Mulan watched the sun rise. She sat on a fallen timber from the village palisade, her spear thrust into the ground beside her, and her sword across her lap. She had kept watch through the night, but the enemy had not returned.
In the aftermath of the conflagration that had nearly claimed the village, it seemed as if the entire world smelled of ashes and death. She knew that smell. It was like an old friend. It reminded her of a past she had thought to put behind her.
“But it seems fate has other plans for me,” she murmured, as she lifted a jug of water and took a long swallow. A small fire burned before her, a shield against the morning chill. The fire was a pretence; she could no longer feel the cold. Her body did not ache as it should have, either from discomfort or exertion. It was as if she were warmed by some spark nestled within her. She looked down at her hand and saw that she was glowing again.
She made a fist, banishing the radiance through sheer force of will. It was becoming easier to control, though not easier to accept. She did not know what it was, this…force that now seemed to permeate her being. But she could feel herself changing. Not just the lack of aches and pains, but her senses were growing stronger. And there was the other thing, as well. Her mind shied away from it, even as she glanced at the nearby villagers. She could feel them, feel their trust, their need…their fear.
Mulan closed her eyes, trying to shut out the murmuring susurrus of their prayers. And not just theirs. She could hear the voices of others, far from here. In every village she had saved, people were praying to her. Asking her to save them.
She heard the rustle of cloth and opened her eyes. A hunched form sat across from her. An old man, white of beard and wearing a ragged cloak. He leaned against a walking stick, clutching it with thin, knotted fingers. She did not ask for his name. She assumed that he was one of the villagers. If so, he was the only one brave enough to approach her. Even her own followers were keeping their distance.
“You look tired,” the stranger said.
“It has been a long night.”
He chuckled and stirred the fire with his walking stick. “So it seems.” He studied the smouldering stick, and then transferred his gaze to her. Something about the look in his eyes made her want to reach for her blade. In the back of her head, she heard something that might have been the thunder of hooves, and the clash of spears. “Do you know who I am, Hua Mulan?”
“No,” she said, but knew it for a lie even as the words left her mouth. She knew him, though she did not know how or why. “Who are you? What do you want?”
“To greet you, sister.”
“I am not your sister.” She licked her lips. Her mouth was dry, and her heart was thudding like a war-drum. But she was not frightened.
“You are, whether you know it or not.” He rose to his feet, throwing off his robes as he did so. The staff in his hands had become a massive guandao, and his beard was no longer white, but as black as night. “Do you know me now, sister?” he asked, in a voice like the drawing of a thousand swords.
She scrambled to her feet, torn between the urge to bow – or to flee. “Guan Yu,” she said. “You are Guan Yu. The Saint of War.” He nodded, as if in satisfaction, and snapped forward, thrusting his weapon at her with inhuman speed. Her sword sprang into her hand and she smashed the blade of the guandao aside before leaping back, out of reach.
They faced one another for several moments, gazes locked. Then, with a soft sigh of what might have been relief, Guan Yu returned to his seat. “A mortal could not have avoided my blow – even an exceptional mortal. You are more than you were.”
Mulan looked down at the sword in her hand, and then at the war-god. “How…?” she began, her voice hoarse. Conflicting emotions surged within her, and she felt feverish. She wanted to sleep, to forget and hope that the world had returned to normalcy when she awoke. Instead, she steeled herself and sat back down, her sword flat across her knees. “Why me?”
Guan Yu threw back his head and gave a roar of laughter. “Better to ask me about the motion of the tides, or the secrets known only to sparrows. I am not a god of wisdom or knowledge, sister. I am a god of clashing swords and thundering hooves. I know about war and justice.” His smile faded. “Just as I know that there is too much of one and not enough of the other these days. But with your help, we might be able to begin to redress that imbalance.”
“Who is we?”
“Your fellow gods.”
Mulan felt a flash of anger. “You want my help?”
Guan Yu nodded. “That is why I have come.”
“Where were you earlier? Where were you when I – when we – needed help? Where were the gods when this village and all the rest were burning?” She gestured about her. “Where were the gods when China needed them?”
Guan Yu was silent for a moment. “China is greater than a single village,” he said, finally. “It is greater than ten villages or a hundred. And the world is greater still.” He gazed about him. “Did you think that this was only happening here?”
Mulan frowned. “Is that why you were not here? Because you were elsewhere?”
“This is a war with many fronts,” Guan Yu said, staring into the fire. “China seethes with cancerous jade. In the lands of the Greeks, oracles go mad and tear out their own eyes. In the icy north, the old magics turn upon themselves like animals in pain. It is as if the weave of the world is coming undone – and we can do nothing to stop it.”
“We? You mean the gods?”
Guan Yu sighed and stirred the fire with the blade of his guandao. Shapes took form in the leaping flames. Mulan saw a woman – no, a goddess – weeping in the shadow of a great tree. The fire rose and a new shape took form, that of a tall god, clad in robes of starlight, sitting wearily upon a throne he did not seem to want.
More images followed these, coming so quickly that she barely had time to perceive them before they were snatched away. They were like shadows cast on a cave wall, neither one thing or another but all things at once. Gods at war, gods in mourning, gods seeking enlightenment, and gods seeking power – even though it might cost the world.
“There is discontent in heaven,” Guan Yu said. “Many would rather waste time repaying old grudges than seek answers. And even those who are not so foolish squabble about the best way to fix things – if they can be fixed at all.”
“I don’t see how I can help,” Mulan said softly.
Guan Yu paused. “I believe that the answer lies with that which the men of the far north call Yggdrasil…” he began.
Something about the word, unfamiliar as it was, struck a chord in her. “The World Tree,” she said, without knowing why. An image sprang unbidden into her mind – a great tree, taller than any mountain, with roots as deep as night.
“Yes. The answer is there, for good or ill.”
“Then why are you here?”
“Is it not obvious, sister?” Guan Yu smiled. “I need help. And who better to aid me than another hero of China?”
Meanwhile in Valhalla, Ratatoskr crept through the Hall of the Slain, nose and tail twitching.
He had been invited by the Allfather, but it was in his nature to scurry. Divine though he was, he was still a squirrel at heart, after all. He could feel the ancient magics of Valhalla pulsing beneath his sensitive paws as he moved. Of course, it was as nothing next to the weighty magics which hummed within his own home, Yggdrasil.
The World Tree was a wellspring of power unlike any other in existence, something that Ratatoskr took no small amount of pride in. That it wasn’t due to any particular effort on his part had been pointed out to him on a number of occasions, but he put such comments down to envy. The Aesir could be quite petty about such things.
And none more so than the Allfather.
“I can hear you chittering to yourself, rodent. Get in here.”
Ratatoskr froze as the voice echoed through the corridor like a roll of thunder. Eyes narrowed, he quickened his pace until he reached the main hall. No lamps were lit, and no hearth-fires burned. The golden shields that thatched the ceiling were dull, and the long tables that lined the hall were empty. Only one seat in Valhalla was occupied.
Odin sat slumped in his great throne, his single eye glittering. “Tell me of the tree, rodent,” the Allfather rumbled. “How fares Yggdrasil?”
Ratatoskr smoothed his whiskers in an attempt to hide the sudden trepidation he felt. “It’s fine,” he said. But the truth was more complicated. It had all started when the goddess Persephone had attempted to reach Yggdrasil for reasons that still escaped Ratatoskr. Heimdallr had stopped her, but even so she had done something – worked some strange magic – and now there was something wrong with the World Tree, but what that might be he could not say. It was just a vague feeling – like an itch he could not scratch, or a nagging ache. “Everything is fine,” he added.
Ratatoskr bared his teeth and fluffed his tail. “What would you know about it?” he chittered in equal parts anger and fear. Odin leaned forward abruptly, eye blazing. Ratatoskr retreated hastily.
