Hera's Odyssey (also known as Odyssey 2019) was part of SMITE's annual Odyssey event series. This edition was made to celebrate the introduction of Hera and the upcoming Arthurian pantheon. This event began on September 17, 2018 and ended on February 11, 2019.
Additional information can be found here: Hera's Odyssey promo site.
- 1 Description
- 2 Hera's Odyssey Cosmetic Items
- 3 Quests
- 4 Lore
- 5 Videos
Welcome to Hera's Odyssey!
New Skins and items will be released with each update from 5.17-5.23.
Unlock Exclusive content, Chest rolls, and more by collecting Odyssey Points and progressing through the Odyssey levels! Odyssey Points are obtained by completing Quests or purchasing new Odyssey content. 5 new Quests will release with each update and will automatically be equipped from your Quest bar, but you can only complete one each day!
With every 5 Odyssey Points earned, you will progress to the next Odyssey level and receive an Odyssey Chest roll! Leveling up also unlocks Exclusive collection rewards every 3-4 levels, ending with level 30's reward -- the Limited Tier 5 Godslayer Ares Skin!
The Odyssey journey will end once Season 6 goes live. Quests will expire on the last day of the Odyssey.
Hera's Odyssey Cosmetic Items
These are the items that are available during the event, sorted by the patch they were released in. Items are sold at a 33% Gems price discount during the patch that they were added (for example, a 600 item will cost 400 , a 300 item will cost 200 ).
Purchasing every item during their respective sales would cost 10000 , while buying them at full price would cost 15000 . If the aim is to unlock all collection rewards, the player can complete all odyssey quests and lower the total cost to up to 7200 with sales, 10800 with full price.
|God Skin||September 17, 2018||A 600 skin for Thanatos. It has custom animations and ability effects, and custom voicelines. Grants 5 Odyssey Points.|
|God Skin||September 17, 2018||A 600 skin for Anubis. It has custom animations and ability effects, and custom voicelines. Grants 5 Odyssey Points.|
|God Skin||September 17, 2018||A 600 skin for Discordia. It has custom animations and ability effects, and custom voicelines. Grants 5 Odyssey Points.|
|Loading Screen||September 17, 2018||A 300 loading screen background. Grants 5 Odyssey Points.|
|God Skin||October 1, 2018||A 600 skin for Chernobog. It has custom animations and ability effects, and custom voicelines. Grants 5 Odyssey Points.|
|God Skin||October 1, 2018||A 600 skin for Nu Wa. It has custom animations and ability effects, and custom voicelines. Grants 5 Odyssey Points.|
|God Skin||October 1, 2018||A 600 skin for Nemesis. It has custom animations and ability effects, and custom voicelines. Grants 5 Odyssey Points.|
|Lo-Fi Hip Hop Beats|
|Music Theme||October 1, 2018||A 300 music theme. Grants 5 Odyssey Points.|
|God Skin||October 15, 2018||A 600 skin for Odin. It has custom animations and ability effects, and custom voicelines. Grants 5 Odyssey Points.|
|God Skin||October 15, 2018||A 600 skin for Mercury. It has custom animations and ability effects, and custom voicelines. Grants 5 Odyssey Points.|
|God Skin||October 15, 2018||A 600 skin for Ullr. It has custom animations and ability effects, and custom voicelines. Grants 5 Odyssey Points.|
|Avatar||October 15, 2018||A 300 avatar. Grants 5 Odyssey Points.|
|God Skin||October 29, 2018||A 600 skin for Artio. It has custom animations and ability effects, and custom voicelines. Grants 5 Odyssey Points.|
|God Skin||October 29, 2018||A 600 skin for Neith. It has custom animations and ability effects, and custom voicelines. Grants 5 Odyssey Points.|
|Global Emote||October 29, 2018||A 300 global emote. Grants 5 Odyssey Points.|
|Recall Skin||October 29, 2018||A 300 recall skin. Grants 5 Odyssey Points.|
|God Skin||November 12, 2018||A 600 skin for Pele. It has custom animations and ability effects, and custom voicelines. Grants 5 Odyssey Points.|
|God Skin||November 12, 2018||A 600 skin for Chaac. It has custom animations and ability effects, and custom voicelines. Grants 5 Odyssey Points.|
|Fountain Skin||November 12, 2018||A 300 fountain skin. Grants 5 Odyssey Points.|
|God Skin||December 3, 2018||A 600 skin for Hachiman. It has custom animations and ability effects, and custom voicelines. Grants 5 Odyssey Points.|
|God Skin||December 3, 2018||A 600 skin for Fenrir. It has custom animations and ability effects, and custom voicelines. Grants 5 Odyssey Points.|
|God Skin||December 3, 2018||A 600 skin for Ravana. It has custom animations and ability effects, and custom voicelines. Grants 5 Odyssey Points.|
|Jump Stamp||December 3, 2018||A 300 jump stamp. Grants 5 Odyssey Points.|
|God Skin||December 19, 2018||A 600 skin for Hel. It has custom animations and ability effects, and custom voicelines. Grants 5 Odyssey Points.|
|God Skin||December 19, 2018||A 600 skin for Zhong Kui. It has custom animations and ability effects, and custom voicelines. Grants 5 Odyssey Points.|
|God Skin||December 19, 2018||A 600 skin for Izanami. It has custom animations and ability effects, and custom voicelines. Grants 5 Odyssey Points.|
|God Skin||December 19, 2018||A 600 skin for Serqet. It has custom animations and ability effects, and custom voicelines. Grants 5 Odyssey Points.|
|Death Mark||December 19, 2018||A 300 death mark. Grants 5 Odyssey Points.|
|Level-Up Skin||December 19, 2018||A 300 level-up skin. Grants 5 Odyssey Points.|
|Ward Skin||December 19, 2018||A 300 ward skin. Grants 5 Odyssey Points.|
Every 5 Odyssey Points earned, players will level up and be awarded a free Hera's Odyssey Chest roll! This Odyssey Chest could include a voice pack, skin, ward, avatar, booster, recall skin, announcer pack, global emote, or a rare exclusive skin.
It might be possible to earn rewards before they have been released by purchasing all current unlockable items while also completing all odyssey quests. These items will be automatically granted upon logging in after they're made available.
|Treasure Chest||September 17, 2018||A Cutesy Avatar Chest roll. Requires 5 Odyssey Points.|
|Loading Frame||September 17, 2018||A loading frame. Requires 20 Odyssey Points.|
|God Skin||October 1, 2018||A skin for Achilles. It has custom ability effects. Requires 35 Odyssey Points.|
|Announcer Pack||October 15, 2018||A Hera Announcer pack. Requires 55 Odyssey Points.|
|God Skin||October 29, 2018||A skin for Kukulkan. It has custom animations and ability effects, and custom voicelines. Requires 70 Odyssey Points.|
|Pedestal||November 12, 2018||A pedestal. Requires 90 Odyssey Points.|
|God Skin||December 3, 2018||A skin for Nox. It has custom animations and ability effects, and custom voicelines. Requires 105 Odyssey Points.|
|God Skin||December 19, 2018||A skin for Hera. It has custom animations and ability effects, and custom voicelines. Requires 120 Odyssey Points.|
|HUD Theme||December 19, 2018||A HUD theme. Requires 135 Odyssey Points.|
|Odyssey Bonus Chest|
|Treasure Chest||September 17, 2018||A Hera's Odyssey Chest roll, one granted for each level, every 5 Odyssey Points earned.|
With each new patch, Hera's journey through a world rent asunder by Raganarok continues, unlocking five new Odyssey Quests along the way. Completing these quests will earn you Odyssey Points, allowing you to gain Odyssey Levels -- plus Skins and Chests -- for free. Earn up to 7 Odyssey levels by completing Odyssey Quests over the course of the event.
35 quests will become available during the Odyssey, one being automatically granted each day, 5 per update. Players can only have one quest active at a time (it is possible to complete two quests in one day, if there was a leftover quest from a previous day). Plan carefully, if you delay too much you won't be able to finish them all!
|Hera's Quest 1|
|Hera's Quest 2|
|Hera's Quest 3|
|Hera's Quest 4|
|Hera's Quest 5|
|Hera's Quest 6|
|Hera's Quest 7|
|Hera's Quest 8|
|Hera's Quest 9|
|Hera's Quest 10|
|Hera's Quest 11|
|Hera's Quest 12|
|Hera's Quest 13|
|Hera's Quest 14|
|Hera's Quest 15|
|Hera's Quest 16|
|Hera's Quest 17|
|Hera's Quest 18|
|Hera's Quest 19|
|Hera's Quest 20|
|Hera's Quest 21|
|Hera's Quest 22|
|Hera's Quest 23|
|Hera's Quest 24|
|Hera's Quest 25|
|Hera's Quest 26|
|Hera's Quest 27|
|Hera's Quest 28|
|Hera's Quest 29|
|Hera's Quest 30|
|Hera's Quest 31|
|Hera's Quest 32|
|Hera's Quest 33|
|Hera's Quest 34|
|Hera's Quest 35|
It is the dawn of a new age.
At the very height of its power, Ragnarok stood poised to scour the world of all life. The underworld bled into the realm of the living, the land was wracked by upheaval, and both divine and mortal beings knew untold suffering in its wake. Pushing all creation to the very brink of ruin, it was only by the intervention of the war goddess Bellona and her allies that the cataclysm was at last overcome, and its destructive power bound within the core of the world by the fire goddess Pele. With the plans of Hel and Hades finally thwarted, the ashes of Ragnarok have now only just begun to cool. The balance between life and death is reasserting itself, and it is a time of rebuilding and as both the gods and those who worship them seek a return to normalcy.
But not all that has been done can be undone, and not every wound will heal. Vacuums exist, both among the divine pantheons of the gods and within the very earth itself, voids that must be filled. Old rivalries will reignite in the coming struggle for dominance, sparked by new betrayals. Many believe that the horrors of Ragnarok can never be eclipsed, but none can be certain that the ravages it inflicted have not set the stage for an even darker, and more catastrophic future to come.
It is through power that this new age will be ruled, just as it was in the old. New heroes will rise, and ancient threats will be awakened. As the pantheons gather and rekindle their strength in the face of this uncertain world, a grand odyssey begins, as the question remains of who—or what—will step in and assume control over all creation.
Chapter 1 - Into the Light
Mount Olympus was quiet, while all the world around it burned.
Darkness reigned within the grand palace that stood at the mountain's peak. No lamps were lit to offer their flickering light to halls of breathtaking frescos, intricate mosaics and the countless priceless treasures that rested upon gilded plinths, collected from eons of divine conquest.
To any other who walked these halls, such sights would have been beyond comprehension, any single one of them so magnificent that it could change the course of an entire life in a moment. Yet she walked past them without a glance, the only sound the soft rustling of her robes and the clanking footfalls of her guardians ringing from the walls.
She walked into the throneroom, once a vibrant place thronging with the gods of the pantheon, their champions and their attendants. Music had filled the air, weaving between the impassioned debate of philosophers and the earnest laughter of friends. Raw power rippled within these walls, a place where destiny was written and the crux of the world turned.
But there was none of that here now, replaced by the silence and shadow of a tomb. As empty as the throne of exquisite marble she stopped beside, dominating the chamber from its place on the central dais.
“You old fool,” she whispered, running a hand down the side of the empty throne. Her smile was soft, one that remembered moments of love and glory. Moments that felt so distant, in the current darkness.
Her protectors shifted behind her in their bronze armor, the visors of their helms lowered away from the throne. Unable to look upon the result of their failure.
“My goddess,” the first of her bodyguard finally broke the silence. “I beg of you, do not do this.”
She did not look back at him, her eyes still tracing the intricate traceries of lightning adorning the throne. “Do you truly believe you will change my mind on this, Helican?”
“It is our duty to do so,” answered Helican, the haft of his great war spear creaking in his grasp. “What you seek to undertake, the risk to you, it is too great.”
“At the very least we must accompany you,” said the second warrior, “to watch over you and ensure no danger befalls you upon your journey.”
“My lady,” Helican pressed, taking a step forward and lowering his voice, “please. It is our oath to protect you.”
At those words, the goddess turned away from the throne.
As you protected him?
She closed her eyes for a moment, drawing in a slow breath and forcing those words to remain behind her lips. They knew well enough what their failure had cost. All of creation knew. She could not fault their feelings now, desperate to preserve whatever they can, with the blood of Zeus upon their hands.
She stared up into the gilded visors of her praetorians, looking to each of them in turn. “Helican, Pryzarias, you have served us with all your strength, and with all your hearts. But the road that lies before me is one I must walk myself. It is my will that I release you from your oaths, and will bind you to a new one.”
Without hesitation, Pryzarias sank to one knee. Helican hesitated for a heartbeat, looking down into her eyes, before he too knelt in a soft clatter of armour plate.
“You shall remain here,” she said, her voice taking a harder, formal edge as she proclaimed her will. “It is your duty to preserve this place,” she spread her arms to the palace around them, “and all the glories it holds. You will keep it as it is now, and make it ready. By this do you swear?”
The short blades at each of the kneeling warriors' belts sang from their sheaths, spinning in the air before being raised before her with their points aimed at their throats. Her guardians offered their submission, until death, and granted her the choice to kill them now should they not be worthy of her oath. She waited for the span of three heartbeats, before gesturing for them to lower their weapons.
“By this,” she repeated. “Do you swear?”
“We swear,” answered Helican and Pryzarius in unison.
“Good,” she favoured them with a thin but honest smile and lifted a hand, prompting her guardians to rise.
She crossed the length of the throneroom, her sandaled feet slapping softly against the marble floor. Finally she came to a halt, standing before the great doors leading out to the peak of Olympus and the world beyond. Her eyes fell over the vast portal, sculpted to depict Zeus cutting open the belly of the Titan Cronus, with the idealized likenesses of their pantheon streaming forth to join him in their rule over all creation.
Her gaze held over one of the likenesses. Her attendants had come to her, in the wake of the tragedy, pleading to deface his image and purge it from wherever it might be found within the palace, but she had denied them. The god they hated, who had taken everything from them, would keep his prominence here, so long as she drew breath. There are crimes that must never be forgotten, and some wounds should never be allowed to heal.
