It is the beginning of the end . . . The end of the axe-age, the sword-age, leading to the passing of gods and men from the universe. As all the ancient prophecies fall into place, the final battle rages, on Earth, across Faerie, and into the land of the dead. Jack Churchill, Champion of Existence, must lead the Brothers and Sisters of Dragons in a last, desperate assault on the Fortress of the Enemy, to confront the ultimate incarnation of destruction: the Burning Man. It is humanity’s only chance to avert the coming extinction. At his back is an army of gods culled from the world’s great mythologies – Greek, Norse, Chinese, Aztec, and more. But will even that be enough? Driven to the brink by betrayal, sacrifice and death, his allies fear Jack may instead bring about the very devastation he is trying to prevent.
Published by Gollancz (2009) & Pyr (2012)
“The snake came crawling and struck at none. But Woden took nine glory twigs and struck the adder so it flew into nine parts.”
From the Anglo-Saxon “Nine Herbs Charm
Snow falls. A flurry caught in the unforgiving wind blowing relentlessly across the frozen wastes that stretch to the horizon. In that wind, there are whispers, lost souls, telling of the end of the world, of all worlds. Their stories are caught in the ruddy glare reflected in the rolling snow dunes and the crested waves of ice.
High in the silver sky, the Burning Man looks down on this place, and the shimmering city of gold and glass at its heart, as he looks down on all places, waiting to cast the final judgement. The towering outline of fire is still waiting to be filled, but it will not be long now. It is the twilight of the gods, and men, and all living things.
Dreaming, yet awake, you understand this as you move out from the confusion of the World-Tree’s branches and drift across the desolate landscape. The whispers have told you what was and what will be, what is real and what is not. You move on quickly. You want to see more. Worry knots your thoughts, that perhaps this time it will not be all right.
See there, at the top of the tallest tower of the City of Marvels, where Hunter looks out at the seething figure and feels its words in his heart. His quarters reveal that he is treated with respect. Sumptuous furnishings fill the chamber, furs piled across the wooden floors and tapestries hanging on the walls, while floor-to-ceiling windows on three sides give a grand perspective on the world. But though a great fire blazes in the hearth, Hunter still feels the chill.
Like the city, Hunter’s appearance belies the true nature beneath — rakish, piratical, a flair for flamboyance concealing an iron will.
“Intriguing. You still believe there is hope. Is this what it means to be a Brother of Dragons, then? Faith over reason?” Math, the great sorcerer of the Tuatha Dé Danann, stands beside the stone fireplace, oblivious to the heat. Sometimes Hunter wonders if there is a person inside the black robes and the brass mask that rotates every minute or so to reveal one of its four faces: boar, salmon, falcon, bear.
“Reason is overrated.” Hunter pours himself a goblet of fruity wine and downs it in one. “What’s the point in sitting on your arse and ruminating on the logic of what is, by any rational person’s yardstick, complete bug-eyed, screaming craziness? Life’s for living. When some git’s swinging an axe at your head, or a woman is pressing her lips against yours, you feel it and you react. You start reasoning about either one, you’re a dead man.” He pours himself another goblet of wine, drinks it quickly.
“Your drinking is a mask, like mine,” Math notes wryly.
“We’re just two peas in a pod.”
The long wait ends as the door opens silently to admit the goddess Freyja, wearing a black dress to mark the gravity of the occasion. Her delicate features are emphasised by the thick animal fur she wears across her shoulders. For once, her potent sexuality is tightly controlled; another sign of respect for the visitor.
“The Council of Asgard is convened,” she says. “Brother of Dragons, and cousin-” she nods to Math “-you will accompany me.”
Past hissing torches, she leads them down the majestic staircase to the great meeting hall of oak and glass. At one end of the room, an enormous window looks across the expanse of snow to Bifrost, the Rainbow Bridge, shimmering like the aurora borealis. Its far end hangs in tatters; Earth cannot be reached.
The hall rings with the voices of gods bellowing at each other, or flirting, or fighting. Hunter’s senses take a moment to adjust to the combined presence of the powerful beings, faces slowly arising from a swirl of impressions: features he vaguely recalls from childhood stories or dreams; fiery red beards and wild-man hair, glittering lupine eyes that have seen seas of blood flow over the rocks and ice of the northlands, women with hair glowing like the sun and a beauty primal and terrifying and sexual. Muscles like iron and hideous, jagged scars. They carry weapons — nicked axes, great swords — or pluck on ancient stringed instruments. Everything about them speaks of blood and battle and sex and honour.