“I know more than you think, rodent.” The Allfather rose ponderously to his feet. “Or did you think Heimdallr did not tell me of his encounter with Persephone? Now still your yammering tongue and watch.” He raised his hand and the squirrel flinched back as motes of cold fire danced on the god’s palm. The motes expanded into shimmering runes. Ratatoskr had seen the rune-magic of the Aesir before, and was about to say as much when he felt the air tremble strangely – as if in anticipation of a storm.
Moments later, the floating runes began to twist and bulge in a way that made Ratatoskr uneasy at first – and then frightened. It was as if the magics were writhing in agony. Odin made a sound low in his throat, and staggered back against his throne as the runes tore themselves from his grasp. The light they gave off began to burn with a feverish heat, and Ratatoskr heard a sound – no, a voice. But a voice unlike any he had ever heard, and in a language he did not recognize.
It resounded dolorously through the hall, and the golden shields above rattled as if in fear. Odin’s eye widened, and he made to speak. But before a single word could leave his lips, the runes twisted in upon themselves and violently combusted, lashing the walls and pillars with tongues of dark flame.
Ratatoskr scrambled for cover beneath a nearby table as the inferno raged through the hall. Odin forced himself to his feet, enduring the firestorm with stoic resolve. Only when the magics had at last burned themselves out did the Allfather slump back into his throne, his head bowed and his armor smoldering. Ratatoskr slunk out from beneath his shelter. “What happened?” he asked. “What was that?”
“Something is wrong,” Odin said. Ratatoskr could hear the weariness in the Allfather’s voice. “The realms are fraying. That magic that binds them together unravels even as we speak. Can you not feel it?”
Ratatoskr shook his head. “I – no.” But he could. A cold feeling now ran along his spine, from nose to tail. He could still hear the echoes of that strange voice. It shuddered on the air like sour thunder. “Yes,” he said, in a small voice. He bowed his head. “Yggdrasil is…unwell. Something is making it sick. Something Persephone did. But I don’t know what’s wrong. And I don’t know how to fix it.”
Odin fixed his eye on Ratatoskr. “Then we must find out. Before the World Tree succumbs, and all the nine realms with it.”
The old, dark forest shook as the great chicken-legged house burst through the trees, moving with hideous speed. Inside, crockery rattled thunderously and the shutters banged. The house’s mistress, used to the cacophony, paid no attention. Instead, she leaned across the kitchen and peered into the smoky depths of her mortar, murmuring to herself.
Her watery reflection stared back at her – thin and ugly, with matted hair, and a face worn to a sharp edge by untold centuries of life and wickedness. Long had the witch known as Baba Yaga haunted the lands of black forests and frozen rivers. Longer even than she could recall. And longer still did she intend to do so.
If the world did not end first.
“This won’t do no this won’t do at all,” she muttered. “Can’t have that one waking up. Bad for everyone. But especially for poor Baba Yaga…” She paused and turned, glaring at the shelves behind her. A line of skulls occupied each, their sockets alight with flickering flames. Their eerie light illuminated her shaking, shuddering hovel, casting strange shadows across the interior. Things moved in these shadows, but only when Baba Yaga wasn’t looking. They knew better nowadays.
“And what do you know about it, eh?” she chided them. “You think I do not know? Baba Yaga knows, though who will listen to her? No one. Pfah. The gods do not listen. Even when it would save them much grief.”
She turned back to her mortar and continued to grind away at the ingredients within. “But mustn’t interfere, no.” She could neither help nor hinder unprovoked – such were the ancient laws which bound her. The chicken-legged house gave a lurch and she held out her hand. A clay pot slid across a nearby table and into her waiting palm. “Can’t tell them what’s good for them unless they ask.”
She used one long thumb nail to pop the pot open and pour the squirming, squealing contents into the mortar. More smoke erupted from the churning contents. Within its depths, an image formed…a face. A familiar one – a goddess of green growing things and shadowed graves. A prideful goddess that one, and full of righteousness.
Or, rather, she had been, before she had been defeated by the Warder of the Bifrost and cast down into unfamiliar realms.
Baba Yaga chuckled to herself. “Soundly humbled, she was. Left broken and lost, until Baba Yaga found her. Got her back on her feet, I did, and sent her east.” East to find another. Baba Yaga pounded the mortar with her pestle, and one face faded, to be replaced by another – a young goddess, new to her divinity and unaware of what was coming.
But soon enough, she would be. As soon as Baba Yaga’s messenger found her and brought her to the chicken-legged house. A new goddess might listen where the old ones did not. A new goddess might succeed where the old ones would fail.
Baba Yaga thumped her foot against the floor. “East,” she bellowed. “East and east and east, until the ground stinks of jade.” As the chicken-legged house tilted itself and sprinted east, bludgeoning aside trees in its haste. Baba Yaga looked back down at the image in the smoke and dispersed it with a finger. “They have to ask, so we must make them ask.” She grinned, showing sharp teeth.
“And won’t that be fun, eh?”
In another forest, far to the east, the sounds of hard labor echoed. Standing among the trees, Hua Mulan watched the villagers work to rebuild their homes and felt a pang of regret. It would take many days – weeks, even – to repair what the jade monsters had destroyed. If she had been quicker, or stronger, maybe more could have been saved.
Then, if Guan-Yu was to be believed, perhaps not. According to him, the actions of one warrior would not be enough to stem the tide of destruction that she could feel approaching. Alone, neither of them could stand against it – but together, they might be able to stop it. Together, they might be able to save China and the world.
But helping him meant abandoning her duties here. It meant abandoning those who had followed her, and those who looked to her to lead them through troubled times. And she did not know if she was strong enough to do so.
She needed to clear her head. She drove her spear into the ground and drew her sword. Then, slowly, gracefully, she began to put herself through the exercises her father had taught her so many years ago. It came easily, as always. She parried and countered the blows of imaginary foes, her movements becoming faster as she fell into the old rhythms.
As she moved, she thought back to what Guan-Yu had showed her – how the other gods were divided, and fought among themselves, even as the world convulsed in agony. There had to be a better way. A house divided could not stand.
She felt a tingling warmth in her hand and looked down. A familiar glow radiated from her skin. She could feel the shimmering radiance spilling upwards and outwards from within her being. She lowered her sword and clutched at her head as the voices came again, louder and more fervent than before. The prayers of the faithful resounded through her skull like the clangour of bells. And not just prayers – there were pleas, curses and hymns, all tied to her name.
She forced her eyes open and saw again the eerie strands of light that connected her to her people. Her worshippers. She grimaced at the thought even as she reached out with her mind to touch the strands. It was an easy thing to do, and as instinctive as breathing had once been. She felt their need as strongly as her own – and something else as well. A gnawing sensation, sharp and brittle…like a little shard of ice, nestled deep inside every living soul. She tried to focus on that sensation, to explore it, but it resisted her.
“It is fear,” someone said from nearby.
Startled, Mulan spun, her sword rising sharply to ward off any potential attack. A woman, clad in a robe and hood. Her features were obscured in shadow, and she stood with her hands folded before her. “I mean you no harm,” the newcomer said.
Mulan lowered her blade. “You startled me.”
“My apologies. I did not mean to do so.” The newcomer approached. “They are afraid,” she said. “Even as you were. They can sense the world reshaping itself into something hostile around them, the way animals might sense an earthquake.”
“My people are not animals,” Mulan said.
“No. No, they are not. There are some gods who think that way, but I am not one of them.” The newcomer drew back her hood, exposing pale features and a mass of bedraggled hair. She was beautiful, but it was not a human beauty. Mulan stared at her, trying to understand why the woman looked so familiar.
“Who are you?” she asked, finally.
“Her name is Persephone,” Guan-Yu said from behind her. Mulan turned to see the war-god sitting on a fallen tree, his guandao laying across his knees. She wondered how long he had been sitting there. “She is a goddess, even as you are, my sister.”
“Persephone,” Mulan murmured. She shook her head. “I have never heard that name, and yet I – I feel that I know her.” She looked at Persephone. “I know you.”