Stepping forward, she pressed her hands against the doorway, the stone feeling cool to her touch. She could feel the world on the other side, burning and screaming in its upheaval. The richness of gods' blood in the air, and the lamentations of mortals, crying out for deliverance.
A deliverance she would provide.
“My lady,” Helican called out to her, taking a step down from the dais. “My Goddess, what are we to make the palace ready for?”
Hera, Mother of the Gods, threw the doors open, and light cascaded into the throne room to banish all shadow.
“For my return,” she said simply, her eyes locked onto the future unfolding out ahead of her. “To rule.”
Chapter 2 - Change & Choices
The sun had just begun its descent when Hera reached the foot of Olympus. The journey down from the Mount had taken longer than she had anticipated, and the years spent in meditation and her own private training within the walls of the palace had proven to do little to keep the leaden sting of fatigue from her limbs. The day's heat had just begun to wane, and she drew back the cowl of her robe, sweeping a hand across her brow.
Hera spent a moment at the very edge of the mountain. She turned, staring back at the palace atop its peak, the place she had called home for so long she could hardly remember any other. She thought of the words of her attendants, of her bodyguards, their fear and apprehension at her decision to leave. The world outside the palace was one of danger, of chaos and treachery, and no one could guarantee what Hera would find waiting for her if she stepped beyond Olympus.
No one, but Hera herself. She knew what lay beyond the palace, as surely as she knew anything. Her kingdom was waiting for her, crying out in pain and pleading for guidance. For salvation. And she would deliver it.
With a single step, Hera separated herself from Mount Olympus. A soft smile brightened her features as she took her first breath in a wider world, one of possibility and rekindled hope. She would save creation, and nothing would stand in her way. Where would she go first?
Where would she go first?
Hera looked ahead to a valley in the near distance, seeing a stripe of low grey shapes punctuating the horizon. Starting off, she began to make her way across the low hills that bridged Olympus to the valley, and the city that lay in its shade.
Caution edged into Hera's mood the closer she came to the settlement, her eyes searching the horizon and the skies above. She sensed dread in the air, not from the presence of something, but rather an absence of it. For all the barbs cast at her by her detractors, there was indeed truth to the fact that the Queen of the Gods had rarely ventured outside the palatial splendour of Olympus to walk amongst the mortals, as most of the divine often did. Even so, Hera understood the world below innately, more than enough to know that nature should be bursting with vibrant life and sound.
And yet, all that greeted Hera was silence, broken by the soft rhythm of her steps. No birds sang, no men tending their herds over the hills like clouds hugging the earth. The roads were empty of the caravans and traffic that should have been flowing in and out of the metropolis ahead, a place where thousands of souls gathered together in the great dance of life, trade and industry.
Hera encountered none of that. All that she found, as she passed beneath the arches of the city's gates, was a tomb.
Hours stretched as Hera walked amongst the ruins. Everywhere she looked, the Queen of the Gods saw the hallmarks of daily life interrupted, frozen as if captured in amber. Clothes hung on the line, shedding dust as they snapped and undulated in the wind. Carts and stalls littered the markets in varying degrees of destruction, their precious wares scattered across the ground.
Hera stopped before the broken facades of the city's great temples and monuments of worship, gutted and torn down like all the rest. Statues raised in the likenesses of her fellow gods lay slumped and shattered, still ringed by smashed offerings.
Joining them were shapes, as far as Hera could see. She saw them huddled together under shattered awnings, in the streets, and visible within mounds of rubble. Delicate forms, emptied of their souls, gone cold and silent as the city they once called home.
Hera knelt by each and every one that she came across for a solemn moment. She whispered softly to them, as those who had begun a journey she would never undertake herself, and she wished them well.
The origin of this calamity eluded Hera. There was no sign of battle here, as she could find no weapons or tattered war banners that would lay strewn about had an invading army been the architect of this destruction. Nor was there any trace of the transcendent power of the divine, unleashed to punish those who had transgressed against the pantheons. It felt, somehow, strangely in between the two. It was as though the earth itself had rejected this city, shaking it to dust of its own volition, yet at a scale beyond any that Hera believed capable of by nature.
“What happened here?” she asked, delicately brushing the dust from the face of a mother, still as she had been in her final moment in the act of shielding her child. “Who did this to you?”
“Well I'll be the widow of Zeus come down from on high,” said a voice from above Hera. “Now I've seen everything.”
Hera spun, rising into a crouch and glancing up to scan the broken rooftops that loomed around her. She spotted the speaker at once, a solitary figure lounging atop a crumbling tower. The sunlight glittered from his armor of copper and blue, and Hera sneered up at his crooked grin.
“Loki,” Hera spat the name like a curse.
The Norse god pushed off the ledge of the tower, flipping down from the ruins to land before her.
“Hail, my Queen,” said the trickster with an exaggerated bow.
“You,” she snarled in accusation. “Was it you who is responsible for this?”
Loki paused, taking a few moments to peer around and study the devastation. “Maybe?” He gave a shrug. “I can never really say for certain anymore. I just have my hands in so many games these days, it's getting harder and harder to keep track.”
“Be gone from here, liar,” Hera's eyes narrowed. “Or I'll make your outsides match your soul and turn you into a goat.”
Loki sniggered at the threat. “At least tell me why you are here,” he spread his arms wide to encompass the city and beyond. “That's only fair. Just what has inspired the great Queen Hera to step down from gilded Olympus and grace us filthy peasants with her presence?” He lifted a skull from the ground, clacking its jaws together like a puppet. “Surely it's something grander than the bones of a few mortals.”
Hera straightened, snatching the skull from Loki's hands. “Enough,” she said, a regal tone edging into her voice. “I am here because the time has come for the lunacy and destruction caused by all of your feuds and petty squabbles to end. The mortals may be weak, and fearful and short-lived, but even they deserve to be more than the playthings of the pantheons. The natural world is not simply some battleground to be ripped apart as you please. I have watched it all long enough, and I will stand by and tolerate it no longer. I have come to do what any of the rest of you seem unwilling or incapable of doing, and return this world to order.”
Loki stared at Hera, his eyes shining beneath the twin curled horns of his helm. “Oh,” he stifled a laugh. “Such righteous indignation, I love it!”
Hera bared her teeth, her temper rising. “Be silent you—”
“Dear Lady,” Loki tutted. “Come now. There's no need for charades with me. Of all the gods, I especially know an opportunist when I see one.” He stepped close, his long languid stride slowly orbiting Hera. The goddess' hands tensed into fists at being so near to him.
“The world just went through quite the shock you know,” said Loki. “Ragnarok! A grand calamity for all, just barely averted. But only by the narrowest of margins, and at such a cost.”
“A calamity which you undoubtedly helped to bring about,” Hera accused.
“And it was so much fun!” Loki gave a sharp whoop of laughter. “But now, the dust settles, and both divine and mortal alike sit back and catch their breath. And you just happen to appear now, of all times. What serendipity!”
The trickster stopped behind Hera, and leaned close to her ear. “Quite an easy thing,” he whispered, “for someone to swoop in while all the rest of us lick our wounds, and take creation for themselves.”
“I am no usurper,” Hera snapped. “I am Queen of the Gods, rule is mine by right.”
Loki stepped away from Hera, strolling around the broken streets. “If that is true, then where have you been until now?”
Hera made to answer, but paused.
“It seems you were content to watch us lesser creatures as we crashed into each other all this time,” Loki pressed. “So many wars, such death and destruction and chaos, so why now? What changed?”
Loki looked up, toward the immense shape of Mount Olympus rising into the clouds. “Oh, right. I guess it took losing someone yourself to care about anything else. Funny how untenable something becomes after it finally reaches you, isn't it?”
“You dare speak lightly of his death?”
“You're missing the point,” chided Loki. “You've come here in all your grandeur to rule, a ruler usually doesn't wait to protect their kingdom until most of it is burned to ashes.”
“Be quiet,” Hera hissed.
“Rulers make difficult choices,” said Loki. “Brutal ones even. Measuring the worth of lives, cities, whole civilizations,' he snapped his fingers, 'in an instant. If this city had turned against you, could you have given the order for it to burn, could you have done it yourself? When has her Majesty ever gotten her hands dirty? I'm not sure you have the stomach for it.”
“Then stand back and watch,” Hera smiled coldly. “We will see what jokes you tell after I have brought creation back from the brink myself.”
“Oh?” asked Loki. “Is that why you have your muscle hiding behind you, out of sight? Because you're able to handle it so well on your own?”
Hera frowned. “More lies,” she glared at Loki, unwilling to rise to his incessant baiting. “I walk this path alone.”
Loki looked past her. “No, you've definitely got friends with you,” he backed away, raising his hands in mock surrender. “Such strapping lads, though those cloaks do little to hide that fancy armor of theirs.”
At this, Hera finally turned. She looked back down the main thoroughfare of the city, spotting a pair of figures where they crouched amongst the rubble at the gates. They saw that she had discovered them, and slowly stood to their full height.
“Helican,” Hera cursed under her breath. “Pryzarius.”
“Wait,” Loki sniggered, struggling to contain his glee. “You really didn't know they were following you, did you? Oh, how rich!”
Hera watched her praetorians approach as Loki's laughter prickled at her ears. With every step they took, her anger grew. Every transgression flared like a brand in her mind. First they had failed to prevent Zeus' murder, then they had questioned her, and now they had rebelled against her will. They had ignored her explicit command, following behind her in secret as though she were nothing but a child. They had undermined her authority here, casting her into doubt before the very world that she would rule.
Without a word, Hera's guardians knelt at her feet, their helmed heads bowed. They produced their blades, spinning their tips to point at their bared throats just as they had done in the throne room, and it took all of Hera's discipline not to demand their lives that instant.
“You have disobeyed me,' she said, her voice low and cold.
“We are bound to protect you,” said Helican. He looked up from the ground to meet her gaze, his eyes earnest and pleading. “We couldn't just—”
Couldn't let me do this on my own? Hera thought. Couldn't resist your own plans over the word of your Queen? As though you know so much better than I?
A dry cracking sound jarred Hera from the thought. She looked down, seeing that she had crushed the skull she had been holding to splinters in her fist. Slowly, she opened her hand, letting the fragments of bone drop onto the ground.
“Forgive us,” said Pryzarius. “We meant you no disrespect, my Queen. After what had happened, after our failure, we only wished to ensure your safety.”
Hera lifted a hand to silence him, barely hearing his voice. For all that she despised him, Hera could not keep Loki's words from echoing around in her mind.
…rulers make difficult choices…
..when has her Majesty ever gotten her hands dirty?
…not sure you have the stomach for it…
Hera drew in a long, slow breath and released it, driving the Trickster from her thoughts. The time for doubts, for questions and ruminations, was long over. Now was the time to decide, and to act. She looked down upon Helican and Pryzarius.
“Do you wish to serve me, still?” asked Hera.
“Yes, my Queen,” said Pryzarius ardently.
“More than anything in creation, my Lady,” answered Helican, his fist clashing against his chest.
“And you shall never question my authority again?”
“We swear it,” said Helican. “Command us, and we will serve you, no matter what.”
Hera gave a slow, nearly imperceptible nod. She drew in another breath and channelled her focus, closing her eyes as she extended a hand over them. “Then serve, you shall.”
Webs of silver and violet leapt out from Hera's fingertips, rushing over Helican and Pryzarius where they knelt. In an instant they were engulfed, rooted in place by a blazing storm of energy. The warriors jerked, their blades clattering to the ground as every muscle in their bodies locked tight around their bones.
The chains of energy flew over and between the two praetorians like a moving cage of crackling light. Every shadow in the city grew stark as the illumination became brighter and brighter, until it was as though a star had fallen down from the heavens. It even outshone the light of the sun itself, rendering it into a dull lantern hanging in the sky by comparison. Within the eye-aching glare, the silhouettes of the two guardians blurred, their bodies, shields and weapons shivering and indistinct.
Hera's unleashed more of her power, until the light swelled into a sphere of coruscating glare that bleached the entire city. Great currents swept out from it like lashing storm gales, sending dust and rubble whipping through the air. Loki turned, shielding his sight from the blinding flash. But Hera never looked away, blinking back the tears that stung her eyes.
Helican and Pryzarius cried out, their voices stretching and overlapping like some unnatural choir. The sound distorted, snapping in and out of comprehension. The pair shrieked louder, beyond any sound that a mortal man should be able to make, two voices joining together as their shadows flickered and merged into a single, vast shape.
With a booming clap of thunder, the radiance extinguished. Debris crashed down to the earth from where it had hung suspending in mid air. Hera exhaled, stilling herself after releasing such an incredible expenditure of energy. The shadows and silence of the ruined city reasserted themselves, and something new took its first, laboured breath in creation.
The smoke and mist cleared from around where Hera stood, peeling away from the massive shadow looming over her. She saw the impression of limbs thick as tree trunks, and fists the size of boulders. A creature of raw, indomitable power, one that had never before known life, until Hera had willed it into being.
“What have you done?” gasped Loki, recoiling as a hulking figure gradually came into view.
Where Hera's protectors Helican and Pryzarius had once been, now knelt a brutal giant cast from clean marble and shining bronze. Even on his knees, Hera and Loki had to crane their heads up to meet its gaze. Above the creature's shoulders a wheel slowly turned in place of a head, adorned with four faces. Each of them bore the same expression, locked in a grim rictus of confusion as they opened their eyes.
The creature started, his wide shoulders turning as he took in the world around him. Low, ursine breath issued from his four orbiting faces, as if each of them were learning to draw in air for the very first time. He caught sight of himself in a pool of brackish water that had collected in a crater, seeing the reflection of a monster staring back.
Slowly, the giant raised his massive fists, looking down upon them before arcing his back and unleashing an earthshaking roar up into the sky.
“So,” Hera's voice was low and calm, but brimming with unbridled threat. Her eyes flicked toward Loki. “Are you and I going to have a problem, too?”
“Problem?” Loki's face drained of color. He raised his hands, earnestly this time, as he shuffled away from Hera. “Who said anything about a problem?”
The Trickster made a hurried gesture, and with a shower of blue sparks he tore an opening in thin air. In an instant Loki was gone, vanishing away through the crackling gateway he had hastily wrought into being to make his escape.
Hera watched Loki go, but made no move to stop him. For the moment, she had no time for the cowardice of the Norse god. Instead, she looked back at the choice she had just made, at the course of two lives changed forever by what she had made Helican and Pryzarius into.”