Hunter feels quite at home.
“Let the council begin.” The crowd falls instantly silent at Freyja’s command, and all eyes turn towards Hunter.
Freyja gestures towards the great empty throne at the far end of the hall. “These are dark days. The All-Father’s whereabouts are unknown. He has followed his ravens, Hugin and Mugin, to an uncertain future. And so this decision falls to us, now. Before the All-Father departed, he placed his trust in the Brothers and Sisters of Dragons, and so we must give fair hearing to their plea.”
A murmur races around the room. Support or dissent? Hunter cannot tell.
“There’s a war coming,” he begins. “The war to end all wars. You know it. This is the final battle foretold in all your old stories.”
“Ragnarok,” one intones gravely. Red-haired, he is taller and stronger than all the others, and from the enormous hammer that stands by his side, Hunter knows he is the thunder god, Thor. “It blows towards us like a storm at sea. Inevitable, inescapable. The end of us all.”
“The Norns will be gathering around their well beneath the roots of Yggdrasil,” sighs an elderly man with a long, white beard. Unconsciously, his fingers play over the strings of the harp in his lap. “Urd, Verdandi and Skuld, who hold us all in their hands.”
“Hush, Bragi. This is not a time for your eloquent misery.” Tyr stands, his scarred, hairy body now recovered from the terrible injuries Hunter had seen inflicted on it in Norway. “That sly trickster Loki has not been seen for a season,” Tyr continues. “If we find him, and carve his body with my axe, Ragnarok will not unfold. Simple.”
“It’s too late for that,” Hunter insists. “Loki is already with the Enemy, and he’s not alone. A lot of others, from across the Great Dominions, are under the Enemy’s control. They’re all following the lead of Janus, two faces, neither of them pleasant.”
“If it is too late, what is the point of this council?” Bragi asks.
With a roar, Thor crashes his hammer Mjolnir on the stone flags and sends lightning flashing across the hall. “The Aesir have never turned from battle, even when all hope appeared lost. We fight, and if the Norns so decide, we die!”
Thundering his support for Thor, Tyr drives the gods to their feet with a deafening martial clamour.
With a sigh, Hunter waits for the bravado and bloodlust to subside.
Freyr, the Shining Lord and brother of Freyja, says, “Why do we need to listen to you, Brother of Dragons? What can you possibly offer the Aesir?”
“Allies. The Enemy force is greater than you can imagine. However powerful you think you are, you won’t be able to hold them back. Alone. But with an army of gods, from all the Great Dominions … now, that would make a difference.” Hunter gestures to Math, observing silently with his hands folded in front of him. “The Tuatha Dé Danann have already agreed to stand with us. I have a message from Lugh guaranteeing the support of the Golden Ones.”
“An army of gods?” Tyr’s laughter roars to the rafters. Thor, though, remains grave as he considers Hunter’s words.
“You’re facing the true, organising force of the universe. The god above gods,” Hunter continues. “The Void represents the opposite of Life. And it’s slowly focusing its attention on us through that Burning Man you can see from your windows. Once that receptacle is filled, it will act.”
“But until then there is an opportunity?” Thor asks.
“Not for any of us alone. Even together there might not be a chance–”
“Hold!” Pressed against the great window, the goddess Frigg looks out across the wintry wastes. “Something approaches.”
The horizon is a blur in the blizzard that rages constantly around Asgard, but gradually shapes coalesce in the snow, moving towards the city. A handful at first, then a score, then hundreds. Brutish figures range speedily ahead of the main force: Redcaps wearing their clothes of human skin and organs, followed closely by the shimmering, insubstantial Gehennis tearing at their wild hair, and the shrieking, vampiric Baobhan Sith. Behind them, a great army pulls slowly out of the storm, dead yet alive, axes and swords and lances merged with their limbs, armour rusted and bloodstained. Purple mist drifts around the Lament-Brood, and even at that distance their keening song of despair is clear.
“They attack us here, in our home?” Thor intones incredulously.
“We fight!” Tyr bellows. “Now.”
“I don’t want to pour cold water on your war party,” Hunter says, “but this is where I advise you to run.”