“You are a god, and like recognizes like.” Guan-Yu rose to his feet, a scowl on his face. “Why are you here, Greek? Surely you have done enough.”
Persephone reacted as if she’d been slapped. Her lips skinned back from her teeth and her eyes flashed with cold fire. “I have not even begun,” she snapped. The trees shook to their roots, and Guan-Yu raised his weapon in warning.
Mulan stepped between them. “Peace, both of you.” She looked at Persephone. She could see guilt writ on the other woman’s face. “Answer his question – why are you here?”
Persephone looked at her, her expression softening. “I – I wish to help.” She turned away. “I must help.”
“Because she is responsible,” Guan-Yu said, but not unkindly.
Mulan blinked. “The jade…you did this to my people?” Her sword rose as if of its own volition. Persephone did not flinch.
“It was not my intent.”
“Intent matters little,” Guan-Yu said, gently pushing Mulan’s sword away. “What has occurred threatens more than just China, or Greece – it endangers the world. If you wish to help, I will not deny you that opportunity.” He looked at Mulan. “Time grows short. Have you come to a decision?”
Mulan stared at Persephone for a moment longer, and then looked back towards the village. After a few seconds, she sheathed her sword and nodded. “Yes. I will help.”
Guan-Yu grunted. “Then we go north. Yggdrasil awaits.”
“And what will you do there?” Persephone demanded. She glanced back and forth between them. “Two warriors – what will you do, chop the tree down to save it?”
“And what would you suggest?” Guan-Yu asked.
“That we seek the guidance of one who knows about these matters,” Persephone said. “One whose wisdom, vile though it may be, is greater than that of any god.” She gestured at the forest. “The old witch waits for us, even now.”
Guan-Yu made a choking sound. “You cannot mean…”
Persephone nodded. “I do. She will know what must be done – and how best to do it.” She looked at Mulan.
“If we but have the courage to ask her.”
In her chicken-legged hut, Baba Yaga laughed in glee. They were coming to her even as she went to them – she had seen it in her mortar. Persephone had done as she’d promised. Now the rest was up to Baba Yaga herself.
The world was broken, and only the right soul could fix it. Whether that soul belonged to this new goddess remained to be seen, but Baba Yaga was not a believer in coincidences. That she had ascended even as the world groaned in pain was a sign. She had to be the one that was needed. Nothing else made sense.
“It must be,” she muttered as she hunched over the rim of her mortar, watching the gods journey west, following Persephone. “It has to be.” She turned to her skulls. “What do you think, my pretties?” As ever, the dead did not reply, but she heard them even so. Their murmurs had grown quieter of late, as if something had frightened them.
But what could frighten the dead?
She frowned and peered more closely at the skulls on the shelves. One of them had gone out without her noticing. “That…should not happen.” She bared her teeth in consternation. “Time grows short.”
Her magics were not the staid rites of the Norse or the Greeks. They were older by far, and drawn from wilder sources, ground and sifted in her mortar, but even they had become more erratic than usual as the world tilted on its axis. Now, much like the magics of those others, her own spells were faltering and coming undone, one by one. Soon, even her chicken-legged house might dance its last. The thought sent a shudder through her.
The fabric of reality had grown too thin of late. Too much had happened, too many mistakes. Now something had to be done, and soon, else the world would be irrevocably changed and not in a way Baba Yaga cared for.
“Come to me,” she murmured. “Time is running out, but for you most of all.”
The ground shook and ruptured, venting superheated gases as something large and leathery forced itself upwards into the clearing with a heaving, wrenching motion. Loose soil and bits of broken tree sloughed from the curved surface of the immense seedpod as it split with a wet crackle and allowed its passengers to step out of its fibrous interior.
“There, see?” Persephone said as she stepped down. “I told you I could get us here in no time at all. All you had to do was trust me.”
Mulan wiped a bit of plant matter from the sleeve of her uniform. “I prefer to travel by horseback – or failing that, by foot.”
“Gods do not walk,” Persephone said.
“I walk all the time,” Guan-Yu said, stepping past her, his guandao over his shoulder. “Then, I wasn’t always a god.”
Persephone made as if to say something, but instead simply shook her head and looked around. Mulan followed her gaze. Great, black trees rose all around them, so thick that she could barely make out the horizon between the branches. The air was colder here, and she wondered how far they had travelled.
As if reading her mind, Guan-Yu said, “These are the lands of the Slavs. We are far from home, sister.” He looked at Persephone. “And you are farther still. How did you come to be here in the first place?”
“I do not know. During my struggle with Heimdallr I found myself falling through the realms.” She grimaced. “And then I was here. Battered, injured, but alive.”
“And the old witch helped you, did she?” Guan-Yu frowned. “Why?”
Before Persephone could reply, the ground began to shudder and birds took frantic flight from the trees. Mulan swept her sword from its sheath, even as the trees before her began to bow and bend as if some great weight were pressing against them. All at once, those closest to her splintered and fell as a crooked hut, perched atop monstrous chicken legs, thrust itself into view. Mulan glanced at the others, but neither of them seemed surprised.
As she watched, the chicken-legs bent and squatted, bringing the hut close to the ground. A moment later, the door of the hut slammed open, and an ugly light spilled forth. “Well? Are you going to come in or not?” a rusty voice called out from within.
“Come,” Persephone said. “She is not the most patient of creatures.”
Baba Yaga grinned as the gods crowded into her kitchen. “Look at you three. So brave. Would you like something to eat? You must be hungry, yes?”
“No,” Persephone said. “I brought them as you wished. Our debt is settled.”
“Debt? What debt?” Baba Yaga cackled at the look on the goddess’ face. “You owed no debt, Queen of the Underworld. You have troubles enough without me adding to them, eh?” She cackled again as Persephone flushed with anger. “But I thank you for the kindness!”
“You dare -!” Persephone began. Baba Yaga laughed all the louder. She turned away from the fuming goddess and fixed Guan-Yu with a piercing stare.
“You. I didn’t want you. Why are you here?” She gestured dismissively before he could reply, and turned her gaze on Mulan. “There you are. Come, child. Let Baba Yaga get a good look at you.” She crooked a finger and beckoned Mulan close. “Come, come. Do not be afraid. I am not so terrible as all that, am I?”
“I am not afraid,” Mulan said, and Baba Yaga heard the truth in her words.
“No, you are not. But you should be. Oh yes, you should be.” Baba Yaga leaned close, studying Mulan’s face. “Things are so much worse than you can imagine.” She sniffed the air. “You smell like a hero. Are you hero, child?”
“Some have called me that.”
“But you do not think of yourself that way?”
“So modest.” Baba Yaga looked past her, at Guan-Yu and Persephone. “Are you sure she’s one of you?”
“Enough of your prattling,” Persephone said. “You told me you could help me fix Yggdrasil if I brought her. I have brought her, so help us.”
“No,” Baba Yaga said, turning back to her mortar. “Not unless you do something for me first. That is the way of it, as you well know, daughter of Demeter.”
“That wasn’t part of our deal, old witch,” Persephone said, taking a step towards her. Baba Yaga gestured dismissively.
“And I told you, we had no deal. I merely mentioned that I might be able to tell you something helpful. And I will. But first you must do something for me.”
“What must we do?” Guan-Yu asked.
“You? Nothing.” Baba Yaga looked at Mulan. “You, on the other hand…”
Mulan nodded without hesitation. “Name your price.”
Persephone caught her arm. “No, wait -!”
“Too late,” Baba Yaga cackled. “So sad, too bad.” She wrapped a long arm around Mulan and pulled her close, away from the other gods. Persephone made to grab the witch, but Guan-Yu pulled her back. Mulan could not hear what he said to her, for Baba Yaga was already speaking.
“Come, look here my sweet, look at my pretties here – see them? Are they not handsome?” She gestured to the skulls on their shelves, eyes burning with inner fire. Mulan stared at them without incomprehension.