The giant wavered, straining to rise from his knees. He planted one immense foot, shaking as he tried to push himself up and stand. His balance gave out, and he crashed back to the ground with a sharp growl. The four faces spun on their wheel above his shoulders, each of them struggling to make words but producing only a pained, disjointed murmur.
He looked to Hera like a child, a newborn struggling as they learn how to take their first shaky steps. Her giant would have to learn everything all over again, now that he existed as two beings within a single body. Everything, save for obedience. Hera knew that was the one thing she would never have to teach him again.
For a moment, Hera questioned what she had done. Had she chosen to do this because it was what she had wanted, or had she done it simply to silence Loki? Motes of cold prickled in her stomach, threatening to bloom into regret. Is this what a ruler would have done?
Is this what Zeus would have done?
Hera quelled the thoughts that rattled like chains behind her eyes, and she steeled herself with new conviction. It doesn't matter what anyone else would have done. No matter the reason, it was done. She would accept her choice and move forward toward her goal, no matter what. Because that is what rulers do.
Turning away from the stumbling giant, Hera studied the portal Loki had created, still yawning open from where he left it in his hurry to flee from her. A cold gust of wind howled from it, carrying a thin curtain of snow into the ruins of the city.
Hera caught a handful of snowflakes in her hand, watching as they quickly melted into a pool in her palm. She smelled the frigid air on the other side, but also stone, and iron, and ash. She knew where Loki had gone, the same place all cowards run at the moment when they cease being the tormentor and start being prey.
He went home.
Hera spared a last glance at the city and its fallen people. The resolve formed within the core of her being then, to learn what had brought about their destruction and see those responsible for it brought to her justice. Her eyes flicked back to the gateway, and the frigid land she glimpsed on the other side. Hera had seen fear, true fear, in Loki's eyes, but that was hardly justice for all that he had done.
No, there was a debt that he had yet to pay. And Hera would see that he paid it.
“Come along, Argus,” said Hera. “We have much to do.”
The giant stiffened, his limbs obeying instantly to her command as he rose from his knees. He approached Hera in heavy, plodding steps, as though an invisible tether was binding them. The eyes of each of his faces locked onto her in their steady orbit upon the wheel, never straying from her side.
The sinking sun lengthened Hera's shadow as she stood before the gateway, poised to dip beneath the lip of the valley and usher night across the land. Hera stepped through, vanishing as she moved forward into a wider world.
And Argus followed her.
Chapter 3 - An Island Amongst a Sea of Monstrosity
The first thing she felt was a bitter, icy cold.
The portal closed behind Hera and Argus as they passed through it, disintegrating into a shower of crackling motes of light. The last of them scattered like fireflies, torn up into the air by twisting gales. The howling winds wound through the shells of grand architecture, what had once been the seat of power for an entire pantheon.
Hera drew her robe tighter about herself. With a casual effort, little different than straining to hear a distant sound, she conjured an invisible barrier about herself that repelled the worst of the cold's bite. Argus plodded on beside her, unaffected by the chill of their new surroundings but for an almost childlike curiosity.
Of Loki, there was no sign. Hera had hardly expected to find one, such was the pathetic creature's penchant for flight. Instead, she turned her attention to the devastation now surrounding her. She had stepped from one scene of destruction to another, with only one difference. The city she had been standing in moments before had been levelled by means Hera could not define, but here, its source was all too clear.
Asgard was in ruins, and it had been ruined by divine hands.
Hera had walked these boulevards before, in a past embassy to the Nordic pantheon. Her memories of that time overlaid what now greeted her senses, seeing breathtaking statuary and spiralling towers adorned with golden runes and intricate knotwork, where now there was only the gold grey of rubble, slowly swallowed by falling snow. She knelt, brushing the frost from the stone visage of some great champion of the distant past, now shattered and broken.
Terrible violence had happened here. Hera pressed through the streets, framed by gutted buildings that cast shadows like rows of broken teeth. All of the shadows stretched, including their own, growing taller with the oncoming night. And as the Queen of the Gods and her protector passed into an abandoned courtyard, Hera's shadow warped, twisted, and slithered loose from behind her.
Argus whirled around to face it, bracing against a shriek so jarring and unworldly that it threatened to turn one's blood to ice. With a bellow of rage Hera's giant hurled a massive fist toward the ragged silhouette materializing before him. The shade boiled away from the attack, blurring like ink in water. It flowed around Argus, leaving nothing but a rime of glittering frost on his broad stone knuckles. With nothing to absorb his strike, the giant stumbled forward as the shadow reshaped itself behind him. The creature hissed as it looming high over Argus' back, its long skeletal fingers lengthening into talons.
The shade reeled as Hera raised her sceptre. The radiant field that surrounded her like a sphere of sparkling crystal flared as it made contact with the shadow creature. The monster loosed a keening wail that rang out over the ruins as it burned before Hera's power, evaporating into a mist the color of a dark bruise. Within moments what little remained of the shadow was carried off by the wind, leaving nothing but the echo of its chilling scream.
Argus regained his footing with a growl and returned to Hera's side. His fists clenched and unclenched, the wheel of his many faces twitching as it spun, searching for the next threat to come.
“Peace, Argus,” Hera laid a hand upon the cold stone of his arm. The giant calmed immediately, rising out of his fighter's crouch.
“There are boundless more of those things lurking about this place,” said Hera as she pointed toward the interior of the city with her sceptre. “Whatever answers are to be found here, we shall find them.”
The clamour of ringing steel and inhuman roars drew Hera and Argus to the temple. She slowed at the entrance of the grand structure, now little more than a single wall and a dark stone floor punctuated by broken pillars. The ground was littered with the bodies of gigantic, hideous monsters, things of slab-like muscle and crude runes tattooed upon flesh as blue as the lips of the dead.
“Frost giants,” said Hera under her breath, her eyes drawn to the conflict raging within the remnants of the temple.
Not all of the creatures were dead.
As imposing as they were lying slain upon the ground, the frost giants were even more monstrous alive. A trio of the foul creatures stood at the opposite end of the temple, bellowing in rage as they sought to crush a single armoured figure opposing them. Hera could only make out the stranger in half glimpses between the walls of enraged blue flesh, seeing intricate battle armour, a helm crested by a pair of curving horns, and the brilliant flash of a shining spear blade.
The warrior had faced down this horde alone, and despite the odds had winnowed his foes down to these final three. But it was clear to Hera that his strength was waning, and the countless wounds he had suffered were beginning to take their toll. The attacks and footwork she watched were degrading into staggers, sweeps and lunges of the spear relying on momentum over skill or fighting technique. If she did not intervene, he would fall here.
“Argus,” said Hera, and her giant snapped to attention. She pointed toward the combat. “Go to his aid.”
A stark clash rang as Argus thudded a fist against his chest. The relish was clear in his posture as he pounded toward the frost giants. These were no shadow things, tricksters keen to drift and fade away from honest combat. A frost giant was a creature of flesh and blood. And they would not find it so easy to escape from his wrath.
“Argus ended his charge with a leap, surging forward through the air toward the first of the giants. It turned at the last moment, its bark of pain and alarm muffled as its head was engulfed in a crushing fist. Argus landed low, smashing the frost giant down head first in a cloud of spinning stone splinters.
With a roar Argus spun, dragging the giant's head in a grinding orbit around himself until he had carved a deep furrow into the stone with its face. After finishing the ring, Argus used the momentum he had built to hurl the creature away, smashing it into a mound of rubble where it slumped and went still.
Enraged, the pair of remaining frost giants rounded upon Argus, sinews clenching like bands of iron across their arms. The closest seized Argus in a grappler's embrace, spraying Hera's guardian with foul spittle from behind its cage of broken yellowed tusks. Argus leaned forward, the wheel of his many faces spinning into a blur that sliced into the monster as they met. In an instant the creature's grip slackened, and a bludgeoning strike from Argus sent it thudding to the ground.
The final giant gripped its fists together, swinging them like a club into Argus' back. The blow threw Argus to one knee, and he felt the beast's thick fingers seize hold of his wheel to wrench it from his shoulders when a shining steel blade burst out from the monster's chest. The last breaths feathered out from the frost giant's lips, before it toppled forward onto Argus and sent them both crashing to the ground.
With an annoyed grunt, Argus climbed out from beneath the dead frost giant, giving the body a derisive kick as he rose. Hera tutted at her champion as she crossed the temple floor, and Argus lowered his head in submission.
“You have my thanks,” rasped the warrior, his tone leaden with weariness. With a strained effort he wrenched the blade of his spear loose, and rested his head against its haft as he leaned on the weapon for support.
Hera took a moment to appraise the warrior before her. The craftsmanship of his iron and knotwork armour was exquisite, a priceless marriage of art and martial function clear to see despite the horrific damage that had been inflicted upon it. The spear he held alone was breathtaking, an immense halberd that none but the divine could ever hope to wield, a weapon that could only have been forged within the divine halls of the Aesir.
“Of course,” Hera dipped her head slightly, “Allfather.”
“So then,” said Odin, King of Asgard, “What brings the Queen of the Gods to my hearth? It has been many years, Hera.”
“Many years,” Hera agreed, glancing about the ruins. “Much has changed in Asgard since that time it seems, and none for the better.”
“Not only here,” Odin heaved out a wet, booming cough, nearly staggering from his feet. Argus caught him before he fell, helping him down to recline against a heap of rubble. Odin laid a hand on the giant's arm in way of thanks, before waving him away.
“The world has suffered just as Asgard has, for we live in the days of cataclysm for us all.”
Hera thought back to her confrontation with Loki, and what the trickster god had said. “Ragnarok.”
“Yes,” Odin nodded, dragging a gauntleted hand across his lips that came away streaked with the god's blood. “The end times, and the twilight of creation. Both mortal and divine alike finally pushed into the precipice, and devoured by oblivion. Long have I seen their coming, and long have I laboured, so that when it comes at last, we might have hope to stand against it. To be the rock that the tide breaks against, and rolls back.”
He gestured out, casting a tired hand across the broken vista. “But even with all of my preparations, I failed. Asgard, my kingdom, lies in ruins, and the lands of the mortals with it. I failed, because I was unable to stop the spark that would ignite Ragnarok, one that would come from my own hall.”
A howl pierced the night sky then, coming from far away yet with a strength that felt as though the beast that had issued it was but a pace away. Argus raised his fists, and Hera looked out across Asgard, to the dark silhouette of the grand palace in the distance.
“Fenrir,” sighed Odin. “But it was his sister who is the true architect of our downfall. Hel. She dwelt within the prison of my making for too long, and now through unleashing Ragnarok she sits upon the throne of Asgard, if only its ashes.”
“And yet,” said Hera, “we still live.”
Odin's eye flicked back to gaze at her.
Hera spread her arms wide. “The world is wounded, but it is far from dead. You speak to me of the end of days, Allfather, of apocalypse. I see one that has been averted. I look out and see a land razed by fire, but by its ashes shall it be nourished and reborn. I see hope.”
Odin gave a deep chuckle that quickly soured into a fit of hacking coughs. “A generous perspective, my Queen, one born at the top of Olympus. But what you say is true enough. There are those out in the world who believe that they have turned the darkness back, that disaster has been averted and hope restored. But I have stared into the webs of fate that have yet to transpire, and I have seen that the greatest darkness has yet to come.”
Hera stopped, looking back at Odin where he sat.
“This catastrophe,” he continued, “all of the tragedy and the loss we have suffered to this point, it is but a prelude to the true evil. One that will soon arrive and manifest its destiny as the ender of days. It is coming, Queen Hera, and it will destroy us all.”
Hera was silent for a moment. Flakes of snow winked into soft puffs of steam against her barrier. She looked over at Odin, a broken king who was cast in reflection of his broken kingdom.
“Do you remember the last time I was in Asgard, Great King?”
Odin looked up. “Aye, I remember. It was a simpler time, long before all of this.”
“I wonder,” said Hera. “Were I to gather up the Odin from that time, and bring him here to stand before you, what would he say? Would he agree with you, lying in the rubble of all he holds dear, and wait with you in silence for what little is left to be taken from him as well? Or would he rail against it? Would he stand like the warrior king he is and refuse to allow such a fate to happen? Would he view anything less as nothing but the actions of a coward?”
Odin winced at that final word, as though it had been a physical blow. Leaning upon his spear, he rose to his feet, his gritted teeth gleaming like pearls in his iron-colored beard. Argus shifted, but went still with a gesture from Hera.
“Do you truly believe I stood by and allowed this?” Odin spat. “Do you? You have no conception of the blood that was spilled to try and stop this, of what was sacrificed. You wouldn't have the numbers to count the dead, nor the stomach to hear their screams. And how could you, from your pretty mountaintop?”
“We have all suffered loss,” Hera's voice lowered. “All of us.”
Odin made to respond, but instead sagged back down amongst the rubble. Hera saw rivulets of dark blood leak out from the cracks in his armour, catching the moonlight.
“Some of us,” Odin growled, “more than others.”
“Nothing is written,” Hera pressed, her voice adopting a conciliatory tone. “No skein of fate is immutable. There is always a choice, Odin. Always. You say that the worst is yet to come, well then I say that we must gather the strength needed to face it, and cast it back into the darkness from where it came.”
Odin spat onto the ground, watching for a moment as the pinkish saliva boiled against the newly fallen snow.
“The door has been opened,” said Odin, “and it is one that can never again be closed. The world will be remade by this, but there is still time to guide the shape that it will take. There are things that exist in this world, secret and hidden and believed lost, that hold great power. If they were to be found, those who are worthy can wield them to deliver all from ruin.”
Hera paused. Her mind raced at the revelations that Odin had made, of Ragnarok and the fall of Asgard, of the greater evil coming and the hope to oppose it. “Then whatever these secrets are,” she said, “they must be found.”
“Quite so, fair Queen,” said Odin. “If they still exist, or ever truly did. But to find the truth of it, and seek these things out, you will need allies. Gods of great strength, who yearn for justice and the defense of all life. Gods like my son.”
“Thor,” said Hera. She knelt at Odin's side. “Tell me, where is Thor now?”
Odin met her gaze. “On the path to Hel,” said the Allfather, fire still gleaming from his single eye. “With Mjolnir in his fist and vengeance in his heart, marching to take back what has been stolen from us.”
