“What was that?” Vrendel asked. The wolves had formed a panting ring of frost around the city. Eyes, teeth, and drooling snouts surrounded them on all sides. Vrendel walked backwards towards the wall with his shield over his left side and the mace dragging dirt and snow. He didn’t want to turn his back to them completely. The situation was still blood-hungry, not to mention unsettling. Bow loaded her crossbow, and backpedaled toward the latched tower of a gate, which sat like a grated eye in the center of the tangled barrier. She glanced back at the wolves as she moved. More fangs, red eyes, and phantom hunger. The figure was gone. The wolves weren’t going to stay still for much longer. They’d find another level of hunger and charge them.
“Vren, the gate’s locked,” Bow said, swallowing the rising panic in her voice.
“On it.” The afternoon light had a hint of crusty blue to it, like the moon should have been out instead of the sun. A few restless howls left the storm-ready wolves. Vren ran to the gate and smashed the round latch attached to the side of the door with his mace. The collision of standing steel against a desperate war club echoed into the Black Ends, throwing a cluster of sparks into the air.
“Sorry,” Vrendel huffed, and kicked the door open with a metal boot. The eerie groan of untouched, unmoved, and unwilling metal hung on the air. A cobblestone road opened up like a cracked and dull layer of light. A shadow moved in the alleyways of the city just a mile ahead. “Get in so I can close the goddamn door,” Vrendel said impatiently. Bow was still watching the wolves. The moment Vrendel had stepped foot into Frigga they’d fallen silent, their low growls and throaty rumbles tapering off in the winter air. A few whines even drifted up from the masses.
“They’re silent. Are they afraid?”
“For fuck’s sake Bow, who cares? Just get in while they’re still that way.”
“Something unnatural is happening here. Something weird.” Rolling his eyes, Vrendel pulled Bow inside by her hanging coat and swung the gate shut like a squared wing.
“Yeah, well, there are a bunch of weird things happening everywhere. This place might have an apex.”
“I’m serious Vren. It’s bad enough it’s Fimbul, but what could a pack of wolves that massive have to be afraid of?”
“You’re not one to contemplate the feelings of others, Bow. I’m not sure you should be thinking about these things anyways. Just stick to Blood Thunder. It’s what you’re best at.”
Bow wiggled her narrow form beneath her coat. She relaxed the muscles in her thighs and took a deep breath. The view through the thin grates of the gate was narrow.
“Can’t see anything, anyways,” she said.
Frigga opened up to them a lost and empty jewel of yellowed roofs, bricked houses, and cobblestone streets with curls of bridges. Homes had slits of stained glass, trickling metal, and hats of uneven snow. Some hovels were bigger than others. They typically had a brown, weathered sign dangling from their edges like an animal tag. Blacksmith, tavern, inn: they were all the usual suspects for any small town outside Grayton’s territory. You wouldn’t fine a larger town than this in such close proximity to Jotunheim. Bow and Vrendel seldom traveled past the south edge of the Black Ends and Frigga towards the Giant’s Teeth, which was a spine of silver mountains parting Midgard and Jotunheim.
Bow and Vrendel waited on the outskirts of the street. The road split into two adjacent paths leading into the city. The hunters knew they could take either route to the Iron Citadel, since that was the center of the town. It was the literal metal sun pulling the city round. Neither bounty hunter knew the exact population of the city. There was plenty of trade that occurred at the marketplace towards the Citadel, so the town probably fluctuated with relative ease. Even so, both hunters knew for certain it was too populated to not have a single person meet them at the city’s northern gate. Wagons sat empty. Doors blew back and forth like bad omens.
“How long has it been quiet here?” Vrendel asked, studying the alleys and empty glass windows with sharp and wary eyes.
“They said four months, but it might’ve been longer: info out of Graytons is sketchy at best.” Bow held Blood Thunder in her right hand beneath her cloak, ready at hand should the need to use it arise. The shadows beneath the sunless sky had a sinister drift to them, like they didn’t want to be out in the open either.
“Let’s head right,” Vren pointed.
“Let’s head left,” Bow pointed.