“You do not like them?” Baba Yaga asked, a hurt expression on her face. “Perhaps they frighten you, eh?”
“I have seen dead men before,” Mulan said, softly. Baba Yaga leaned close and Mulan nearly choked on the smell of rancid bear-fat and charnel earth.
“Yes, I expect you have. And you will see more, if you fail.” Baba Yaga stroked Mulan’s cheek with a talon and gestured to an empty spot on the shelf. “Look there – you see? One of my skulls went out. The fire inside him was snuffed. I require a replacement.”
“You want…a skull?”
Baba Yaga grinned. “Yes. But not just any skull. Only the best for Baba Yaga.” She turned and gestured towards a window. “At the edge of the forest is a graveyard. In that graveyard is a hero. You will bring me his skull.”
“That is all?”
“That is all.”
Mulan nodded. “Then show me the way to this graveyard. I will get you your skull.”
“Easy enough,” Baba Yaga said. She gestured and a foul-smelling smoke boiled up from within her mortar. It swept out and enveloped Mulan before she could cry out, and when it cleared she was standing somewhere else.
A cold wind whipped across a jumbled patch of stone and barren earth. Broken trees rose from the ground, their roots spreading everywhere in the moonlight. The edges of the forest seemed to lean away from this spot, as if the trees were frightened of whatever was buried here. Mulan could feel them – the dead – beneath her feet. They stirred uneasily at her tread, and she could hear the soft rustling of their bones.
Her eyes were drawn to the highest point of the burying ground, where a great chair of stone rose from within a pair of trees. The trees had grown up around the chair and its occupant – an ancient warrior, clad in rusty mail, with a sword lying flat across his knees. Mulan felt a wave of hatred emanating from the dead man. Not for her specifically, but for all that lived. Part of her wanted nothing more than to leave him to stew in his own loathing.
Instead, she took a step towards him, loosening her sword in its sheath as she did so. If the witch wanted his skull, then his skull she would have.
She stopped. “Who is there?”
Mulan turned, scanning the ground. She could feel something moving beneath her. A sensation like ice began to form in her gut. She drew her sword.
“Come out,” she said. As the echo of her words faded, she heard the crunch of splitting earth and the crack of brown bones. She took a step back as the threadbare shapes of the dead heaved themselves up into the moonlight. “No…”
They moaned as they rose from their forgotten graves. They were all around her, more of them than she had imagined this tiny burying ground could contain. Hundreds of them, of all shapes and sizes. Men and women, old and young – all dead.
Mulan turned as they closed in on her from all sides. Some of those rotten faces were familiar – terribly so. She had seen them only a day ago, in the village she had spared from attack. But that was impossible – how were they here now?
Their voices crashed against her, even as their prayers had done earlier. Only these were not prayers, but condemnations. Curses.
…where were you…
Broken fingers clawed at her, trying to drag her down. They surrounded her, swamped her. She wanted to fight them, but could not bring herself to strike them down. They were still her people, even dead. She reached out to them, trying to gather up the frayed strands of their faith, but there was nothing there. It was like trying to grab ashes.
She sank down beneath a tide of blows. She had failed them. A wave of black misery threatened to bowl her under. Then – a light. A hand, pushing through the black. Mulan took it, and was drawn to her feet. Persephone pulled her away from the dead and raised her hand as the corpses turned. “Stop,” she said, and Mulan felt a gray thrum of power echo outwards from the other goddess. The dead hesitated, but only for a moment.
“They are not listening,” Persephone snarled. “Guan-Yu!”
There was a roar like thunder as a heavy shape fell from on high, crashing into the ground like a bolt from heaven. The burying ground shook, and the dead were thrown in all directions. Guan-Yu rose and swept his guandao out in a silvery arc. Dozens of corpses were shattered and cast back, but more pressed forward from all directions.
Persephone gestured, and serpentine roots burst from the ground, ensnaring the dead, dragging them back into their graves. “I am sorry,” she murmured. Mulan looked at her, noting her sorrowful expression. She pushed the thought aside as she moved to aid Guan-Yu. He saw her coming and gestured towards the throne.
“Leave these to us, sister – get what she sent you here for!”
Even as he spoke, the ancient king rose from his chair, roots popping and tearing. He looked down at them and drew his sword. Mulan charged to meet him as he descended. Here was an opponent she could fight. She and the dead man met sword-to-sword and traded blows until his rust-riddled blade snapped. He lurched for her with fleshless claws. She dropped low and swept his legs out from under him. As he fell, she leapt onto his thrashing form and drove her sword into what remained of his neck, shattering the wormy bones.
His skull rolled free of its tattered coif and she thrust her sword into an eye socket. She lifted it and turned back to the others. Before she could speak, the foul smelling smoke enveloped them once more and she found herself standing in Baba Yaga’s hut. Guan-Yu and Persephone stood beside her, facing the old witch.
“You cheated,” Baba Yaga accused. “That is against the rules of the game.”
“You did not say that I could not ask for help,” Mulan said. She extended her sword, and the skull that hung from its tip. “Here is your prize.”
“It is a bit broken,” Baba Yaga said, querulously.
“You did not say it could not be broken.”
“It was implied!”
Persephone laughed. “Admit it, old witch – she got the better of you.”
Baba Yaga glared at her – and then grinned. “Yes. Of course she did.” She tossed the skull over her shoulder and stirred her mortar. “Fine. A deal is a deal.” She whispered something and the smoke within the mortar began to churn and rise, stretching upwards.
Mulan could make out strange images within it – a tree that stretched between sky and earth, and a dark sea, spreading beneath it; shapes wreathed in light, sinking into black depths; waves crashing against a great city, high atop a mountain; and strangest of all, a squirrel, fleeing into the high boughs of a sinking tree.
“Yggdrasil,” Persephone murmured.
“The beginning and ending,” Baba Yaga said, stirring the steaming liquid. “The spoke of the great wheel, which turns forever – or did. But now, the spoke is cracked and the wheel tips. The dark sea rises, drowning the world. Without the tree, the sea will consume all.”
“Then how do we stop it?” Mulan asked.
Baba Yaga turned. “And why would I know that?” She grinned widely. “Some things are beyond even Baba Yaga’s sight.”
“Then what was the point of this foolishness?” Guan-Yu growled.
Baba Yaga shrugged. “I was curious about the new goddess. Now I am not.” She extended a bony arm towards the door. “You may go.”
Guan-Yu made to protest, but Persephone caught his arm. “Come. She has said all that she is going to say.” She looked at Mulan. “Guan-Yu was right. We must make for Yggdrasil. The answer is there, and we will find it.”
As she prepared to follow the other two out, Mulan hesitated. She looked back to see Baba Yaga watching her. The old witch smiled and picked up the skull Mulan had brought. “They are correct the answer is with the tree. But it is not in the branches or the bark, oh no. To find the solution, one must go to the root of the problem.” She stroked the skull as if it were a pet. “You understand, yes?”
Mulan nodded. “I believe so.” She bowed. “Thank you for your help, Baba Yaga.”
Baba Yaga snorted and turned away. “Don’t thank me yet. There is worse yet to come than a few unruly corpses.” She carefully placed the skull on her shelf and cackled.
“Worse even than Baba Yaga can imagine.”
Ratatoskr scampered down into the dark beneath the world, trying to ignore the biting cold. His paws ached and his fur was damp from the chill mists that swirled through the forests of Yggdrasil’s tangled, frost-blackened roots.
It was a route he had travelled many times before, but it felt different now, as if the great tree he called home had become unfamiliar territory. Something had changed, and not just here, but everywhere. There were strange shadows here, made by nothing he could see. Tricks of the light, perhaps, or his own paranoia.
And then there were the sounds. Not just the interminable creaking of the great tree, but the other sounds – like voices raised in song, but far away and unintelligible. They made him think of the voice he’d heard in Valhalla – that terrible voice, echoing like the crack of doom. Odin was right. Something was coming out of the dark, coming for them all.