With Argus at her side, Hera set off in search of the God of Thunder. The path to him was clear to her, for it led to the palace where Hel the usurper sat, and was strewn with the fallen hordes that had dared taste the wrath of fabled Mjolnir. The closer she came, the more recent the scenes of battle, until finally she could hear the music made by those in combat just ahead of her, and steam still rose from the slain at her feet.
Lightning burst across the sky like blazing silver talons. For an instant Hera's heart raced at the awesome, familiar sight, but she steeled herself, refusing to allow the grief she kept locked inside to resurface. The booming crack of thunder followed the lightning's flash, so close that the Queen of the Gods felt it thrum within her chest.
She saw Thor at that moment, bathed in the lightning's glare. He stood alone in defiance of Hel's armies, an island amongst a sea of monstrosity. Throngs of frost giants surrounded him, and every shadow peeled away into the very creatures that had attached Hera and Argus after they had arrived in Asgard. The full might of Hel descended upon Thor, and he answered back.
The legendary hammer Mjolnir flashed in Thor's grasp, as though it had caged the very lightning that streaked across the night sky. The weapon wove through the rushing tide of frost giants and shrieking shadows, and nothing caught in its path survived to draw another breath.
Hera watched, frozen for a handful of heartbeats as she beheld the brutal artistry of the Nordic god in battle. Thor moved fast as quicksilver, his strikes faster than mortal eyes could track, and every blow landed from Mjolnir rang like the tolling of a gigantic bell. Frost giants were hurled away like child's toys, spinning through the air. Shadows wailed their unworldly dirge cries as the lightning that bathed the hammer’s head bleached them from existence.
But, for all its deadly majesty, it was not enough. For every monster felled, two more took its place. Even Thor's strength would wane in time, and the crush of Hel's minions would drag him down. Hera would not allow such a thing to come to pass.
“Argus,” said Hera, waiting as her champion stomped to her side. Pale energy shivered around her sceptre, pulsing brighter with each passing moment.
“You are about to hit the ground,” Hera smiled. “Hit it hard.”
A portal flashed into being above the densest concentration of frost giants and shadows, while another appeared beneath Argus' feet. He fell, appearing suddenly out through the other portal and hurtling down toward the battle.
Argus struck the ground like a meteor. Monsters were flung in every direction, the energy from the impact tearing out like violent ripples across still water. Immediate he laid into any monster within reach, joining Thor in the melee.
Argus was reaping a fearsome tally, but against such numbers Hera knew there was only so much he could do before he too was overrun. All she needed was for Argus and Thor to buy her a few seconds' concentration, and she would do the rest.
Hera closed her eyes, both hands gripping her sceptre as she summoned her power. Her mastery over the natural world surged up from within the core of her being, forged by her mind and channelled through the sceptre. Gathering more and more, it threatened to overtake her control, but she tightened her grip over it, her mind empty but for a single image.
Then, as the power reached its peak, wreathing Hera in blinding aura of prismatic light, she released it.
In an instant, Hel's army vanished in a cloud of dense white. Thor held in place, bewildered, his face sheened in sweat, shoulders rising and falling with exhausted breath. With the sudden sound of a thousand wings beating the air, the cloud exploded as a vast flock of white doves leapt up into the night. They scattered in seconds, flying far enough that they became indistinguishable from the snow that fell across Asgard.
Thor looked over at Hera as she approached, giving an amused nod of approval.
“It seemed you could use some help,' said Hera.
“You needn't have troubled yourselves,” replied Thor matter-of-factly.
“And why is that, exactly?” asked Hera. “Even a god can fall if the odds are stacked high enough against them.”
“Perhaps, for some,” the God of Thunder gave a crooked grin. “But not I. My destiny is clear, and this is far from the end of its path. There are many more feats left to be done and foes to slay for me, before my final day dawns.”
Hera told Thor of her meeting with Odin, of Ragnarok and the evil to come, and her plan to stop it. Suddenly Thor's affable manner was gone, replaced by a lethal focus.
“I will walk this path with you, Queen. You will have Mjolnir's power, and my strength in wielding it. You have my oath that they will be yours, wherever you choose to lead me, but for this I ask one thing in return.”
Hera stopped. “Name it.”
Thor looked up at the palace ahead, and the glowing fires within that bathed its halls in a baleful, crimson glow. The timeworn strips of leather bound about the handle of Mjolnir creaked as the God of Thunder's grip upon it tightened. He looked back at Hera, slender webs of lightning turning his eyes to blazing silver orbs.
“Come with me now,” he said, “to destroy Hel.”
Chapter 4 - A Necessary Darkness
With Thor and Argus at her side, Hera made her way to the gates of Valhalla.
The grand palace of Asgard, where Odin had ruled all the realms of his dominion, was now an empty and broken place. The breath-taking statues of champions of the Aesir that had lined the boulevards were torn down and shattered, their blank faces staring up in silence at an uncaring sky. Thor paused at each one, kneeling to whisper to them and swear oaths for their vengeance. Fires smouldered from the shells of ruined buildings, their flames casting the shadows of Hera and her companions high as Titans' against the palace walls.
No warriors stood sentinel before the doorway leading into the palace to bar their entry. After the bloody fighting to usurp the throne and the battle against Thor and Hera, most of the armies beneath Hel's banner were gone, growing cold upon the ground or taking flight within new bodies upon the midnight air. The great high doors of rune-etched iron and gold were open, left to reveal the darkness within as the three warily approached.
“Be on your guard,” said Thor, coming to a halt before the entrance. “I do not like this. It all reeks of Loki, and my brother's progeny are no better.”
Hera paused at the name. She had not caught sight of sound of the trickster after following him here. Had Loki even stepped through at all, or was this yet another one of his tricks? Had he led them here into a trap?
Argus gave a low growl, his fists clenching and unclenching in the soft scrape of a rockslide. His faces spun as he searching their surroundings, the twin wills within him tugging his body in opposite directions. Hera reached out, resting her fingertips upon the giant's arm. Argus calmed, his focus restored.
With a nod from Hera, Thor stepped through the great doors, and entered Valhalla.
The halls of the palace were a reflection of the devastated Asgard outside. Rubble choked the ground, with helms, weapons and limbs visible within the mounds. The only light came from what few fires were still crackling, unable to rid the bone-deep chill from the air. Great fissures ran across the walls in close rows of four, the marks of monstrous claws that could only have come from one being.
Thor raised Mjolnir, sending a shivering chain of lightning about its head to light their way. They walked through the halls within the sphere of stark illumination, studying the irrevocable destruction that had been wrought. Everywhere they looked, priceless artworks had been defaced, with every likeness of Odin, Thor and the other rulers of Asgard ruined outright or covered in thick black pitch.
A dim light flickered ahead at the end of the thoroughfare. Thor stopped as an immense shadow played across the wall, a hunched form prowling on all fours, gone as quickly as it had appeared. Hera gripped her sceptre tighter, and Argus grunted as he ground his fists together.
They continued on, following Thor as he made a walk that he had done countless times, though never in such circumstances. “It is like a nightmare,” whispered the God of Thunder, staring at his home rendered into a ruined tomb. “A cracked mirror of what my home has always meant to be.”
“It will be made right once more,” said Hera, coming to Thor's side. “Walls and statues can be rebuilt, hope and justice can be restored.”
“And those who have been slain,” said Thor, his voice cold and low, “they shall be avenged.” He looked at Hera. “That is my justice, Queen. And in the name of the Allfather and all those who sleep upon the ground of Asgard forever more, I shall have it.”
The great hall of Valhalla was a long corridor of stone and intricately carved hardwood. Low wide bowls were spaced along the central passage at intervals, the oil within them still and doused to leave the chamber in darkness. Hera walked down the carpet of furs leading to the dais where Hlidskjalf, the mythic throne of Asgard, took pride of place.
Hera could feel Thor's anger rise at the state of the throne room, its relics and treasures collected over the millennia by the Allfather defaced and ruined, and his father's throne occupied by the usurper that had unleashed Ragnarok upon the world.
The figure who sat upon Hlidskjalf was only partially visible to Hera, such was the darkness that shrouded the chamber. A great pyre burned to the right of the throne, illuminating a visage of stark, ethereal beauty that transcended even the splendour of the gods. Hera faltered for a moment as she saw her, but Thor continued on, stepping forward and setting a boot down upon the first step of the dais.
“Greetings, Uncle,” honeyed words flowed from the seated figure as she regarded Thor, a voice that could steal hearts and win minds just from hearing it. “And you have brought guests. Welcome to Asgard, travellers.”
“You,” Thor levelled Mjolnir up at the throne, “you dare to sit upon my father's throne, after all you have done to him and his realms?”
“Is he alive?” Her tone was soft, almost childlike in its innocence. She leaned forward, the right side of her face lit by the glow of the flames, the other masked by the shadows. “I wasn't sure if I would feel it or not, if he died.”
“Odin lives,” snarled Thor. “He has foreseen his end across the skeins of fate, usurper, and it will not come this day, and not at the hands of the likes of you.”
“Oh, our Allfather,” she gave a soft smile. “How he loves his prophesies. Did you find him crouched in a corner, sifting through the loops of a goats insides to try and learn the future?
“Hold your tongue, Hel,” snarled Thor. “Or—”
“Or? What?” All warmth vanished from Hel's voice. Her smile became a bright flash of teeth, a huntress baring her fangs. “What will you do, exactly? Oh to be the favoured one, the heir, mighty Lord Thor, the God of Thunder. There's no need to put on airs here, Uncle. The only source of your rage is that it is someone other than you who sits upon this throne.”
“The throne of Asgard is not yours to take,” said Hera, stepping forward onto the dais. “You have unleashed mayhem and murder upon all the world, and for that you must face justice, Hel.”
“Be gone from Asgard, Grecian,” said Hel coldly, her eyes still locked upon Thor. “This matter is one for our pantheon.”
“And it went beyond your pantheon,” Hera stepped forward, “the moment you unleashed Ragnarok and cast all of creation into darkness.”
For the first time, Hel turned her gaze upon Hera. Her eyes gleamed, even the one shrouded in shadow. “And did you ever once consider, oh Queen of the Gods, that it was a necessary darkness?”
At that moment, Hera became aware of a low, wet rumble coming from the shadows beside Hel. Argus growled, plodding forward onto the dais, but Hera stilled him with a raised hand.
“So like you all, to cling to the light,” said Hel. “To drown your servants and lessers in its radiance, and so much the blinder for it. Like my grandfather, master of all he chose to be master of, and the rest he cast down to the shadows, forgotten in their chains. Even the dead.
“He kept Valhalla, of course, for all those who met their ends in glory. The warriors and the battle kings, the great champions who fell atop heaps of the enemies they had slain. But for me, I was granted reign over other souls. A queen, ruling a realm of the sick, the infirm, the old and the lame. The helpless.”
Hel sat back, resting her head against the worn leather knotwork adorning Hlidskjalf. “I loved it down there, and I hated that I did. I hated that I was just like the loathsome dead I ruled. Helplessness, Hera. That is what Odin meant for me. A prison, just as my dear brother too was imprisoned.”
The wet rumbling Hera heard grew louder, and a dark shape detached itself from the shadows. Great claws scraped against the stone of the floor as it came into the light, an enormous grey wolf of a size and strength beyond what the natural world could ever create. The beast's eyes blazed in the dark, glaring down upon Hera, Thor and Argus. Slowly, its black lips peeled back, exposing its gleaming fangs as a snarl built in its throat.
Hel clicked her tongue once, and the creature padded to her side. It settled down onto its haunches like a guardian hound, even still dwarfing her and Odin's throne.
“Fenrir,” Hel lifted a hand toward the beast, and slowly he lowered his head, never taking his baleful eyes from the intruders. With a slow, careful touch she brushed the coarse fur away from the great wolf's throat, revealing a stark band of hairless flesh pebbled by scar tissue. “Though his chains were far more real.”
“Odin had cause to banish you,” said Thor, “and by your very deeds you have vindicated his choice. You have carried your poison out from the underworld and sowed it here, using Hades and even your own father.”
Hel laughed softly. “My father will play his games, though he rarely concerns himself with the feelings of the pieces. Hades, though, was an easy touch, the poor deluded fool. The simplest ones to turn are those who do so eagerly, thinking of themselves as saviors.”
“So you have been wronged,” said Hera. “And therefore any atrocity you wreak is justified? You expect the world to accept being swallowed by the darkness as though you are the only one to have ever suffered?”
“This is not about being wronged,” Hel snapped. “You always say the same things, the self righteous. The light always crusading for order, without ever knowing what it means, without ever thinking that it is they who have overstepped. Because order, true order, is balance, Hera. Coexistence between light and shadow. And the light has had its way for so very long.”
Fenrir clenched his paws, carving deep furrows into the floor in a screech of claw against stone. Hel looked to her brother, running a hand down his flank in affection, before regarding Thor and Hera once more.
“My brother grows restless with all of this bickering, and I am bored of it myself, I must admit. Perhaps we can dispense with the notion that you have come here for words alone, dear Uncle, and get to it?”
“Cherish this moment,” Thor rolled his shoulders. He squared up, sending a current of lightning shivering across Mjolnir. “Once and only once, now, we are in accord.”
Hera blinked, and Fenrir was among them. The immense wolf crashed down, hurling Argus aside and rounding upon her. She leapt back, the radiant field surrounding her flashing as Fenrir's claws raked across it.
Thor hurled himself at Fenrir from behind, Mjolnir a crackling blur as he brought it down in a blistering overhead strike. But the wolf wasn't there. Thor's hammer smashed a crater into the floor in a cloud of twisting stone fragments. He whirled around, raising his weapon just in time to put it between himself and Fenrir's snapping jaws.
The two gods grappled, straining against each other with all their strength. Spittle flecked Thor's face as Fenrir snarled, enduring the lightning that seared his flesh as he sought to tear Mjolnir from the God of Thunder's grasp. Thor felt his hold begin to slip when a massive stone fist pistoned into Fenrir's skull, breaking the deadlock.
The wolf sank his claws into the ground and skidded to a halt. He shook his mane, a deep snarl building in his throat as Argus charged him.
Fenrir ducked under a swinging fist, letting his claws carve deep into Argus' side as he surged past him. He sprang onto the giant's back, fangs snapping down and biting deep into the bronze and marble armour of Argus' shoulder.
