The two bounty hunters couldn’t really say anything as they watched Ugaba fade away in a red steaming pile of enchanted meat. Vrendel was breathing hard, pushing plums of steam out into the biting air. His armor was so large and bulky it looked like a small city of metal pulsating on his back. His brown shield wasn’t shattered, but bent inwards like a smashed roll. He shook the plate trying to get it to pop back into place. Snow had started to petal about the air.
“We should get moving, Frigga’s just up the road,” Bow said.
“Just give me a second. I got smashed by a dead giant after all,” Vrendel said. He started walking and coughed up a blob of blood.
“More than a second, I need a little more,” Vrendel said.
“You can only have a few. With the blood and meat, the wolves will be out,” Bow said.
“I’m not sure they’re going to want her leftovers,” Vrendel said.
He shook his shoulders back and forth a little bit. The muscles in his chest were trying to separate his ribs with swelling. Even with Vrendel’s large form and abundance of metal armor, a hit from a giant normally kills another man. In previous combats with giants, trolls, and anything tall with heinous amounts of strength, Vrendel would dodge their swipes and attacks with sidesteps. He was light on his feet for a big guy, but he knew they didn’t have a chance against Ugaba unless they exposed the placement of charm.
Bow dissected the Black Ends. The forest looked less villainous and brambly. The trees had released their long held breath, and could now relax without a dead giant peering over their shadows. At the very end of her eyes she could see the tangled wall surrounding Frigga. It wasn’t easy to see through the layers of wired woods, but sure enough through the sea of points there stood the walls of Frigga.
“They already have their Fimbul Walls up?” Bow said. She patted Vrendel’s huge shoulder as she walked up the path a little bit further. “How’d they know to have them up? That bitch of a crone in the castle never leaks her predictions. If they lost contact, how would they know about her?”
“Just guesses anyways, Bow. Besides, they might just be paranoid or extra ambitious,” Vrendel said. He finally started walking gingerly. He used the crown of his mace as the tip of a cane. He stretched his shoulders again and tried to pick up the pace. He knew Bow liked him, but not enough to fight off a horde of wolves if he was too slow.
“No Vren, no. No shitty little town this close to Jotunheim is ambitious. I was born in one of these frosty pits. I made it out, but most people never get away from the business that makes them last so close to the giants. You got to have a certain type of city to make it happen. Frigga has the right type of ugly to survive.” Bow said. More flattened hairs of snow mixed with white sunlight. A few crows cackled nearby like feathery cracks of glass.
“You’ve got a lot of allusions in you today, Bow. You can’t fault a small town for making some ramparts to keep the wildlife out. You’re perceptive, and you came from a shit-hole. Maybe the dice just got rolled right for Frigga, and they’ve got a thinker there,” Vrendel said.
“Eh,” Bow said, taking point down the path.
They walked the scribbling white line of snow for another mile. They didn’t say anything. They didn’t breathe too hard. They didn’t want to draw any attention to themselves. Bow was on point so she could see anything trying to flank them in the Ends. Vrendel was the tail of the line, for the simple reason that if someone attacked, his armor and guile could probably postpone the intended fatality for at least one strike.
The Fimbul Wall of Frigga started to rise up like a tangle-wood wave on some shore. The barrier was only meant to be constructed for the winter of all winters, but there had been no communication with the oracle and Frigga that they were entering the twilight of the gods. When Fimbul came, the wolves would sense their king Fenrir coming for Ragnarok, and in homage would enter into the very same phantom rage he did. Yellow and thatched roofs started to pop over the disheveled line of mortared and broken trees. They looked like misplaced mushrooms. Smoke was absent from their stony chimneys. The Iron Citadel stood distant in the whiteness of the sky, like a shy child at a birthday party. You could only make out its metal-sharp forehead against the flurries.
“Almost there, huh? Felt like a long while,” Vrendel said.
A howl, high and sinister echoed on the white air. A wolf, but with something extra mixing the eeriness in its esophagus.
“Fuck, was it waiting for me to speak?” Vrendel said. He looked over his right shoulder and down the path. The distant road was full of eyes, savage and yellow, beaming back at the two hunters.
“The forest is gone, so is the path. They filled in the spaces between the trees,” Bow said. She pulled Blood Thunder out of her fur and jammed it into her right shoulder.