The thought put Ratatoskr ill at ease. He wanted to flee to the highest boughs and wait out whatever storm was on its way. But he pressed on, deeper and deeper. The Allfather had commanded and Ratatoskr would obey – though not without some complaint. Odin owed him that much, at least.
He paused as a sudden seismic tremor ran through the roots, nearly tossing him from this perch and into the waters below. The convulsions were becoming more regular. Whatever sickness gripped Yggdrasil was growing worse. He had to hurry.
Odin had commanded that he find the cause of Yggdrasil’s ailment and that meant talking to the one creature that knew more about the tree than anyone – even himself. Ratatoskr’s tail fluffed in agitation. “that lazy snake better be in the mood to talk…”
Yggdrasil’s roots stretched deep into the misty reaches of the Ginnungagap, where the chill of Niflheim met the heat of Muspelheim. At its bottom, below even the emptiness of Hel, a vast lake spread in all directions, as far as the eye could see. Islands of broken stone rose from the mist at irregular intervals and sparks cast down from Muspelheim bounced across the dark surface of the water.
It was here that the great serpent, Nidhogg, made his home. Ratatoskr crept warily down the twisted length of the root towards the water. Sometimes the wily old snake liked to play nasty little games with visitors. He paused for a safe distance above the water. “Nidhogg…come out, come out wherever you are, old serpent!”
Ratatoskr paused, head cocked. Listening. But he heard nothing, save the soft slap of water against stone and the hiss of falling embers. Nidhogg wasn’t the sort to hide. He should have at least made himself known by now. A thrill of unease rippled through him.
Something was wrong. A sound like the tolling of some immense bell shuddered up through the water and rose into the air. Yggdrasil trembled, and Ratatoskr saw the mists below disperse. He craned his neck, trying to get a better glimpse of the dark water. His ears twitched. There was something – Ratatoskr yelped as an iron grip yanked him up off the root.
“Got you,” a familiar voice growled.
“Heimdallr?” Ratatoskr chittered as he got a look at his captor. The watchman of Asgard looked angry. Then, he always looked angry.
“Who else would it be?” Heimdallr said. He turned. “There is no foe here.” He gave his captive a none-too-gentle shake. “Just Ratatoskr.”
Dangling from Heimdallr’s grip. Ratatoskr saw four other were making their way down through the tangled roots by varying methods. Ratatoskr recognized Hera, being helped down from a higher root by her hulking bodyguard, Argus, and Olorun, who had no need to climb, borne aloft by his power as he was. But the fourth –
“Zeus?” Ratatoskr squeaked.
“So. Someone remembers me at least.” The former King of Olympus gave a fierce smile. His muscular form was covered in faint scars, but his eyes blazed with power as he peered at Ratatoskr. “What is this creature doing here?”
“We’ll soon find out.” Heimdallr pulled the squirrel close. “Answer me. And none of your wit or I’ll feed you to Nidhogg myself.”
“O-Odin sent me!”
“Odin?” Heimdallr hesitated, and the squirrel took the opportunity to bite his hand. Heimdallr released his captive and Ratatoskr leapt away, tail fluffed out. He bounded from one root to the next until he was out of reach. Heimdallr started after him, a snarl on his lips.
“Stay your wrath, watchman,” Olorun said. He floated towards Ratatoskr. “Where is Odin? I asked him to meet us here.”
“He – he sent me instead.” Ratatoskr said, thinking quickly. “As his…representative. That’s it! I’m his representative!”
Zeus laughed. “You? Things have certainly changed.”
Ratatoskr glared at him. “Why not me? I know everything there is to know about Yggdrasil.” He cocked his head and looked at Olorun. “I can’t think of any other reason you’d be here. The great tree is sick and you’ve come to find out why.”
“Yes.” Olorun smiled at Ratatoskr’s conclusion. The squirrel was a curious thing. Not quite a god, but definitely not mortal. Perhaps Odin’s choice to send the beast as his representative was not so strange as he’d first thought. “You are very clever, Ratatoskr.”
“I am the cleverest!” Ratatoskr puffed out his chest. “Another reason Odin sent me.”
Olorun nodded. He had hoped the Allfather would join them, but it was obvious that Odin had chosen to investigate the recent upheaval in his own fashion. “I am sure. And such a clever creature as yourself would be able to tell us where the serpent known as Nidhogg lairs.”
Ratatoskr hesitated. “Ah. Well. That’s…a bit of a problem.” He looked down, beady eyes narrowed. “He should be here by now. We’ve made plenty of noise. But he hadn’t so much as poked his snout out of the water.” He looked up at Olorun. “I think – I think Nidhogg is gone.”
“Gone?” Heimdallr interjected. “That is impossible.”
“Of late, much that was once thought impossible has become commonplace,” Zeus said. “The immortal perish and kings are usurped.”
Olorun turned. Zeus met his gaze challengingly. Since his rescue and revival, the former king of Olympus had wasted no time sharing his opinion on the current state of affairs and those he deemed responsible. So loudly and vociferously, in fact, that Olorun feared for the still-fragile peace he and Hera had engineered between the majority of the pantheons. “You wish to say something to me, Zeus?” he asked, softly.
Zeus made to speak, but Hera laid a hand on his arm. “Husband – if you cannot show gratitude, at least show wisdom.” Zeus glowered at her for a moment, and then subsided.
“You know what I wish to say”, he rumbled.
“Yes,” Olorun said. “Is that why you came then? To challenge me – or to provoke me into challenging you? To reclaim your throne?”
Zeus’ expression did not change. “It is mine by right.”
“And now it is mine. The sooner you come to terms with that fact, the better for all of us.” Olorun shook his head. “You were a good king of your time, Zeus. But things have changed. The world has changed, as you yourself just pointed out.”
“And what about the traitress, then?” Zeus demanded. “Why are we standing here looking for a giant snake when we should be looking for her?”
“We are looking for her. The Baron searches for her in the underworlds. Horus and Ra search the heavens and Yemoja searched the waters.”
“And we are here, where she has already been,” Zeus said.
“Yes. We are.” Olorun paused. “Because some things are more important than vengeance.” He gestured to the roots around them. “You can all sense it as well as I – the tree is sick, and that sickness has spread throughout all the world. The air, the waters, the land, even the stars themselves have grown strange in the weeks since Persephone injured Yggdrasil and Nidhogg may know something about it.”
“All the more reason to punish her,” Zeus growled. “I would have justice, Olorun. If you cannot understand that, perhaps you should return to the cold stars and leave these matters to a true king.”
Hera looked at her husband. “A true king knows that his desires and reality are not often one and the same,” she said, with forced mildness. Zeus flushed. Olorun turned his back o the pair as they began to squabble. That Hera loved her husband was plain, but Olorun was coming to wonder if she actually liked him.
The truth was, he had considered doing even as Zeus suggested more than one these past weeks. The longer he stayed here, the more difficult things became. Through once his gaze had stretched past the limits of the heavens, now he could see only what the stars saw. His might was now incalculable, where it had been infinite. A part of him feared that whatever affliction gripped the world was affecting him as well. But he said nothing of this. He had made his choice, and he would see it through.
He turned his attentions back to Ratatoskr. “Where might the serpent have gone?”
“How should I know?” the squirrel chittered.
“He can’t simply have disappeared,” Heimdallr said. “He must have submerged himself in the depths of the lake, but…” He shook his head. “Why would he do something like that?”
“Maybe he was scared.” Rataroskr gesticulated wildly. “Something’s wrong down here, can’t you feel it?”
Olorun paused. He could feel – something. At first he’d thought it simply the aura of Ginnungagap. Or perhaps the result of Persephone’s sorceries. He looked at the others. Heimdallr appeared pensive. Hera met his gaze and gave a slight nod. They had all seen things on the descent, heard things…snatches of voices, raised in song, the hiss of breath. And the smell – the stink of saltwater and rotting seaweed hung thick on the air in places, as if it were seeping in through some unseen crack.