Crimson light began to pulse beneath Fenrir's flesh as he fought, winding patterns that Hera realized were runes in some ancient Asgardian tongue. Iron-hard bands of muscle bulged across Fenrir's body, swelling and expanding his already monstrous frame. A sharp crack rang across the throne room as Argus' shoulder plating shattered between the wolf's jaws.
Like a comet, Mjolnir smashed into Fenrir, hurling him off of Argus. The hammer continued on, singing as it cut the air, when Thor appeared before it. Mjolnir sailed into the grasp of its master, and with a bellow of rage Thor pressed the attack.
Hera whirled her sceptre in front of her, drawing power from the natural world and weaving it together. The hair on her neck stood on edge as it build, surging across the sceptre in chains of purple and gold, before she sent it screaming toward Fenrir.
The ball of energy enveloped Fenrir, and a piercing howl shook the hall. The air was filled with the reek of scorched hair. The wolf thrashed under Hera's assault, unable to see or defend against Thor as he swung Mjolnir into his chest and left him sprawled at the foot of the throne, barely conscious as coils of stinking smoke coiled from his body.
“Now,” Thor spat onto the floor, raising his hammer to point at Hel. “Come and pay for your sins, usurper.”
Hel rose from Hlidskjalf, gliding down the dais to Fenrir's side. The darkness followed her, clinging to half of her form to keep it cast in inky shadow. Hera then realized that it was not the natural dark that was obscuring Hel. She was the very source of it.
Tendrils of blackness emanated from Hel, bleeding from her silhouette like ink diffusing into water. She stopped beside Fenrir, her angelic half the very image of beatific sorrow as she beheld his wounds.
“My brother,” Hel whispered, lowering her head to rest it against the wolf's. “You've done so much for me, but I must ask more of you, before we can rest our heads.”
Hel placed a hand over Fenrir, the limb pulsing with radiance. Golden rays of light washed over him, smoothing away the wounds and restoring his coat to its full, shining lustre. Strength flooded back into the wolf, and he surged back to his feet, turning his hunter's glare upon Hera, Thor and Argus.
“This little contest has been enjoyable but I have work to do,” said Hel. “Brother, won't you show our guests out?”
Fenrir filled his lungs, expelling it as a roar that shook Valhalla to its very foundations. The runes beneath his flesh blazed as he began to grow, doubling and then tripling in size. His claws extended to the length of swords, his fangs nearly as long as Hera was tall. Fenrir had become a giant, nearly needing to stoop beneath the ceiling of the throne room.
Argus ran at Fenrir. Empowered by Hel's magic, the wolf reached for a pillar, wrenching the stone column loose and swept it out like a club. Argus took the blow's full weight, hurling him back to smash against the far wall.
Thor threw himself into the air, Mjolnir held high. Fenrir roared at the God of Thunder as he flew toward the wolf's open maw. Fenrir's fangs snapped down to devour him. Thor snarled as he fought to keep the beasts jaws from closing with all his strength.
Seeing Thor's desperation, Hera hurled bolts of energy at Hel. Her protective radiance flared around herself as Hel turned her attention from Fenrir and unleashed her dark power upon the Queen of the Gods.
Hera gritted her teeth as the blasts of midnight energy crashed against her, each one a hammer blow even through her barrier. But she knew that every attack striking her was one less that was aiding her brother wolf. She glimpsed Thor through the wash of conflicting energies, seeing the God of Thunder course with crackling lightning just as Fenrir's teeth crushed down against him.
Fenrir reeled back, howling in agony as bits of broken fang clattered over the ground. Thor broke loose from the wolf's maw, raining down blows with Mjolnir. Every strike shrank Fenrir, the runes dimming as he shrivelled back down to his normal size. One last hit cracked against Fenrir's skull, sending him to the floor where he stayed.
Hel shrieked, breaking off her attack on Hera. The Queen sagged slightly as the assault ceased, the barrier around her dissipating with a soft snap. Panting, sheened in ozone and Fenrir's stinking saliva, the God of Thunder turned to Hel, who stood defiantly over her brother. She leapt at Thor, rage making her strikes a blur as she fought, but her uncle's rage was stronger.
Hera held back, letting Thor settle it. This was a reckoning that must be brought to an end by Asgard.
“You cannot stop this,” Hel growled, glaring at Thor as he seized her. “Fight all you want, there will be a balance between the light and—”
Thor yanked Hel forward, smashing his head against hers. She dropped without a sound, collapsing atop Fenrir at the foot of Hlidskjalf.
“What is to be done with them?” asked Hera.
Thor scowled down at the unconscious pair of his kindred who had wrecked so much havoc upon the world. “Their fates belong to the Allfather,” he spat against the ground again. “He will see to their sentence, as he takes his rightful place on the throne once more.”
Argus dropped to one knee before Hera with a hard thud, pressing a fist against the ground to steady himself. Hera looked over her giant, drawing in a breath at the grievous wounds he had suffered. His body was riven by claws and covered in cracks that spread over him like jagged spiderwebs. Whole sections were warped by Hel's magic, rendered loose and softened like molten stone.
Any one of the injuries Argus had suffered would have killed a mortal warrior outright, or crippled a divine one. Hera had rendered her champion into someone capable of enduring such lethality, but the twin minds within his shell still bore the full pain of them, and she could feel the agony exuding from Argus like a heat haze.
Lifting her sceptre, Hera closed her eyes, and reformed Argus. Her power reknit his body and healed his wounds, returning him to the full grandeur and strength he had known at the moment of his creation. Though such a restoration caused great pain itself, Argus withstood it, only snarling quietly against the hurt, to his credit.
She had nearly finished healing Argus when she sensed someone behind her. Hera's intuition felt the knife coming as surely as if it had been buried between her shoulders, and the cruel laughter of the horned coward who wielded it as he sprang forth to strike.
Hera spun, sceptre raised. She uttered an incantation and Loki disappeared in a cloud of crackling mist. A soft thud issued from the cloud, along with the irate bleating of an inhuman throat.
The mist cleared, revealing a scraggly, grey-haired goat where Loki had once been.
“A fine trick,” Thor chuckled despite his exhaustion. He squatted down before the creature. “You should thank her, brother. Compared to your usual self she's made quite an improvement.”
“I warned him,” Hera gave a thin smile before gesturing to her champion. “Argus, if you please?”
Argus grunted, plodding forward and scooping Loki up in one massive fist. The transformed trickster bucked and kicked in the giant's grip. Argus paid him no heed as he stomped toward where a ragged hole had been torn in the wall of the throne room, open clear to night-shrouded Asgard beyond Valhalla.
Coming to a halt, Argus ignored Loki's flailing as he looked back at Hera. She gave her champion a nod, and without pause he hurled the creature out through the gap. Loki's cries filled the great hall as he sailed out through the collapsed wall and into the night, quickly fading until he had disappeared from sight.
Thor looked out at the night sky for a moment, before moving to stand at Hera's side.
“You have honoured your part in our pact, Queen,” Thor thudded Mjolnir against his chest as he dipped his head. “And I shall do the same. I will follow you, and whatever comes to stand against you, you will have the God of Thunder by your side.”
Hera smiled, but it faltered when her intuition struck her again. A presence was within the hall, but it defied sense.
“What is it?” asked Thor.
Hera peered back at Hlidskjalf, seeing the faintest impression of a horned helm, boots kicked up on one arm of the throne. And a cold, liar's smile.
“Coward,” hissed Hera under her breath.
Thor frowned. “What?”
Hera considered putting an end to the trickery once and for all. The temptation was strong, but she pushed it aside. She had won what she wanted in Asgard, and there were far more pressing matters before her.
“Nothing that can't wait,” she replied, turning and striding out of the great hall. “With this business done, we need to gather strength for the battles ahead. Come, there's a place I'd like you to see.”
Chapter 5 - Battleground of the Gods
Hera, Argus and Thor left the cold of Asgard behind them. They moved south, and day by day the snow and mountains of Thor's domain gave way to rolling green hills, and the sun shined warmly over them in the sky.
Their route took them tantalizingly close to Olympus. Hera glimpsed the great mountain in the distance and felt the certainty of the palace walls call out to her, the security and familiarity they promised. But she could not return home, not now.
Everywhere their path carried them, Hera found signs of upheaval. They saw cities and villages in various states of ruin, from towers brought crashing into rubble to whole areas swallowed by yawning fissures that had broken open in the earth. Columns of desperate mortals filled the roads, carrying what little remained of their lives as they sought sanctuary.
Hera's innate connection to the natural world acted as her conduit to the world's suffering, as though deep in its core something was changing. Something old and malignant had yet to fully manifest itself, and its parallel's with Odin's cryptic words in Asgard hung heavily over Hera's thoughts.
She concentrated, marshalling her focus. Rumination would do nothing to help the world or these people. What was needed was a plan, and the resolve to see it done. If the Allfather's prophecies were true, then there did exist a means somewhere in the world to prevent what was coming. Hera would need allies and resources to uncover such a thing, and she knew just the place to look.
“Where are we going?”
Thor finally gave voice to the question, and Hera gave the God of Thunder credit. His patience had lasted longer than she had expected.
They had reached the outskirts of the lands that stood in the shadow of Olympus, just able to taste the salt on the air coming in from the great sea. Waves crashed softly over the beaches ahead, and the skies above were crowded with banks of wispy cloud.
“Just be patient,” Hera answered Thor with a smile. “You'll see soon enough.”
She was hardly able to wait herself. It had been years since Hera had last laid eyes on their destination, and her mind carried her off to the grand place she had made.
Of all the myriad plagues that wracked the earth throughout its history, none had been more destructive and more unnecessary than the clashes between gods. Ancient rivalries, petty feuds and perpetually twisting spirals of revenge had led to nothing but desolation for the pantheons and the mortals that worshipped them. There was no clearer or more devastating example of that than the recent catastrophes of Ragnarok, and Hera mourned the uncounted dead that might have been saved had her dream been completed first.
It was meant to be neutral ground, a place where the divine could duel and forge those inexorable bonds that only come through combat, away from mortals who were so often caught in the midst of their wrath. Grievances could be aired, debated and resolved, while discourse could fill its rafters and secrets and songs could be shared. A true battleground of the gods, not only for their blades and bodies, but for their minds and spirits as well.
This battleground, Hera's beautiful arena, was to be her gift to Zeus. A symbol to prove to him that the warring and vendettas between the pantheons could be relegated to a past soon forgotten, and that all the gods could live in fellowship.
It was a gift that her husband would never live to see.
“So?” Thor scanned the horizon before glancing at Hera. “Is this it?”
“Not quite,” she answered, raising her sceptre to point towards the clouds. Thor did not see anything at first. He squinted, peering into the gently rolling banks. The wind shifted them slightly, and Thor glimpsed something floating in their midst.
“That is where we are going,” said Hera.
“How exactly do you plan to get there?” Thor allowed Mjolnir to slip from his hand until it hung by the leather strap binding it to his wrist. Slowly he began to spin the hammer, the Asgardian steel humming as it became a silver blur.
“Simple,” Hera reached into her robe. “I have a way for us to—”
“No need for me,” said Thor over the thrum of Mjolnir. He grinned at Hera and Argus. “Race you there!”
With that, Thor extended his arm, and Mjolnir shot forward like an arrow toward the object in the clouds, carrying the God of Thunder with it.
Argus stared at Thor as he shrank from sight, before turning to look quizzically at Hera.
“Always so dramatic, that one,” Hera smirked, producing a small object from her robes. She held it aloft, a small stone with its surface covered by intricately carved runes. Motes of power sparkled over it, emitting a soft chime in the palm of Hera's hand.
“A moment, Argus,” said Hera, closing her fist around the stone. She vanished in a blink.
Argus whirled about, fists held high in search of the enemy that had taken his Queen. His faces spun wildly, failing to find anything around him but swaying grass, and the call of distant seabirds.
Thor landed upon a platform of flawless marble in a crouch. Lightning ebbed from Mjolnir as he rose, flexing the stiffness from his arm and pausing to take in the grandeur of his surroundings.
The place seemed to be wrought from stone, and yet here it was, floating among the clouds. Thor spotted great chunks of bedrock hanging in the air, clinging in lazy orbit around the principle landmass. It appeared as though its creator had found a serene mountain waterfall, bursting with trees and plant life, and raised it up into the sky.
He could not see what was beyond the platform, but Thor could hear the faint sound of clashing weapons and shouting voices echoing.
“Took you long enough!” called a voice from above, and Thor looked up to see Hera leaning over a balcony.
“How?” Thor trailed off, looking back the way he came.
“I told you I had a simple way,” she gestured with her sceptre and Argus crunched down through a portal at her side. Hera tossed the stone she had used down to Thor.
“Blink runes,” Thor chuckled as he turned it over in his hand. “I suppose that is an easier way. Little dull as style goes.”
“Come,” Hera called. “Let me show you my arena.”
Thor and Hera walked through the tunnels winding behind the waterfall leading to the arena. Stunning artistry abounded at every turn, the floors breath-taking mosaic depicting the origins of gods from every pantheon, while the walls shone with their greatest deeds rendered in magnificent frescos. The Queen of the Gods explained her dream for the battleground as they walked, and Thor found himself intrigued, and even impressed.
“A place where I can throttle Loki without consequence?” Thor gave a slow swing of Mjolnir. “I can see value in such a thing.”
“It isn't a place for violence just to inflict violence,” Hera chided. “The point of this arena is to put an end to discord, not spread it. Somewhere we can all sit eye to eye and learn that there is more that unites the divine than divides them.”
“Pretty thoughts,” said Thor as they ascended a long staircase leading to the top deck of the arena. The walls shook with a string of sudden impacts, sending slender trails of dust spilling down from the ceiling.
“There seems to be some significant division occurring,” said Thor, and Hera moved swiftly up the stairs to discover what was going on in her arena.
Hera flung open the great bronze double doors leading to the private suite she had constructed for herself and Zeus, its beautiful parlour with silken coaches and reflecting pools ignored completely as she made for the railing and the bird's eye view over the arena below.
