The boat continued down the river, winding its way from the shiny planes of Olympian lands to the gloomier plane of Viking lore. The roots of Yggdrasil were everywhere, crawling their way through the shores and across the river like bridges. It was impossible to escape the presence of the World Tree – the Cosmic Tree – here, and from every vantage point you could see it ascend beyond human sight. Scratch shifted in the boat, seemingly uncomfortable. To the casual observer he might appear uneasy with his surroundings but to Essence he simply appeared uncomfortable, at times, in his skin. He still was not used to the confines of a mortal shell.
“Things are moving along the tree,” Essence said, to neither of her companions in particular.
“Ratatoskr,” Arion replied, his hands gripped casually on the wheel, “Messengers of the World Tree. They’re like the electrical impulses your nervous system is sending through your body … only more squirrel-like.”
Essence smiled. Arion could answer any question with a smirk, and that smirk was one of the reasons she loved the demigod so much. One of the reasons she married him. And now she carried his child. She knew from experience that young Arion was going to be even more insufferable than his father. But that was expected and, to her, normal. Normal had become riding in a folding boat down the River Styx with a demigod husband, his unborn immortal child, and a reanimated corpse bearing an agent of order. Normal had become talking about squirrels running through a tree that connects the whole universe.
Still, he had missed the point.
“I know about the squirrels, you told me about the squirrels. There’s something else moving through the limbs of Yggdrasil.”
She could see the shift his stance, feel the shift in his readiness. He wasn’t paying attention. One of the drawbacks of being a 25,000-year-old immortal adventurer was that you tend to be lax, spending too much time taking in the ambiance, even when you should be ready for danger. Essence was always ready for danger. Thirty-something year old mortal mothers didn’t have the luxury of lax.
“They are agents of chaos,” Scratch murmured, half here and half not as he always seemed to be. “We are getting closer to our destination.”
“I recognize the big one, I saw him back in town,” Arion said, “So the little one must be Malkin.”
The two figures, one an unbelievably large man with the look of a northern pillager and the other a scrawny woman with the air of a street urchin, stood perhaps 4 stories above them on the arch of an upper shoot. They made no menacing moves, but then again they were not the assailants today.
The ship lurched and halted. The three passengers came unbalanced, Scratch falling to his knees. Essence gained her composure quickly, drawing her crystalline blade and taking to air in a shallow hover. She considered heading to the upper limbs and engaging the architects of this round of mayhem, but realized that Ferine, the taller one, was likely as old as her husband. She wasn’t ready to take on someone like that this early in the morning. She was keenly aware that nobody had mentioned breakfast yet.
Scratch got to his feet and peered over the side of the boat, while Arion stood ready – casually ready – peering up into the trees at his old arch-foe. Essence could almost see that Ferine held the same steady smile and calm resolve as her own immortal. She also knew, instinctively, that they would not engage each other today. There was some stupid code in effect. Like Doc Holiday and Johnny Ringo, the two would wait to fight until the final act.
“Dark tendrils!” Scratch cried out in warning. Essence could not get used to calling him Unity; he was still Scratch to her, “Like diseased limbs of the World Tree!”
In an instant such as this, Essence was used to taking initiative. Generally, she would dive into the River Styx and try to find the origin of the animations and attack it physically or mentally. She would throw aside caution and get to the heart of the matter. That drove Scott crazy but was probably among the many things that made the immortal Arion fall in love with her. But, this time, she hesitated and looked at Arion for direction. That was twice, she was aware, in the last few moments where she fought her natural instincts. Was it because she was so far outside her element and so deeply into her husband’s? These outer worlds were more his province. Or was it something more diabolical, something more sinister and frightening. Seriously, if it was motherly instinct kicking in she was going to put a stop to it. That simply would not do.
Thankfully, the forces of chaos interrupted her reverie as one of the corrupted tendrils of the World Tree burst through the bottom of the boat. Essence was forced to lash out in self-preservation, and Scratch (or Unity, or whatever) both engaged the wild root. Arion, in all his glory, made the leap overboard instead. Now it was just a matter of defense; she knew that the demigod would have the solution in the deep soon enough. She also knew, as a matter of course, that there would be other consequences to her husband immersing into the solemn River Styx. That was strictly forbidden for mortals and gods alike.
That’s okay. She couldn’t clearly remember a time when her husband wasn’t already at odds with the gods. Even in her short life she never got along with too many of them herself. The couple that battles divinity together stays together, she supposed.
Malkin, the urchin, dropped from a nearby perch onto the boat. She was not brandishing a weapon. Perfect. This was the kind of battle Essence craved most, anyway. One with answers. Unity would have to battle the tendrils of Yggdrasil on his own, and she would have to trust that he could. She had an urchin to grill.
“Malkin, I presume,” Essence said, lowering her blade.
“Pretty thing,” the urchin replied, “You’re in over your depths here. You play a game with gods.”
“I’m used to that,” Essence said, “I’m used to both of those. Have you considered how deep you’re in here? After all, we’ve taken down the likes of Surtr, Typhon, and Cronus before … I’ve never even heard of you.”
“It is the things in the shadows that you need fear most, pretty thing. The things you do not know, that strike when you sleep, kill you quickest.”
Essence raised her blade to that and betrayed a smile too much like her husbands.
“Kill me quickly, then,” she said, and almost followed it up with I’m your Huckleberry, but figured two references to Tombstone in one mental narrative was too many.
The boat lurched again. More tendrils broke the surface, lashing out randomly. The thing was getting desperate, which meant that Arion had found the source. She turned to defend the boat as Malkin made her way back into the tree. There would be another meeting with the urchin soon. She and Ferine did not have to tip their hands just yet. Scratch was wrong; they were not as close to their destination as they would like to think.
The tendrils stopped, one of them crashing like a fallen limb on the bow. The surface of the water broke and the welcome face of her husband emerged, his arms cradling the railing of the ship.
“A little help?” he said, that smirk.
As Unity pulled Arion aboard, Essence’s eyes floated upward. They were gone. The only thing rustling through the leaves of Yggdrasil now were the squirrels. The messengers. She looked about the ship, and realized they would have to dock and make repairs. Message delivered. See you soon, urchin.