“And that is why we are here, rodent,” Zeus said. If he felt anything, he was hiding it well beneath a cloak of belligerence. Before he could threaten Ratatoskr however, Heimdallr held up his hand.
Zeus turned to berate the Aesir but Olorun silenced him with a gesture. “What is it, Heimdallr? You see something?”
“I hear it. it is coming this way. And fast.”
Olorun was about to speak when he heard it as well. A crackling, grinding sound. One he’d heard before, in the underworld. “Everyone get back,” he roared. “Quickly, before it – “
The immense seedpod erupted into view, surging thunderously down through the thick roots, pulling itself along by use of thorny protrusions. As the other gods leapt aside, Olorun dropped to a root and flung out his hands. He caught the seedpod as it slammed into him. Celestial light flared as his muscles swelled and bunched. The seedpod gave a great crack as Olorun stole its momentum and forced it to stop its descent.
Dust swirled about him, and he felt the root tremble beneath his feet. As he stepped back, the pod split and unfurled, revealing three newcomers. One was immediately recognizable.
“Persephone,” Olorun said.
Mulan stared at the being of light who confronted she and her companions. He shone like a sun, and when he spoke, his voice was as deep as thunder. She could feel his power beating at her senses like summer heat.
For a moment, the sensation almost drowned out the singing that had been itching at the edges of her perceptions since they had left Baba Yaga’s hut. All too soon, the slow susurrus of incomprehensible voices returned. She shook her head, trying to clear it, but it was like being swarmed by flies.
“Olorun,” Persephone said, after a moment’s hesitation. She shaded her eyes against the pervasive light. “Forgive me. That should be King Olorun, should it not?”
“Titles mean little to me. And to you, I suspect.” Olorun’s radiance dimmed. As the light faded, Mulan saw that he was not alone. She know these others, as she had know Persephone and Guan-Yu. Their names seemed were borne aloft on the whispers of their worshippers. She could see the prayers meant for them swirling about their forms, even as did those meant for her. All save one.
She blinked. “Is that a squirrel?” she asked, before she could stop herself.
“Ratatoskr,” the squirrel screeched. “Ratatoskr the Mighty!”
She looked at Guan-Yu. “Is it a god?”
“It’s annoying,” Heimdallr said, before the other god could reply. “And it will be silent, if it knows what’s good for it.” He raised his axe. “You should not have returned, Persephone. But I am glad you did. It gives me a chance to finish what I began…”
“You are not the only one. And I have claim on her.” Zeus stepped towards her, lightning crackling about his form, “I have long yearned for this moment, daughter of Demeter…” he began, but Olorun interrupted him.
“Why are you here, Persephone?”
She laughed. “You mean why am I not hiding in some cave, waiting for you to bring me to heel like a dog?”
“If you like.” Mulan could hear the tension in the other god’s voice. His companions were only moments away from violence. She had witnessed scenes like this too many times as a soldier not to recognize it – the knife edge between peace and war. One wrong word, and the balance would tip. From the look on his face, Mulan knew Guan-Yu recognized the stakes as well as she did. He cleared his throat.
“She is here for the same reason we are,” he said, his guandao resting against his shoulder. “And the same reason you are, I think.” He bowed respectfully to Olorun. “I thought my fellow gods too foolish to see the pattern of the world’s misery. I am glad to be proven wrong.”
Olorun returned the bow. “If what you say is true, we might yet solve this puzzle,” he said, with great care. His gaze strayed to Mulan, and she felt a jolt. “And who is this? I do not know her, though she seems familiar…”
Zeus laughed harshly. “It does not matter.” He gestured, and a crackling bolt of lightning formed in his hand. An instant later, he hurled it towards Persephone. “If she sides with Persephone, she is the enemy!”
Mulan acted on instinct. As soon as she saw Zeus hurl the bolt, her spear darted out to intercept it mere inches from its target. But the moment of impact never came. Instead, the lightning bolt hung suspended in the air. “What…?” she began, as she looked at her companions. Neither had so much as moved a muscle. Olorun’s followers were equally still. Only she and Olorun seemed unaffected.
“Do not fear,” he said. He examined the lightning bolt where it hung suspended in the blue-tingled air and snuffed it within his hand. He turned towards her. “I wanted to speaking without fear of interruption, at least for a moment or two.
“You are doing this,” Mulan said, in a sudden understanding. “How?”
“With great difficulty,” he said, with a strained smile. “You are…Mulan? Is that your name?” He gestured. “I can read it in the prayers that flutter about you like birds. I am Olorun. Do you know me?”
“I – I do.”
“Why have you come here, and in such company?”
Mulan glanced at Guan-Yu. “We seek the source of the land’s sickness. Persephone has sworn to help us. She…feels responsible.”
Olorun frowned, not in anger she thought, but in consideration. “Perhaps there is hope for her. Most gods are quick to deny any fault in their actions.” He paused. “Yggdrasil is sick. And all that is connected to it sickens as well.”
Mulan nodded. “I have seen it for myself. I have fought the monsters it has birthed. Even the stars seem unfamiliar to me. It is as if all that I once knew is changing into something…unfamiliar, and unpleasant.” She paused. “Can you – can you hear them?” She tapped her ear. “Like someone singing, just at the edge of hearing.” She could still hear the voices, even with time stopped.
“Yes,” Olorun said, softly.
“I think…I think that they are praying.”
He nodded. “It appears we are here for the same reason.”
“We face the same enemy,” she said. She extended her hand. Olorun took it warmly.
“We do indeed. The question is, what do we do about it?”
“Baba Yaga told us that we must seek the root of the problem.” His eyebrows rose at the witch’s name, but he did not speak. Mulan continued. “I have never been good at riddles. I assumed she meant the roots of the tree.”
Olorun nodded. “A good assumption, given where we are. Then, Baba Yaga is not known for clarity.” He looked towards the waters below, expression pensive.
“What about them?” Mulan asked, indicating the others.
Olorun snapped his fingers, and time resumed its course. The gods looked around in wary confusion. Olorun faced them. “You heard?” Mulan suddenly realized that they had been aware of everything taking place in the frozen moment.
“We did,” Hera said, silencing Zeus with a look before he could speak. She pointed to Persephone. “But can she truly be trusted?”
“I could ask the same question of you,” Persephone said.
Before the argument could begin anew, Yggdrasil shuddered. A sound, bone-deep and all encompassing, rose up from somewhere. There was an eerie rhythm to it. Not like music, but something else. Akin to the boom of sour thunder. But something about it made Mulan think of great fists, crashing against the gates of the world.
“Is that -?” she began.
“Not Nidhogg,” Ratatoskr squeaked. Heimdallr nodded, his expression grim.
“No. The rodent is right. This is something else.” He paused. “Something worse.”
The sound echoed, and as it did so, the distant murmuring increase in volume and ferocity. As if the unknown singers were reaching a crescendo.
Mulan’s hand fell instinctively to the hilt of her sword. She glanced at Guan-Yu, and he nodded solemnly. He heard it as well. They had both been soldiers, and they both knew that no gate was inviolate – not against a determined enemy.
It was not a matter of if, but when.
The sound swelled. The blows fell, relentless and unyielding.
And somewhere, a gate long shut at last gave way.
The sky above Delphi was the color of raw jade when the Pythia mounted her tripod seat. The great colonnade of the temple creaked like ships masts in a storm, and the hillside quaked and quivered. The priestess’ face was pale, and her eyes hollow with fear as she looked out over the gathered petitioners. Their fear matched her own, and a murmur ran through them at the sight of her face.
Outside the temple, the winds whipped and horses whinnied in growing unease. The priests spoke quietly among themselves, casting anxious glances at her – and at the vent from which issued the sacred pneuma. She took a breath, and then another, trying to calm her racing heart. She was the Oracle at Delphi, and this place was hers, by the will of the gods. She closed her eyes, and drew in a lungful of blessed smoke.