The shadows looked shorter and less wild on the path to their right.
“You are seeing what I’m seeing, right? I mean, we’re looking at the same thing, aren’t we? You haven’t mixed up your lefts and rights again, have you?”
“We’ll be here less time if we draw out what made all these people disappear,” Bow said simply, starting left and bringing the conversation -and the debate- to an obvious close. Vrendel said nothing. This argument wasn’t worth it. You had to pick your battles carefully with Bow. He just trailed silently behind her with his tree of a mace bouncing on his shoulder.
Each street looked the same as they walked. They were empty, brown-worn, frost-wormed, and sickeningly grey. Each building bounced up and down the same way, with little variation or difference. It was almost like they were watching a strip of images being pulled over and over in succession with absolutely no variation.
“This is wrong; the Citadel should be here already.”
“I knew you were going to say that. You’re so predictable,” Bow said.
“What else would I say in this situation? I keep looking at the sky and its metal point hasn’t moved an inch.” Vrendel walked ahead of Bow and banged one of the brick walls with his mace. The crunch echoed back and forth down the alley. “You think that red guy from the roof is doing this?”
“Not sure, but it feels like these streets are either warped or enchanted. Start marking the walls with your mace.”
Vrendel began to drag his mace along the brick walls in random intervals. The more Vrendel marked the brick, the more the streets and buildings seemed to fluctuate like crumpled cloth. The road suddenly started to change beneath their boots, and cracked cobblestones appeared where they had not been before.
“It’s working, keep at it,” Bow said. She propped Blood Thunder underneath her armpit and watched the endpoint of the road flutter like a clothesline. Suddenly the walls turned bright red, and the figure from earlier emerged in front of the two hunters. His back was turned. His cloak slowly pulled back together like tentacles receding towards their host, like light finally making its way to the end of a tunnel. “What in Hel? It trapped us in here!” Bow said. She aimed Blood Thunder at the figure. She could see him more clearly now that the crimson appendages had withdrawn. It was a man, twice as tall as Vrendel, and his body was tightly wrapped in the fiery cloth. No other features were present except for the hood, with the dangling edges of teeth. The footsteps the person had made shattered the cobblestones like breadcrumbs. “Halt, or I’ll fire,” Bow said.
“What? What are you doing, Bow? We don’t even know who he is!”
“Oh, for fuck’s sake, Vren. Put two and two together! He’s the reason for the town vanishing.”
The figure stopped. The shadows seemed to draw back in the streets as he turned. The rooftops, now tilled and not thatched this close to the Citadel, seemed to pull upwards away from the ground, like the shingles didn’t want to be there. The figure suddenly jumped skywards, and crawled up an adjacent roof like a fabric-spider. In his leap, Vrendel caught sight of his face, for a split second. The face was human looking, only it had three eyes, all empty, no nose, and a hanging gap for a mouth.
“Don’t fire!” Vrendel screamed.
The monster broke right and vanished amongst the rooftops. Vrendel had never known anything so large to move with that much speed.
“What were you thinking Vren? I don’t want to stay this close to Jotunheim any longer than we have to.” She shook her crossbow at him with every word.
“Did you see its face?” Bow sighed.
“No, Vren, I was a little too busy trying to do what we came here for to look at its face. Why? What was so special about it?”
“It had three eyes, but the sockets were all empty.”
“Probably just a giant with a weird mutation. Like I said, we’re right next to Jotunheim!”
Vrendel put a finger over her lips and pointed directly in front them. The Iron Citadel rose up like a sinister steel block. They had completely missed its location since they’d been walking. Its cold shadow had even been hidden away by the figure and his cloak. The Citadel was etched with traces of dragons, giants, and storms, engraved into its hardened exterior with eerily realistic precision. Captured stories, molded into metal, bloomed towards the sky in carved prints. The city behind them was narrow and tight, like it was pushing them towards the doors, which were giant and menacing. They were painted red, and had two huge vulture wings carved into the sides for handles.
The doors were slightly ajar, and a trail of blood pooled out at the two hunters from the darkness within.
“We’re here,” Vrendel said.
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