What confronted Hera's eyes was not her dream made manifest in reality. Rather, it was a brutal, twisted scene of chains and dark iron that had spread over half the arena like a cancer. Everywhere Hera had sown beauty with marble pillars and perfectly sculpted lions, there was a low, barbarous counter of dark fire pits and jagged spikes. She watched figures circle and clash upon the arena floor, hurling their powers to wreak further indiscriminate ruin upon the proving grounds former glory.
Hera's dream had been corrupted. Her honourable arena was now a debased warzone. Rage swelled from her heart, filling every fibre of her being, yet she had no time to act on it before the balcony was struck by a comet's force.
Argus whirled around, taking Hera in his arms and shielding her from the impact in a single motion. Dust rushed in to fill the parlour, and bits of shattered masonry plinked from Argus' body. The giant opened his arms, allowing Hera to inspect the figure that lay dazed in a crater at her feet.
He was a god, of that much Hera was certain. The impact alone would have killed any mortal creature, let alone the blow that launched him. With a growl he pushed himself to his hands and knees, the dust clearing enough for Hera to see the shining gold and jet of his armour, and the curved beak of a bird-like face.
“Ra,” Hera spat.
“My apologies,” said the Sun God. He held out his hand, and his eye-tipped staff flew up from the arena floor and into his grasp.
“What have you done to this place?” Hera snarled, rounding on the Egyptian deity flanked by Argus and Thor.
“Me?” Ra replied, shaking his head to clear it as he rose to his feet. “This arena is the largely the same now as when I first came here, apart from this chamber.” He regarded the damage his crash had made, dipping his head slightly to Hera. “For that I am responsible.”
“If it was not you who changed this place,” said Thor as he hefted Mjolnir, “then who was it then?”
“That would be the Roman,” answered Ra as he turned and stepped to the edge looking over the arena floor.
“Come with me,” Ra beckoned. “I owe her some broken ribs.”
Hera had brought the sand for the arena from a cove near Olympus, untouched by mortal or divine hand for centuries. Her attendants counted every grain, casting aside any but the finest and most pure. When they had laid it out first over the arena floor, it shone like snow.
Now, it was a muddled, coarse hellscape. Smoke, blood and dirt had stained it nearly black, and it bore all the fissures and pockmarks of a mortal's slovenly battlefield. Stripes of filthy glass crunched under Hera's feet, the mark of fire gods' power left upon the sand.
Pairs and trios of gods from all the many pantheons dug out their own corners of the floor, making it appear less like a honourable contest and more like a disordered rabble. Hera's stomach turned as the desecration, the twisting of her aspiration into everything she had wished to drive away through this place. Her rage grew focused on the figure sitting at the centre of the arena, running a whetstone down the edge of a massive sword.
“I was hoping that wouldn't be the last of you,” she called out, throwing aside the whetstone and spinning the blade. She nodded to Hera, Argus and Thor. “Have I taken the fight out of you, that you need friends to finish this?”
“Bellona,” Hera's nails dug into her palms as she fought to keep her voice level.
“If you want a round, you'll have to wait your turn,” Bellona spat onto the sand. “I've got a list, but I'll get to you eventually.”
Hera swept her sceptre across her body, slashing a bolt of energy that fused a line of glass into the sand at Bellona's feet. “You will cease this. Now.”
“Really?” Bellona tilted her head. She reversed her hold on her sword and spiked it down into the arena floor, shattering the glass. “And who are you, to be giving me orders?”
“I am Hera, Queen of the Gods and wife of Zeus!”
“Zeus,” Bellona repeated the name, stepping around her sword to approach Hera.
“Last I heard, Zeus was in no position to rule over anything but the carrion feeders.”
Argus took a pounding step forward, stopping as Hera placed a hand upon his chest. A rumble issued from the giant's chest in tandem with the grinding of his stone knuckles.
“Cute pet,” Bellona snorted. “Does it do anything more than growl?”
“Listen to me,” hissed Hera, forcing away the temptation to have Argus grind the war goddess into a paste. Her arena had been overrun, its purpose shattered, but there were more important matters than her pride, no matter how wounded it was.
“Ragnarok is ended, and—”
“And how was that accomplished again?” Bellona asked. “By you? By the high lords of Olympus? No. It was I who brought Ragnarok to an end, me and my allies.”
Bellona jerked a thumb back toward a bench on the periphery of the floor. The fire goddess Pele tossed her head in greeting, lowering bloodied knuckles into a bowl of ice that flashed into steam at her touch.
“And so,” Bellona advanced to a step away from Hera. “Now that the battle has been won, you want to step in and reassert Olympus, this time with you calling the shots. Like nothing ever happened.”
“Much has happened,” pressed Hera. “To all of us. I am not here to steal your glory, I don't want it. I am here because there is something coming. Something dark, and vast, something that will not care about our petty squabbles once it arrives. And unless we face this threat united when that day dawns, there won't be anything left to rule, for anyone.”
No biting retort came from Bellona's lips, no threats or baiting remarks. Hera looked into her eyes.
“You've seen the signs of it too, haven't you?” asked Hera. “The land coming apart, the mortals and their cities collapsing. Your worshippers have suffered from this, same as all the pantheons. What wars will you wage when the last of their number dies, and you lack the strength to lift that sword?”
“And what is it that you, oh Queen, intend to do about it?”
Hera relaxed a fraction. She spoke of what Odin foretold, and of the existence of something of great power that could turn the coming darkness away. Bellona listened, her eyes occasionally flicking to Thor, who stood impassive at Hera's side.
“And so I ask you,” said Hera finally, “do you know of what we seek? Will you help us find it?”
The silence between them was marred by the continuous brawl of gods all around them. Her temper frayed to its breaking point, Hera gripped her sceptre.
Hera opened the portal beneath the giant's feet, the other end opening high above the arena floor. The battling gods paused in their combat, staring up at Argus as he emerged through the gateway and hurtled down to earth.
Argus struck like a meteor. A booming crash ripped across the ground, throwing the nearest gods from their feet and battering the rest with wind and stinging sand. As the dust cleared, Argus straightened from the crater he had made, waist-deep in the centre of the arena.
“Silence!” Hera boomed, her voice carrying effortlessly around her arena. The combatants got to their feet, halting their battles as they watched the Queen of the Gods. None spoke a word, the eerie quiet only broken when Bellona began to laugh.
“I suppose he can do more than growl,” the war goddess grinned.
“What is your answer?” said Hera.
The mirth left Bellona quickly. “Creation changes in an almost infinite number of ways, save one. No matter the place, no matter the people, no matter the reason, there is always war. There was war before Ragnarok, and I made war to end it. Now another war comes, and you expect me to think this one is different? No.”
Bellona turned and walked back to her sword. “I can't help you. I am the goddess of war,” she tore her sword loose from the sand. “If something comes to fight, I will fight it.”
“I'm speaking of ending this before it begins,” snapped Hera. “Of delivering all creation from a danger we have not even begun to understand.”
Bellona stopped. She looked back over her shoulder at Hera. “Where is the fun in that?”
Hera was stunned to silence. She tried to summon the words, but none came. She could not fathom the war goddess, who knew of the strife afflicting her followers and the greater calamity poised to come, and yet still chose to welcome it.
How many of the other gods would echo Bellona, she wondered. How many pantheons were too consumed by rivalries or their own ambitions to see the coming oblivion, or to do anything against it when it came? Were they truly resigned to the fate Odin foretold?
Hera's racing mind stopped. In the clamour of the arena she had forgotten Ra was there beside them.
“I have listened to your words,” said Ra. His beak clicked in the approximation of a smile. “And I believe our view is aligned.”
“You will help us?
“I have contributed to the degradation of this place,” said Ra. “For that I am in your debt. And as you said, this looming threat extends beyond our pantheons. If it is truly as you say it is, then I shall do what I can to help you.”
“The Eye,” Hera breathed, realization dawning upon her. “You can find what we seek with the Eye.”
“Quite so,” answered the Egyptian. The golden eye that formed the tip of his staff gleamed with solar radiance. “I can see across creation, into hidden places and mist-shrouded realms where none have travelled. If there exists a weapon to combat what is ravaging our world, then I can lead us to it.”
A deafening crash whirled Hera around, as the sand beneath her feet began to rattle and quake. The waterfall shook, loose boulders breaking away to come smashing down. The arena bucked and lurched, but floating high above the earth, it held.
The world below, however, told a different tale.
The great sea was a churning cauldron of colliding waves. Massive walls of water towered over the land before thundering down. Hera glimpsed the very earth cleaving, molten rock bursting up from fissures to rain over the land like a hellish storm.
Whatever was the agent of the coming apocalypse, their affect was escalating. The time of its arrival was rapidly approaching.
“We are running out of time,” said Hera, looking quickly to her companions. “We must go, now. Ra, show us the way.”
“Another time, my dear!” Thor called out to Pele, who spat a sizzling gobbet onto the sand in reply. They followed after Ra as he led them down through the arena, crisscrossing through tunnels and into its lower depths.
The corridors here at the base of the arena were devoid of artistic flourish, simple stone halls leading to store chambers and dead ends. Ra came to a halt at one such end, his staff pulsing in the gloom.
“What are we doing?” asked Thor. “If we need to find this weapon then why are we wandering around down here in the dark?”
“Because there are pathways within and in between the realms we walk, Thunder God,” answered Ra. “And here is the closest point where we might travel through it. My Queen, I will need your aid with this.”
Hera stepped forward, raising her sceptre as Ra joined her with his staff. She focused, though she was unsure of what precisely she was focusing on. Ra began to glow, and Hera concentrated her power on him.
A portal shivered into being before them, gleaming like a small slice of the sun. Its edges wavered for a moment, the portal shrinking and expanding like a dilated eye, before it stabilized and held its shape, just large enough for Argus to pass through.
“I will go,” grunted Ra. “To ensure it remains open on the other side.”
The Sun God stepped through, and with a nod from Hera, Thor followed him.
Argus lingered beside Hera, like a faithful hound reluctant to leave its master.
“Go,” Hera commanded, and Argus plodded forward, disappearing into the portal.
Hera gazed into the swirling disc of energy before her. She did not know where it would take her, or what would be waiting for her when she reached the other side. All that she knew was that she would step forward, and cross over into the waiting unknown.
Wherever it might lead.
Chapter 6 - Arrival
There was a rush of static across her skin, and an instant's nauseating stab of dislocation, and Hera was in another place.
The sea enfolded her senses, salt spray and warm sand. The ground no longer bucked beneath her feet, the earth ceasing its efforts to rend itself apart, at least for the moment. But where she stood was no hidden vault of Ra, or some mist-shrouded place never before travelled. This was familiar to her.
Hera frowned, looking up to see her arena hanging in the sky. She was on the beach, with Argus, Ra and Thor beside her.
“What is this?” Thor asked the Sun God. “Seemed like a great deal of effort when I could have just jumped.”
Ra contorted his beak in his best approximation of a smile. “The portal was less for us, and more to bring her to me.”
Ra pointed out to the sea, where a sleek vessel of lacquered wood and billowing sails rocked gently upon the waves. “Yes, my solar barge. She will take us where we must go.”
The boat glided across the surface of the sea, drawn to the subtle radiance of the Egyptian. She came just shy of grounding herself upon the beach, coming to a halt in the shallows before the assembled gods. Ra began to wade into the sea, looking back and giving a wave to Hera.
“Come, the seas are calm but they may not remain so for long.”
Thor sloshed into the water toward the solar barge. Hera looked to Argus, who stooped down to gather up his mistress and set her carefully upon his shoulder. The giant proceeded to Ra's ship, mindful not to splash the water with his ponderous bulk, before lifting Hera up to place her upon the ship's deck.
Hera took hold of the barge's railing, ornately carved with stylized glyphs and depictions of Ra and his many deeds. The barge lurched to one side as Argus hauled himself aboard, rocking back and forth from his weight until he plodded to the centreline of the vessel and knelt beneath the main sail.
“Best you stay there, friend,” Thor chuckled. “I'd like to get where we are going without having to swim there.”
Ra raised a hand, and the glow emanating from him intensified. Hera felt a current of warmth wash out over the deck. The seawater dried from the party, leaving behind a delicate rime of salt that shivered away on the wind. The gentle heat withdrew, gathering to fill the bright white rectangle of the solar barge's main sail. The vessel turned toward the open sea and leapt out onto the waves.
The solar barge bore them across the great sea, carrying them through the narrow straights that led out to the vastness of the ocean beyond. Hera looked out upon it from bow of the ship, an unbroken horizon of deep blue.
Argus growled, and Hera turned back to see her champion hunched in a crouch under the main sail, his immense arms crossed angrily over his broad stone chest. A flock of gulls was orbiting above him, a winged halo to mirror his own wheel of faces. The imagery was lost on her giant, she then realized, as the birds seemed set on treating him as they would any ordinary statue. Argus remained unmoving despite his growing anger, for fear that any sudden movement to exercise his ire might capsize the ship.
Hera smirked, focusing her mind across her connection to nature. The birds twitched, and departed from above Argus to soar away toward the horizon. The giant offered her a grunt of thanks, scraping away at his shoulders to rid himself of what the gulls had left behind.
“Could have let me see to them, big guy,” said Thor, sending a quick wave of lightning rippling over Mjolnir. “Gulls aren't bad eating.”
“Just as well this way,” said Hera. “Until I know what it is we are facing and how to stop it, I'll need your strength undiminished.”
“Aye,” the God of Thunder ceded. “We go to find my true destiny, and I'll be ready to meet it.”
Hera watched Thor as he slowly paced the deck. Tension was writ across him as though he were a coiled spring. The worn leather wound about Mjolnir's grip creaked in his fist.
“What is it?” she asked.
Thor stopped, his usual affable manner gone. “Ever since I was old enough to stand, the Allfather prophesied my destiny. Thor, son of Odin and God of Thunder, the one who would rise to meet a darkness great enough to eclipse all the realms. Ragnarok was always foretold to be that darkness.”
“Was it not?” asked Hera. “Ragnarok very nearly destroyed us all.”
“And yet here we are,” replied Thor, “with Ragnarok ended, and in spite of all that was lost, of all the blood shed to end its madness, I find myself unfulfilled. Hollow, even. It was meant to be my greatest challenge, a moment where the fate of creation rests on a knife's edge, and that I would be the one to decide it. But that was not what happened.”
“It was Hel and Fenrir who unleashed Ragnarok's devastation. They would never have been defeated without you.”