Almost immediately, she began to cough. The smoke seemed to thrash within her, and her body spasmed in sympathetic agony. She tried to scream, but it came out as a hoarse gasp. In her mind’s eye, an awful immensity swelled. Unnameable and unknowable, it filled her mind, driving out all thought and leaving only a heedless terror.
As she thrashed and groaned on her seat, a great weight pressed down on her lungs, her heart…her soul. The future, once so clear, was now like shards of shattered glass. As she watched, unable to look away, the shards turned the color of night and winked out, one by one. Until there was no future at all.
At last, the Oracle screamed.
Outside, the wind howled in exultation.
As the echoes of the great reverberation faded, Mulan felt a tremor run through her. The prayers that flowed along the underside of her mind were growing louder – but fewer. As if her followers were growing desperate and falling silent, one by one. She shook her head. She was new to godhood, but that did not seem like a thing that should happen.
But mixed among the familiar voices of her…worshippers, were other voices. They cried out in unison, chanting a name. At least she thought it a name. It sounded like gibberish to her. The vowels were squirmy and oily in her mind, flicking away even as she tried to make sense of them. These voices were growing louder, drowning out those of her followers. She looked up to find Olorun studying her.
“You hear it as well,” he said, softly.
“We all hear it,” Zeus growled. “It is growing louder. But what is it?” He shook his shaggy head. “It is familiar…but foreign. Like something from a dream.” He looked at Hera. “Like something from the days of Cronos…”
Hera turned away. “Not him.”
“Then what?” Zeus turned his glare on Persephone. “While I was trapped, I dreamed. We all did. I saw things…I saw…” He trailed off. Lightning crackled about him, and Mulan wondered if he felt as uneasy she did. He shook his head in frustration. Hera laid a hand on his back, as if to comfort him. He tensed, but only for a moment.
“Madness,” Guan-Yu said. Zeus turned, a quizzical expression on his face. “For months now, I have dreamed of a world gone mad,” Guan-Yu continued. “Skies the color of jade and burning seas.” He turned and gestured about him. “And I see this place. Or someplace very much like it.” He paused, and took a deep breath. “This place stinks of the deeps of the sea. But we are far from any ocean…”
Ratatoskr gave a chittering laugh. “You don’t know anything, do you? These waters feed into every ocean in the Nine Realms…this is the headwater of all the seas.”
Heimdallr nodded. “Disrespectful though he may be, the rodent is right. These waters run deep and spill out across the realms…though I do not know how. It is a mystery even to the Allfather.”
“It is not just the tree that is sick,” Zeus said, as he crouched at the edge of the root they stood on. “The seas are dying as well. Or so Poseidon insists.”
Mulan followed his gaze, and saw that the murky waters below had grown darker still. Where they lapped against the rocky islands, they left an oily residue. Farther out, she could see the pale forms of dead fish – or what she thought must be fish. But she could not bring herself to look too closely. “Perhaps that is why Nidhogg has fled.”
“It would take more than brackish water to put the old serpent to flight,” Ratatoskr said doubtfully. He clutched his tail and began to groom it nervously.
“It is all connected,” Persephone said, suddenly. “When the tree flourishes, so too does life. When it falters…” She fell silent.
“Was this your plan, then?” Hera asked. “Poison the world, and rule the ashes?”
“No,” Persephone said. “I wanted to control the tree – to harness its magics. But I made a mistake. I…overestimated myself. My power.”
“Then fix it,” Hera said. “Whatever you did, undo it.”
“I tried.” Persephone shook her head. “It’s as if what I did was just a – a catalyst. I created a weakness and now it’s being exploited.”
“Then there is someone else to blame,” Mulan said. “Someone – or something.”
The old man cast the runes across the tanned hide of a deer. They landed in odd patterns, and Egil could make no sense of them. “Well?” he growled. “What do they say? What does the future hold for us?” Outside the old man’s cave, the wind rose and Egil could hear waves crashing against the rocky shore.
The old man was silent as he stared at the runes. Without replying, he scooped them up and tossed them again, but with more force. Impatient now, and not a little uneasy, Egil’s hand tightened on the hilt of his sword. He glanced towards the mouth of the cave, where his men waited to hear what he’d learned.
The sky beyond their worried faces was an ugly color, like an emerald stained with mud. It had grown darker, as if a storm was brewing somewhere. Lightning flashed among the ragged clouds. He felt a chill and turned back to the old man. “Answer me, old man. The sea grows impatient and so do I.”
The old man cast the runes again. And again. His hands shook with each toss, as if what he read had terrified him. “No,” he said, almost hissing the word. “No.”
“No what?” Egil demanded. “What do you see?”
“Nothing,” the old man said, still bent over the stones.
Snarling in impatience, Egil reached for him. “What do they say, old man? What awaits us? Answer me!”
The old man looked up – and Egil stumbled back, an oath on his lips. The old man’s eyes had gone the color of salt, and he wept blood. One the floor of the cave, the stones rattled without being touched.
“Madness,” the old man said. The word sounded like a plea.
“There are nothing more to be gained here,” Olorun said. He looked out over the waters, his expression grim. “If Nidhogg is gone, we must seek answers elsewhere. Perhaps the Allfather…” he began, turning to Heimdallr.
The watchman of Asgard shook his head. “If Odin knows, he is keeping it to himself.”
Zeus gave a bark of laughter. “Aye, he’s cunning that one. Parcels out his vaunted wisdom in dribs and drabs. He probably sent the squirrel as a spy.”
“He didn’t! He’s as much at a loss as the rest of you,” Ratatoskr chittered angrily.
“And how would you know?” Heimdallr said, rounding on the squirrel.
“He called me to Valhalla. I saw…well, I heard…I don’t know what I heard.” Ratatoskr looked around nervously. “It was a voice – but not a voice. Or at least not like any sort of voice I’ve ever heard.”
“What did it say?” Mulan asked. Something told her the answer was important, though she could not say why. But before the squirrel could answer, the sound returned, its fury redoubled. It slammed against the air like an animal against the bars of its cage.
Mulan staggered and clutched at her head as the noise rose to an inescapable crescendo. It felt as if all the devils of all the hells were pounding against the inside of her skull. Through tear-stung eyes, she saw that the others were similarly afflicted. Whatever it was, they could all hear it – and feel it, down to their very marrow.
Olorun was shouting something, but even his voice was drowned out by the cacophonous sound. And with every reverberation, Yggdrasil shook like a sapling caught in a high wind. The roots convulsed, threatening to throw the assembled gods from their perches. Even Ratatoskr could not maintain a steady grip on the tree. Overhead, the great trunk groaned and squealed as it twisted in place – as if the tree were trying to uproot itself and escape whatever it was that approached.
She fought to maintain her balance, but even so, nearly slipped. Guan-Yu caught her forearm in a grip like iron. “Hold on, sister,” he shouted as he pulled her close. But even as he spoke, she could hear the crackle of splintering wood. She saw Persephone, her arms thrust out as if pleading with the great tree to hold itself together. But if Yggdrasil heard her, it gave no sign. Perhaps it could not.
Strips of bark sloughed from the trunk above, falling like a slow avalanche, forcing the gods to dodge this way and that. Zeus snatched Hera aside, saving her from being knocked into the waters. Argus sheltered the pair from the rain of bark. Heimdallr had anchored himself with his axe and Guan-Yu had done the same with his spear, but the roots were withering, curling in on themselves, almost ready to fall away beneath their feet.
Below, the waters of the lake were suddenly surging back and forth as if stirred by some great wind. Around and around they went, and the stony islands that dotted the lake’s surface began to sink as if something were dragging them under. An ugly jade light shimmered beneath the churning surface, growing brighter with every passing moment – until it became almost blinding.
And beneath it…a shadow.
A shadow, rising.