“I’ve never known that many wolves to be in one spot before.”
At first it looked like the Black Ends had meshed together into a fur-fused wall. The closer you looked at the wedge of panting wolves, the more you could sort out drooling teeth, steaming nostrils, and worn paws. There were hundreds of wolves, all working together. A pack over pack unification for the end of the world.
“Help me find the alpha, it’s got to be the one that howled,” she said.
Vrendel’s mace was out and his shield was ready. They were about half a mile out of Frigga, but the wolves were much closer to them. In a dead sprint towards the city, they’d assuredly get caught in the open. Vrendel’s eyes bounced along the line of snarling wolves. It took a few moments for their hisses to reach the two hunter’s ears, but once they did they ate up all the noise like a visceral orchestra.
“Got it,” Bow said, aiming the crossbow. At the center of the line, a step ahead of the snarling wolves, a giant grey male stood like a growling mountain. His eyes were a perfect red, an alpha charmed by Ragnarok.
“Good, look at that, he’s a big one. Pretty soon we won’t be able to travel anywhere without watching for wolves,” Vrendel said.
Bow released the arrow down the path. It bounced up and down on the air above the path, then curved into the black ends. Vrendel squinted as the feather-lined arrow broke through the trees and into limitless pack. It hit the alpha in its barrel-like chest, dropping into the thick fur like a toy dart.
“Got the ugly. Without the pack leader they’ll need a moment. Let’s run,” Bow said. She was about to turn around, but the red eyes of the alpha kept her staring. The giant body of the grey wolf kept standing, a jawed statue forged to the ground. Something shadowy, stretched, and shapeless pulled itself out of the wolf’s broad shoulders. It struggled for a second like trapped smoke. Then, it hit the air in a billowing stream. The red eyes left the alpha like withered candle light, and its body collapsed to the ground. The shade then wrenched backwards in a fluid spiral, and jumped into the sea of wolves. Almost immediately, another wolf of the same color and marks parted from the ranks.
“I thought you hit it!” Vrendel said. He turned and chugged down the path towards the distant city and past the awestruck Bow.
“I did, shouldn’t be alive. Something came out of it and jumped someplace else,” Bow said. She followed Vrendel in a heavy sprint. Vrendel was pained and limping, but he had to run full speed to survive.
Howls and snarls bit about the air as the two hunters ran. If you were watching from the sky like a raven’s eye, you’d be watching two burdened dots charging down a white line, with a sea of rolling backs and tails at their heels. Vrendel and Bow managed to close the gap between themselves and Frigga relatively quick. Both hunters could barely breath, and the bursts of vapor from their dried lips would trail behind there sprints. Neither of them could look back. Neither of them could really focus on the city in front of them. Both of them could only wait for a particularly fast wolf to snap into their tendons along the back of their legs, and then falling down to be swarmed over by the feral tide.
Lungs felt inadequate. Legs weren’t really moving. The white path beneath their feet seemed to never end, along with the lines of broken black trees. The tangled Fimbul Wall popped up in front of them like a halo of twisted brick, rock, mortar, and wood. Behind the thirty foot wall the city reared up. The Iron Citadel looked like a metal square of a bookmark amongst a sea of books. On the rectangular roof of the building, a person was stand on its edge starting down at them. Bow’s eyes could tell it was a man beneath a red cloak, but his back and chest looked oblong and peculiar, like something extra was stuffed there. Bow couldn’t see his face beneath the tattered hood, but there were teeth hanging over the cloth’s edge.
They looked like stretched human teeth.
Something sharped nipped at the heels of Vrendel’s boots. He could tell it was the charging fangs of a wolf. He closed his eyes, and waited for the next snap to take him down.
The figure waved an obscenely long hand with giant fingers into the white air. The bouncing earth underneath the wolf’s feet seemed to stutter and stop, like a broken motor. Vrendel collapsed to the ground next to Bow, who had turned to watch the wolves. The entire legion of muzzles and teeth had stopped. Now, only their glowing eyes moved between the flaking snow.
Something had stopped them. Something made them afraid to wrench apart the two hunters at the foot of the Fimbul Wall. Bow searched quickly for the figure again, but the crimson cloak was gone from the rooftop.
“What was that?” she said.