“A family squabble,” Thor shook his head. “If Ragnarok was not truly the ground where my destiny will unfold, where my deeds will be the stuff of songs sung for all time, then perhaps this is. Fortune is in the wind, I can taste it. Whatever it is that is coming, I feel bound to it. Our fates are intertwined.”
“Then it is good that you are with us,” said Hera. Thor paused, lost in thought, before giving a short nod and returning to his pacing.
“The air has taken on a different weight,” said Ra. “Has it not?”
“Tell me,” said Hera. “What is it that we are seeking?”
Ra took a step forward to stand beside her. “In truth my Queen, I do not know what it is.”
Hera gave the Egyptian a sidelong glance. “Then how do you know that this is even the right course?”
She blinked. “What?”
Ra extended his hand out, looking down upon the shadow that it cast upon the deck. “Shadows cannot exist without light, they are kindred after a fashion. Each and every one of them is defined by the light that surrounds them and gives them shape. The danger that is coming, that is making its arrival known through the torment of the land and seas, is no different. It is darkness, and thus there is a light to confront it.”
Hera watched the eye at the end of Ra's staff, imagining an invisible chain linking it with their destination.
“That is how my Eye sees, my Queen,” said Ra, guessing at her thoughts. “In light, and in shadow. I may not know what we will find when we reach the end of the path it has laid out for us, but I am certain that it will be the key to our triumph.”
Their voyage continued across the ocean, bearing upon the course dictated by the Eye of Ra. Even as the sun dipped beneath the horizon and night draped the waves in darkness, the Sun God's luminescence continued to infuse the sails of the solar barge, making them shimmer like spun gold to carry them on.
Night passed into day, and the barge ended its western course. She turned north, and the air slowly grew colder as they left the lands of the Grecian and Roman pantheons behind. The mainland appeared as a hazy stripe across the eastern horizon, kept just within sight.
Hera descended into the ship, seeking to rest out of the sun's reach. There was much to consider before they arrived wherever the Eye was leading them, and Hera needed peace and solitude to examine what the proper course of action was to be.
But she would not get the chance.
The solar barge gave a sudden, violent heave that threw Hera from her feet. A crate snapped loose from where it had been secured behind her, exploding as her protective barrier flashed into place. Teeth clenched, Hera snapped up her sceptre, swiftly climbing the stairs leading back up to the top deck.
“What has happened?” shouted Hera over the spray and crashing waves. “A storm?”
“No,” bellowed Thor, looking up from where he gripped the ship's railing. “This is no storm!”
Hera joined his gaze, and then his confusion. The sky above them was still, a tranquil, blistering blue studded with only the barest wisps of cloud. And yet the ocean around them churned as though seized by the malice of a hurricane.
Waves reared up to colossal height, the smallest easily four times the ship's mast, before rolling and smashing down against one another like burbling thunder. The barge jerked and bucked as it was tossed between the immense breakers and caught within the violence of their collisions.
“Steel yourselves!” Ra called from the bow of the ship. He rooted himself at the very front, his every ounce of concentration devoted to the staff he held raised in both hands. The Eye pulsed, shining like a beacon amidst the chaos.
Hera felt the breath forced from her lungs as the barge was caught up upon the back of an ascending wave. They rose with alarming speed, the lacquered timber of Ra's vessel squealing and cracking as it flexed. Hera looked down, fighting the wash of vertigo to see the tempest lashing across the ocean's surface in a long, winding stripe.
Argus cried out with a sound like granite splitting, one arm wrapped about the ship's mast, the other stretching out toward Hera. She extended her hand, trying to reach his, but unable to from the railing she clung to. She crouched, lowering her center of gravity as the ship threatened to hurl her loose.
The wave reached its apex, momentum bleeding away as gravity fought to reassert itself and tear the mountain of water back down. Hera heard the ship groan like an anguished beast as it rode atop its summit, beginning to spin as the whitecap beneath began to dissipate. The bow tilted down toward the ocean's surface, and they fell.
The solar barge plunged down like an arrow, the light of its sail masked by the walls of shifting water churning around it. Hera felt her stomach fly up into her throat, nearly flung into the air a dozen times as the ship was buffeted by spray and the force of other colliding waves. The roiling surface grew closer, a swirling mass of water rushing up to meet them and dash them apart.
Another smaller wave surged up, taking hold of the barge like a clumsy fist. Water sprayed across the deck, falling in sheets heavy as lead. It stole the inertia of their dive, though, and saved them from striking the water at a speed that rendered it little different than stone. But the impact was still severe enough to overcome Hera's grip and send her spinning across the deck.
Hera cried out in pain and anger, any sense of direction stolen from her as she rushed over the slick timber. She twisted around as the tempest of waves smashed above her. She scrambled for a railing, a rope, or a gap of torn ship lathe, anything that could secure a handhold and keep her from being thrown overboard.
The barge spun, now flinging Hera in the opposite direction. The wave carrying them failed, dropping the ship and leaving the Queen of the Gods hanging in mid-air. Argus reached out, plucking Hera from the air. He drew her to him, one massive hand still clamped around the barge's mast, and brought her protectively to his chest.
A torrent of water slammed into the barge as they rolled up the center of a wave. Hera heard Ra cry out, growing too bright to see without blinding her. She looked away, feeling a moment of searing heat as a massive oncoming wave boiled away into steam.
Hera blinked the afterimages from her eyes, seeing Ra visibly sag at the bow as the barge passed into a patch of calmer water. For a moment, the ocean was merely violent, rather than lethal. Gasping for breath, Hera was able to collect herself and take in her surroundings.
The barge had travelled a great distance, through Ra's power somehow able to carve her way through the storm without reducing his ship to splinters. Hera could no longer see the mainland to the east, but there was a loose impression of land before them. There were what appeared to be isles ahead in the distance, barely visible through a bank of dense fog.
“Beneath us!” Thor roared, gesturing wildly to the ocean with his hammer.
Argus released Hera, and she hurried to the ship's railing. Had it been night, or in the midst of a storm that choked the heavens with thunderheads the shade of dark iron, she might have missed it. But the sun shone brightly, and the clear sky lent the ocean's surface a striking clarity.
There was something beneath the water. Hera could not determine any clear shape, only able to glimpse the impression of some vast object moving in the darkest depths. It covered an incredible distance, as though a mountain chain had detached itself from the ocean floor and now ground along by a will of its own. Judging from the distance between them, whatever it was, its scale was unimaginable.
All of the ruin inflicted, the seas in boiling turmoil, the land splitting and fissures swallowing entire cities, it had all arisen from the thrashing of this entity from somewhere deep within the earth, like a hatchling emerging from an egg.
Or a prison.
The thought turned Hera's blood to ice the instant that it dawned. What if that were the truth? That someone, or something, had captured this evil and confined it within the earth's core, as though the planet itself was its cage.
Now, it was trying to break free. And it was succeeding.
At the same moment Hera realized this, an immense shadow fell over her and the ship. She looked up, seeing nothing before them but a wall of foaming ocean. A liquid mountain had exploded into being, and time seemed to slow as it reached it zenith, and then came hurtling down.
The solar barge rolled up the tsunami a full ship's length before it was thrown at an angle and the hull snapped in half. The surf smashed the two halves into splinters, flinging the gods into the frothing deep.
Hera struck the water like a stone. Sound stretched like honey, muffled within a rushing cloud of bubbles. Icy cold seized hold of her despite the blazing sun she glimpsed above the surface, slowing her movements and her thoughts.
Her vision narrowed like a closing door, the temptation to relax and sleep nearly overwhelming. She had travelled so far, and fought so many battles. All she needed was a moment to rest. She had earned as much, just a moment.
She refused to let the ocean carry her down into its depths, where the newly emerged darkness was spilling out like a living shadow. Whatever that entity was, it must be opposed. It must be defeated. She would not allow her odyssey to end here.
Hera shook off the lingering concussion of the impact, summoning her barrier that coated her body and expanded outward into a sphere. Hera released the breath she had been holding, drawing new air into her lungs from what she had conjured within her bubble. As her vision cleared, she oriented herself, rising toward the surface.
The sun's heat felt like paradise to the chilled flesh of Hera's face. She allowed her barrier to extinguish, using her sceptre to support herself as she swam for land. The misty isles were not far, and though she was exhausted, Hera's determination would see her to their shores.
Hera collapsed onto the beach, fingers carving grateful channels in the wet sand. After a moment's respite she hauled herself upright, scanning around her and seeing that the other gods had already made it ashore. Ra crackled as his heat boiled away the water soaking him, while Thor stood next to him, almost completely dry.
“I flew,” said Thor after reading her expression. He looked down at Mjolnir and frowned. “I should have just flown.”
“Argus,” Hera looked across the beach, then into the rolling surf. “Argus!”
As if on command, the brutal fingers of a massive stone hand shot up from the surface of the water. The full hand emerged, followed by the arm and then the many faces of Hera's champion. Argus trudged forward across the beach to them, spinning his wheel to dry his faces of seawater.
“Well done my friend,” said Hera, reaching up to pull a strand of seaweed from the giant's armour. She looked to Ra. “I am sorry for what happened to your ship.”
Ra dipped his head. “It is regrettable, yes. But fear not, her sails shall bear me across the waters of this world once more.”
Hera's curiosity was peaked by the Egyptian's answer, and had this been any other time she would have pressed him further. But for now it was irrelevant, and time was of the essence here.
“So,” Thor looked to Ra. “This is where we will find what we have been searching for?”
“Quite so,” the Sun God lifted his staff, the Eye blazing like a torch. “The closer we come, the stronger the Eye's light.”
“Let us not tarry here, then,” Hera looked back at the chaotic waters behind them, and her companions did the same. “We are out of time.”
They crossed the beach in silence, each of them working to collect their own thoughts as they ventured deeper into the isle. The thin strip of coarse sand quickly gave way to high rocky hills, green with dew-laden grass. Mist clung to their walls and in the valleys between them, broken only by the scurrying of wild herds.
“There is a high ground, just ahead,” said Ra, pointing with his staff. “Those cliffs. From there, we can gain a sense of the geography of this place.”
The group began to climb. The rocky, hilly terrain of the isle was deceptively difficult to traverse, slick with the ever-present fog that hung over the ground like some obstinate spirit. The wet climate ensured that the ground was thick with sucking mud, and a chilling wind howled through the valleys and cut deep to the bone. Stretches of hills that had appeared at first to require little time to negotiate took hours, as though the isle itself was punishing them for every uninvited step taken upon its surface.
Despite it all, Hera found a thin smile lingering upon her face. To think what she would have said of herself before, trekking across the world, the sights she has seen, the battles she has fought. What would the old Hera, bored and aloof upon her throne atop Olympus, have said to her now? What would Zeus have said?
She stopped. Hera's eyes drifted upward to the sky, where a pair of darkening clouds was grinding together to the north. She glimpsed the tiny sparks of lightning as they blinked between them, and she felt their distant thunder within her heart. She believed her husband would have been proud of what she had done.
“Are you alright my queen?” asked Ra, the party coming to a halt.
“I am well,” Hera replied, still bearing a thin but warm smile. “Let us keep going.”
Another hour's climb saw them atop the cliffs. As Ra had said, they offered a bird's eye view over much of the isle. From here, they would be able to chart a path leading to their prize, and not a moment too soon.
It was Thor, as Hera had come to rely, who finally put voice to the question that each of them shared as they looked out over the cliff.
“What is it?”
“I do not know,” Ra shook his head slowly. “But I believe that it is safe to say that is the darkness we have been awaiting. And now it has arrived.”
“The size of it,” said Hera. “It was the cause of those waves, just moving itself did that. Like some kind of incredible serpent.”
“Or a wyrm,” Thor looked at Hera. “A dragon.”
That last word echoed in Hera's thoughts, ricocheting off the walls of her mind. She spared a last glance at the ocean, its surface growing more tumultuous by the moment, and then back to the interior of the isle, where their only hope waited to be found.
What could possible be there that could help us? Hera found herself wondering again, fighting to keep back the despair threatening to take hold of her heart.
What slays dragons?
Chapter 7 - Of Kings & Dragons
As Hera and the other gods stood upon the cliff, watching the ocean churn in violent tumult, a ray of light slashed up into the sky. Hera spun, her eyes locked to the spear of brilliant radiance piercing the heavens. Ra looked to his staff, seeing that all illumination had been drained from his Eye.
“That is where we must go,” said the Sun God. “The sight my Eye has led us to, it is there.”
Thor did not look back as the others had. His attention was focused solely upon the frothing waves, as the level of the ocean began to rise. Only it was not the ocean, but rather something within its deepest depths, revealing itself at last.
Eyes, even those of the divine, failed to grasp the scale of it at first. To say that it was vast seemed an almost laughable understatement. A section of mottled gray-green broke from the surface, segmented into rows of rigid, bony plates, any one of them a match in size for the small islands that dotted the coastline. Though the immensity of them was dizzying, something within Thor recognized them for what they truly were.
“We need to go now,” Hera commanded, splitting her gaze between the shaft of light and the horror unfolding before them.
“You had best be about it, then,” said Thor.
“What?” Hera exclaimed. “No, we stay together. You are coming with us.”
“I am precisely where I am meant to be,” answered Thor. He squared his shoulders to the coast, slowly twisting his neck in a soft crackle masked by the roar of displacing seawater. “We spoke of destiny, my Queen, well here it is. Yours lies at the spot where that light falls, mine has come to meet me here.”
Hera made to move to the God of Thunder's side, to jar him from his course and make him see sense, but stopped.
“Go,” he said calmly, his grip tightening around Mjolnir. The mountain chain of scaled flesh continued to unwind from the water, widening as a crown of twisted horns breached the ocean's surface. “Whatever has come for us, I shall face it.”
Thor shot Hera a glance. “Go!”
They delayed no further. Hera rushed from the cliff's edge toward the light, with Ra and Argus following behind her. Thor looked back, sparing a moment to watch them go, as the light from the sun died.
It seemed that way, such was the shadow that now fell over Thor. A gargantuan, primordial face, both reptilian and impossibly indefinable, glared down upon the God of Thunder from beneath ridges of spiked bone and a mantle of curling, bladed horns. Twin eyes the size of palace doors blazed, split by a slash of pupil dark as the space between the stars.