The waters surged and twisted, as if the sea itself were in pain. Everywhere, schools of fish darted for the surface, leaping into the air with panicked determination. Great sharks rose from the depths, arrowing away from the canyons and trenches that were their usual haunts. Whales beached themselves in a desperate frenzy of self-destruction.
Poseidon watched it all in growing horror. He had scoured the depths for days, seeking some answer to the madness that now gripped his domains. But wherever the god of the sea went, he found nothing save death and insanity. It was as if the oceans themselves had been driven mad. Great reefs of sickly coral pierced the ocean floor, rising like newborn mountains. Wherever it spread fell, lunacy followed. On the surface, the inhabitants of coastal towns and fishing villages walked unheeding into the sea, following the siren call of some malign presence.
Poseidon could feel it himself. Had been feeling it for days. It ate away at his composure like a slow acid, filling him with rage – and not a little fear. He had not felt the latter since the day his own father had devoured him; indeed, he had thought it burnt out of him. But the farther he travelled, the more he felt it.
Far below him, the ocean floor trembled. Geysers of murk spewed upwards as the bedrock shifted. He paused, spotting something amid the drifting shadows.
A city was rising from the deep.
Mulan raised her hand, trying to protect her eyes from the burning radiance. In her head, the chanting grew louder. She could hear it properly now, as if the chanters were close by. The words stabbed into her, as painfully as any blade.
Iä! Iä! Cthulhu fhtagn!
It was a prayer of some sort. She felt it in her marrow. But a prayer to what – to who?
Iä! Iä! Cthulhu fhtagn!
The words had an ugly weight to them. As if they were somehow more solid than the world around them. They fell like lightning, and she felt sick – hurt. Nor was she alone in that. Olorun staggered as the tumult increased, clutching at his head. “The stars…” he groaned, and strange echoes jolted through the air. “The stars are screaming.” He sank to one knee, and his eyes burned with a familiar jade light.
Hera was at his side an instant later. “Zeus – help me,” she shouted.
“Leave him,” Zeus roared. “Our enemy reveals himself.” He flexed his arms, and moments later, they were sheathed in lightning. “Look – something comes.”
Mulan turned. At first, she thought a mountain had risen from the misty waters while they’d been distracted. But when its wings unfurled, she realized that it was no mountain at all. It was something far worse.
IÄ! IÄ! CTHULHU FHTAGN.
This time, it was not a chant. It was a statement of intent. A challenge. She felt her thoughts twist and fray as she gazed at the horror. It was impossibly vast. It was humanoid, but only in the vaguest possible sense. Two great wings stretched out from its back, darkening the sky. Its head was the worst – a blubbery, squid-like mass, with eyes that shone like dead moons.
It paused for a moment, like a sleeper newly awakened from a dream. Then, it spread its long arms and took a single, crashing step towards Yggdrasil. The tree shivered, as if in fear. Another step, and water surged, swallowing islands.
Mulan tore her eyes from the beast and saw that the others were as transfixed as she. Heimdallr and Guan-Yu had taken up positions to either side of Zeus, but their weapons hung slack in their hands. Hera joined her husband, leaving Argus to loom protectively over Olorun. Ratatoskr clung to Argus’ shoulders, chittering in fear. Persephone stood a little apart from the others, staring in horror at the approaching monster.
With every step it took, the waters of the lake roiled and thrashed. In its wake, the stony islands crumbled – no. Changed. As if they were reshaping themselves. But into what, she could not say. Again, it spoke. Again, the air pulsed and her head throbbed with the awful weight of its voice.
PH'NGLUI MGLW'NAFH CTHULHU R'LYEH WGAH-NAGL FHTAGN.
Zeus roared in challenge, even as the echo of its words faded. Of them all, only the former king of Olympus seemed unawed by the approaching monster. Lightning arced about him as he hurled himself towards it, leaping from Yggdrasil like a comet. It made no move to defend itself, gave no sign that it even noticed the approaching god. It kept moving, inexorable, unstoppable.
IÄ! IÄ! CTHULHU FHTAGN.
Zeus struck. A maelstrom erupted, and Mulan fell back as jagged lightning lashed Yggdrasil, struck the waters and seared the mists. Bolt after bolt slammed home into the towering abomination, but it did not stop. Did not cease speaking. Not in words now, but in images – pictures burned into the surface of her mind.
She saw ancient jungles and cold stars. Saw great islands rise from the first ocean, and break apart into the primeval lands from which all others came. Saw men and women, making obeisance to awful idols in swamps and polar wastes. And through it all, the creature had been there. Sleeping in the depths. It had ruled before man, and would rule after him.
It was so close now, she could feel the chill clinging to its rubbery hide. She could smell the reek of the ocean depths. It studied them the way a man might study an insect, but there was nothing remotely human – or divine – in that pitiless gaze. Just a cold, malign curiosity. Its eyes seemed to swallow her up.
She saw stars, and a black void spinning into entropy. She heard the death-screams of worlds without number, and the thunder of titanic wings. And above it all, those burning eyes – examining her, breaking her down, taking stock and finally, dismissing her entirely.
It was not a god. She knew that as surely as she knew that it had existed long before the gods. Pantheons had risen and fallen while it slept. And that it would exist long after the last of them had withered to nothing.
It was gone.
Persephone moaned suddenly, causing Mulan to jerk towards her. The goddess was on her knees, sobbing. “The tree,” Heimdallr said, before Mulan could speak. She looked up.
Yggdrasil had changed. The roots beneath their feet had become black and withered. The power she’d felt radiating from it before was growing fainter by the moment. Persephone’s sobs had quieted. “My fault,” she moaned. “My doing…” All the arrogance, all the strength, seemed to have drained from her. “I did this,” she said, in a voice like dust.
No one replied. What was there to say? At a loss, Mulan dropped down beside her and wrapped an arm about the sobbing goddess’ shoulders.
“Where is it?” Zeus roared, crashing down onto the root a moment later. Lightning still swirled about him as he glared wildly. “Where did it go?”
“It was never here,” Olorun said, his voice hoarse. Hera helped him to his feet. “It was just a shadow – a sending. An echo.”
“An echo of what? What was that thing?” Hera asked. “It was no titan or monster.”
“No. It was worse,” Mulan croaked. She strained, but could no longer hear the voices of her followers. A sudden fear gripped her and she knew the others felt it as well. The world above had gone silent, all at once.
“And now it is free.”
Baba Yaga felt her chicken-legged house shudder in a sudden paroxysm of fear. The skulls on her shelves rolled and clattered, as if trying to flee. She closed her eyes and sighed. “Too late. He’s awake. And only themselves to blame.”
She went to the door and looked out. The sky was the color of gangrene and the rain tasted of salt water. The clouds above roiled, contorting themselves into vague, ugly shapes. A tremor ran through the forest, and birds rose into the sky in a shrieking mass. As the old witch watched, the trees caught fire – burning with a pallid light. She flinched back, shielding her eyes. This was a magic older even than hers. A deep wisdom, and foul.
Abruptly, she turned away and slammed the door behind her. But there was yet a chance, though a slim one. She stamped on the floor. “Come, we must go. North. Into the far wastes. We must find a place to hide and wait out the storm.”
Her house lurched into motion, its talons gouging the earth as it hurtled north. As it ran, she began to hurl ingredients into her mortar. She had many spells to weave before the end. She bared her teeth at the window, and the oily streaks of rain that ran down it. She would not go quietly, whatever happened.
The world had slumbered for millennia, and dreamed itself a more pleasant reality. But now it was waking up, and the dream was fading. Its oldest and truest master had awakened at last. The seas would boil and the ground would crack. Mankind would turn from the gods of their fathers, and learn new ways to revel and kill.
The sky had grown dark now, and she could feel his stirring in her bones. The gods would be as nothing before him, struggle though they might. He was older than the oldest of the gods – and his power was beyond their understanding.
Cthulhu had risen.
And madness followed in his wake.