“I think,” said Thor up at the creature, his voice even and without fear, “That I shall have to build quite a hall to house your trophy. Perhaps I'll make it from your skull.”
The thing's scaly lips parted, revealing staggered rows of fangs longer than Thor was tall. When it spoke, the Norse god felt the words as much as he heard them, such was the force of the being that uttered them. Furnace heat blasted the ground with every breath, whipping down at Thor with a hurricane's force.
“Time,” it said, the impossibly deep rumble of an avalanche. “Much has passed, yet so little has changed. I bestride creation once again, and behold it given over to insects.”
“Insect?” Thor spat in derision. “You face Thor, God of Thunder! I have vanquished gods and monsters of every kind. I have faced doom and darkness and even Ragnarok, the end of days, and triumphed. Destiny is all, and victory shall be mine. Name thyself, beast, so that I might know who I will break beneath Mjolnir this day.”
With glacial slowness, the monster tilted its head, studying Thor as a child might examine a fly.
“Such tiny things, with your little dreams and destinies. You have meddled with power you could never understand, and failing to control it, you hid it away, proclaiming victory and believing that you are safe. I rise, awoken by your foolishness, and grant you a simple truth: you say you triumphed over Ragnarok, but you have triumphed over nothing. I am Jormungandr, the World Serpent and ender of your days. I am Ragnarok.”
Hera kept running as the shadow fell over the isle. She did not look back, even as she heard the monster speak, as clearly as though it were right beside her.
The World Serpent, the title echoed through her mind. Jormungandr. The name meant nothing to her, even with all the knowledge gathered on Olympus. To think that such a being has existed within creation all of this time, and was it truly the actions of the pantheons, sending the power of Ragnarok into the earth, that awoke it? Did they bring this calamity about upon themselves?
She ran faster, sprinting through the low fog of the hills toward the light ahead and salvation. If it was the gods who had unleashed this evil, then it fell upon the gods to turn it back.
“What is waiting within that light, Ra?”
The Egyptian shook his head, keeping pace at Hera's side as Argus stomped a few paces behind them. “I know not my Queen. But if it can defeat this monstrosity, its power must be great indeed.”
As they left the coast behind, the hills gave way to thick, dense forest. The gods darted between the trees, glimpsing through the canopy to keep their orientation on the light. Hera's journey had left her exhausted, on the brink of collapse, but she pressed on. She did not know how long Thor could stand against the beast, but she needed to seize every moment he bought for her.
“If you are quite done talking?” Thor spun Mjolnir in a blur of lightning-sleeved steel. “Perhaps we can see how long you can manage before I send you back down the hole that you slithered out of?”
An earth-rattling rumble issued from Jormungandr's throat, a cross between a growl and thoughtful consideration. “Very well. Let us see what sport you can offer me, little lightning bug.”
Mjolnir hummed in Thor's grip, shivering with lightning. It appeared as a ring of sparking steel, barely contained in his grasp. Thor bared his teeth, pouring more strength into spinning his hammer even faster, and leapt up into the air with a battle cry on his lips.
Fire burst out from Thor's heart, filling his veins with righteous fury. Finally, at long last, his destiny lay before him. The fulfilment of the maddening whispers dreamt by his father that had followed Thor from the day of his birth. The constant struggle to find the test that would define him, the singular battle that would see his legend sung for all of time, it was here and now.
Jormungandr watched as Thor hurtled toward him, unmoving but for the hissing geysers of hot breath that slashed from his nostrils. Neither of his colossal eyes blinked as Thor reached his zenith and descended hammer-first.
Thor made contact like a meteor, striking with a blow that rang out across the sky with a peel of deafening thunder. He expected a haze of flash-fried blood, to be surrounded in a cloud of broken scale fragments and the stink of scorched meat. The strength he had thrown into the blow was enough to split mountains, and had in the past. Yet that is not what happened.
The World Serpent drew back a fraction, dissipating the force of Thor's attack and sending him spinning away like a ricocheting stone. The God of Thunder recovered in mid-air, forgoing a single devastating strike and instead resorting to a flurry of lightning-fast attacks across the beast's gargantuan head.
Again and again Thor struck Jormungandr, his furious orbit leaving rings of residual lightning dancing about the serpent's skull. Every blow from Mjolnir glanced from the plates of hardened scale, boiling the water around them as power coursed down onto its surface. But no matter how many times his hammer struck true, the monster was unmoved.
Thor crashed down onto the top of Jormungandr's skull, hewing left and right into the nest of bladed horns atop the serpent's head. The impacts jarred up his limbs, sheening him in sweat and filling his muscles with the acidic kiss of fatigue. He pushed the exhaustion from his mind. Destiny was calling, and he would not be denied.
With a cry, Thor raised Mjolnir to the sky. A whirling scud of thick, dark stormcloud amassed overhead, riven with crackling chains of lightning. Thor leapt up, gathering the lightning to himself, and smashed back down.
The strike drove the head of Jormungandr down beneath the ocean. Leagues of water shot up into the air like a geyser, boiling into mist and hammering down onto the isle and ocean alike.
Thor flew up out of the water, trailing steam like a comet's tail as he landed back upon the cliff. His shoulders heaved with weariness, and Mjolnir slipped from his fingers to hang from its leather strap about his wrist. He had poured much of the power he had left into the strike he had landed. It left him drained, but the result was incredible, enough to bring any god or monster low. But Thor knew in his heart that he would not win his destiny so easily.
Like a mountain breaching the water, Jormungandr surged back up from the ocean. A patch of the pale scales atop his head was blackened and charred from Thor's blow, and a new fire was imbued in his eyes as his rage was stoked to its fullest.
“I tire of these games,” the World Serpent rumbled. He raised his jaw to the heavens, rearing back like a tower of scale and bone, before surging down toward the cliff with inconceivable force.
Crashing through the underbrush, Hera continued her rush through the forest with Ra and Argus just behind. The spear of light was nearly overhead, tantalizingly within reach. Her mind raced with the thought of what awaited them, some sacred treasure or ancient weapon strong enough to overcome the World Serpent's power. Thor had done well to delay the monster this long, and she only needed a little while longer before she found what they had all sought.
The densely packed forest began to thin, and Hera could sense a change in nature ahead. They passed through the last of the trees, and found themselves at the edge of a vast, shimmering lake. Its surface was like glass, utterly still despite the thunderous rattle of Thor and Jormungandr's conflict.
Hera's breath caught in her throat, though it was not from the lake's beauty. Her eyes fell upon a small island in the middle of the lake, barely large enough for a dozen people to stand upon. At the centre of the island there was an altar, the source of the light shining up into the sky above.
The gods began to wade into the lake toward the island and the altar. The lake was shallow, barely rising to their chests, and they hurried on toward their final destination. Hera could scarcely believe it herself, that her entire odyssey, from the gates of Mount Olympus through Asgard and her arena and more, had led to this moment.
A feverish excitement gave new strength to Hera and Ra, with Argus sloshing dutifully in their wake. They reached the island, with no other thought but the altar ahead and the fruit of their journey upon it. Ra came to a halt a few steps away, allowing Hera to approach it alone. A smile beamed from the Queen of the Gods as she stopped before it at last.
The altar was a simple thing, a waist-high construction of stone blocks, bereft of any ornamentation save a carving at its base. Hera inspected the glyph, a dragon with its tail coiled and it wings raised in flight. It did not appear to be the World Serpent, though Hera could sense the two shared some indelible link. She looked atop the altar, expecting a weapon or tome, something she could wield to destroy Jormungandr, and the smile of triumph vanished from her face.
“What is it?” Ra looked to Hera. “What have we found?”
“Nothing,” Hera whispered, unable to believe the words herself. “There is nothing here.”
Jormungandr struck the cliffside in a tectonic crash. The face of the cliff sheared away, collapsing down into the ocean in a rolling cloud of dust and pulverized rock.
From out of the billowing dust, Thor flew, sheathed in lightning. He landed atop Jormungandr's head, fighting to keep his balance as he dashed across the monster's skull. The God of Thunder skidded to a halt above one of the serpent's baleful eyes, and with a bellow of rage swung Mjolnir down.
The World Serpent loosed an ululating roar, thrashing its enormous head from side to side and sending Thor spinning into the air. He recovered in mid-air, swinging Mjolnir around to send himself rocketing into the blinding pall of crushed stone billowing around them. His wounded eye shut tight, Jormungandr looked for Thor through the dust, seeking out the god to vent his wrath.
Thor shot out from the cloud, stitching a path of hammer blows across Jormungandr before vanishing back into the dust. He continued this assault, never appearing from the same angle twice, laying into scale, bone and horn in one moment and then gone the next.
Thor pushed himself to his limits, and then past them. He fought with a fury he had never before known, refusing to allow the exhaustion to take hold of him. He had stood his ground against the beast, and he had hurt him. And if he could be harmed, then he could die.
The God of Thunder summoned the last reserves of his strength, his sights set upon Jormungandr's other eye. Blind, it would only be a matter of time before the World Serpent would be overcome, no matter his incredible size. All Thor needed to do was throw everything he had into one last strike.
From the darkened skies above Thor drew the tempest's lightning, flooding his body with shivering chains of blinding light. He emerged from the pall of dust, Mjolnir held high and a battle cry on his lips, as he made ready to destroy Ragnarok once and for all.
With a blur of speed that should have been impossible for a creature of such size, Jormungandr rounded upon Thor. His eye opened, revealing it to be completely unharmed.
A clever ruse, Thor thought in the instant before the World Serpent struck him.
“How can this be?” Ra rushed to Hera's side. He swept his staff over the altar, passing it through the column of light. Hera reached out to touch the radiance, but the moment before her fingers made contact, it extinguished.
Silence stretched across the still lake. Argus shifted back and forth, his fists bunching. Ra shrank back from the altar, leaning upon his staff. “We must go.”
Hera spun to look at the Sun God. “Go? Go where?”
“There is nothing here,” said Ra, gesturing to the empty altar. “Perhaps there was once, but you see it as clearly as I. If we flee now, we can still put distance between ourselves and the serpent, rally the pantheons and—”
“No,” Hera shook her head. “There is no place we can go that Jormungandr cannot follow.” She turned back to the altar. She had come this far, she would not turn back. There had to be more to this altar than she could see.
“Hera, please,” Ra reached for her.
“This can't be it,” said Hera, fighting to keep panic or despair from her voice. “The light, your Eye, they guided us here. There has to be something. There has to be something.”
Then she saw it.
Hera glimpsed where the column of light had once been, where it had risen from the surface of the altar. There was something different about the air above it. It was as though reality itself was thinner, like glimpsing through a veil. A veil to another, distant place.
“This isn't an altar.”
Ra looked to Hera. “What?”
She looked back at them, her eyes alive with a newfound hope. “It is a door.”
Jormungandr roared, a crippling wall of sound that sent Thor reeling. A cloud of dark, phlegmy ooze sprayed from the serpent's maw, saturating the God of Thunder. The viscous, tar-like substance burned as it ate into Thor's skin. The god cried out in anger and pain as he fell, writhing as the hideous toxins in the venom blurred his vision and stole the balance from his limbs.
Gravity seized hold of Thor, returning him to the earth in a booming crash that drove the air from his lungs. Thor fought to raise himself to his knees, before crumpling back down. He ground his teeth against the pain, reaching out for Mjolnir, the mythic hammer lying just beyond his grasp.
A wave of hot, stinking breath washed over Thor. He strained to raise his head, looking up into the gaze of the World Serpent.
“It would have been better for you,” rumbled Jormungandr, “if you had left me sleeping. You have ushered in your own destruction, but I shall thank you for it all the same.”
“Do it then,” Thor managed to spit. “End it, beast.”
Another considerate growl rattled from the monster's gullet. “Perhaps, in a time long ago, I would have crushed you now until no trace of you remained. But I am not without beneficence.”
Jormungandr reared up to his full, towering height, staring over the isle as the column of light vanished.
“I shall allow you to endure, little god,” said the serpent as he ventured forward to the lake. “Endure. Stare out into the world you have damned, and witness its dismemberment.”
Ra drove his staff into the earth, sinking to his knees as he joined the last dregs of his power with Hera's. The Queen of the Gods lifted her sceptre over the altar, her power questing for a hold upon the veil she had seen. It was like grasping at smoke.
An unnatural wind tore across the lake, and Hera looked up to see Jormungandr coming. Her heart sank at the fate of Thor, but resolved that his sacrifice would not be in vain. With Ra's strength added to hers, she gained a hold of a space between worlds.
She had wrought portals before, but never like this. The fabric of reality, the very laws that governed nature and creation, resisted her. Like drawing two colossal magnets together she sought to join two separate realms, and she felt herself slip away in its creation. She gave everything she had, falling to one knee, when reality tore.
A portal opened, and time slowed as though frozen in ice. The doorway to another place shimmered, revealing nothing but a golden, blinding light beyond. Hera squinted, her eyes stinging as she beheld it.
Two beings appeared on the other side, their faces rendered masked and indistinct by the energies of the portal. Hera reached out to them, willing herself to move, fingers outstretched as the World Serpent cast his shadow over them all.
Help us, she implored.
Hera's fingers brushed against the portal, and she felt the cold grasp of steel as a gauntleted hand took hold of hers. An arm, sheathed in mail and shining plate, followed it, until the first of the figures emerged fully from the realm beyond. He looked down at Hera, Ra and Argus, a divine radiant king, his breastplate was adorned with the same dragon etched into the stone altar. In his hand was a sword, more beautiful than any she had ever seen.
The second figure stepped through the portal, joining his companion at his side. He appeared to be a normal man of indeterminate years, yet the air wavered and flexed around him. Hera sensed an intense magical prowess emanating from him, the limitless potential possessed by a weaver of ancient powers and untold secrets.
The portal waned, fizzing as it dissipated into the air behind the newcomers. Time began to flow once more, though slowed like honey.
“Curious,” said the wizard, his voice an even, sly tone. “I had pictured Avalon differently in my dreams.”
“Who are you?” Hera asked.
“Excuse my friend,” said the king, the warmth of his smile at odds with the chaos closing around them. “Merlin is lacking in the finer graces I fear.”
“I have crossed this world,” said Hera, struggling to her feet and pointing up as Jormungandr drew closer. “In search of what can defeat this evil.”
The King nodded. “I am Arthur. Your search, dear Lady, is over.”